It's important we hire nonconformists in the workplace – and encourage the nonconformists who are already there. Turns out they will save the world.
This week, we heard excellent news of a breakthrough in cervical cancer treatments. As usual when it comes to research in that area, it’s from Queensland, home to Ian Frazer, the man who drove the discovery of the vaccine to stop the human papillomavirus which causes cervical cancer. This time, it’s from the lab of Griffith University’s Nigel McMillan (who used to work with Frazer back in the day). Researchers used the CRISPR gene-editing technology in mice to delete tumours - and now they believe it will be ready to trial in humans in four years.
But deep in the story of research which will save lives (also, folks, make sure you get the HPV vaccine nice and early) is a story of a nonconformist. Meet Luqman Jubair, 33, now a PhD from McMillan’s lab and waiting for a protection visa from the Australian government. He fled Iraq five years ago. He was a qualified doctor in Iraq, has requalified in Australia and now he wants to be a medical oncologist so is training for that. Determined is one way of describing him.
We hear so many stories about bosses resisting independent thinkers, resisting those in the organisation who have a contrapuntal view. Some of us have even experienced it ourselves. Not me, of course. I’m far too obedient. But seriously, how many of us would love a boss like McMillan? His lab embraces the weird and the wonderful and he actively encourages researchers to work off-piste.
“If you have a really good idea, you don’t have to tell me. Go away and try it. If it doesn’t work, you don’t have to tell me,” says McMillan. If it does work, it might just cure cancer.
But when bosses tell you how open they are, you need to test their assumptions. Jubair no longer needs McMillan’s approval. The PhD is done and dusted and he’s on to the next part of his life. Was McMillan really open?
“Nigel encouraged us to be independent. It was different from any other job, we were encouraged to think outside the box. He gave us the space to actually work to try to come up with new ideas,” says Jubair. Also, and this is glorious, Jubair says he started as a student in McMillan's lab but ended up as a colleague.
Maybe it’s a science thing? Usually, when we think about organisations, about companies, there’s a disproportionate emphasis on tokenistic consultation. We’ve all been there. The survey where only management gets to see the results and tells you everything is A-OK. That’s just a way of shaping the feedback to employers.
UTS’s Associate Professor Sarah Kaine (who is distantly related to me by marriage) says this tokenism, and falling union membership, leads to a reduction in ways to express dissent.
“Management can target individuals who speak against accepted practice or norms,” she says. It makes for silence instead of contribution.
But look at McMillan’s approach. He said his then-PhD student went away and did something “I did not really ask him to do”. Jubair’s good idea was to increase the number of treatments of the cells in a tumour - the usual number is three. About that time, extra mice were delivered to the lab so instead of three, there were seven iterations of the treatment.
Bingo. As McMillan says, even if he’d been thinking about extending the number of treatments of the cells, it’s likely he would have gone to six, a multiple of three. Not seven. Seven’s too random. Why seven? No logic to it but that’s the number Jubair chose. You can read all about his experiment in Molecular Therapy.
McMillan urges employers to adopt a more open style of management. “If you have conformity you are just going to get a mirror reflection of yourself and I want people to put forward what they are thinking. I don’t have a monopoly on all the best ideas in the world. Bosses who don’t encourage open dialogue are really missing out on things.
“If you don’t accept change or don’t accept input, you are just going to be talking to a room,” he says.
Science must be like that, he says, but I’d argue that stance would work everywhere. Should work everywhere but what normally happens in the workplace is that independent views are often ignored, marginalised or punished. Bosses - some bosses - love yes people. The employees who will always do as they are told, who will be compliant cheerleaders. Organisations love them too. Publicly, it’s about the benefits of disruption. Internally, it’s do as you’re told and definitely don’t speak up.
But if you can cure cancer (or at least have a medical trial which shows real promise), maybe real disruption is a risk we should all take.
Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.