Three ways managers can harness their team’s ‘maverick’ power

Once you learn how to harness maverick power and lead mavericks effectively, the results in performance will be impressive.

by Judith Germain
Last Updated: 24 Apr 2023

Most leaders will be familiar with mavericks. Intense, high performers who don’t enjoy following the rules. Managers are often confused as to how they can harness the maverick power of their employees. They believe that their positional, reward or coercive power will be enough to ensure that the maverick will work for them in the manner that the manager is expecting, but this may not be the case.

It’s a common belief that managers need to manage everyone in the exact same way for the sake of consistency and fairness. Whilst this view is incorrect and ineffective most of the time, it is ‘fatal’ when applying to mavericks, especially extreme mavericks. If you treat mavericks in the same way as everyone else, then you are likely to manage a department that is full of disruption and resentment; usually caused by the actions of the maverick himself.

To effectively harness maverick power you will need to follow the guiding principles below to help get started:

1. Lead not manage

The terms leading and managing have almost become interchangeable which has meant that many people are uncertain of what the terms mean or how they differ from each other. When it comes to task management, managers will tell you what to do, and how to do it and leaders will tell you why you need to do something and leave it to you to determine what needs doing and how. You can be a leader anywhere, but you need positional power to be a manager.

Since childhood, mavericks have been leaders, which is one of the reasons they remain frustrated at management. Mavericks will challenge even the simplest of tasks if they feel they are being managed rather than led.

This can cause some difficulty in the workplace, because their desire to be treated differently conflicts with most management styles that insist in treating all employees in the same way. This is not about treating mavericks like prima donnas, this is about changing your management or leadership style to get the best out of your talented employees and reducing the amount of management time you are using to deal with the consequences of not dealing with them uniquely.

The only way to satisfy the maverick’s need for autonomy and the company’s need for consistency is to employ a leadership style that is flexible enough to guide the maverick towards the desired outcome whilst allowing them to have a degree of autonomy that both parties can accept and value.

2. Define the success parameters

Compared to others, mavericks have unusually high self-esteem and confidence, which is why they prefer autonomy rather than strict rules. They are certain when they begin a task that they will complete it successfully.

For a task to be completed successfully the maverick needs to be certain that they will succeed before they begin. That search for certainty by the maverick, can manifest itself in many ways. The maverick will ask lots of detailed questions before they begin. The questions are likely to be very challenging, and can appear to be very diverse and at times off topic.

It is often that mavericks are misunderstood at this stage, as the questions are misinterpreted as the maverick ‘being difficult’, rather than the search for certainty that it is. They want to know what they are being measured on and how they will know that they have not only completed the task, but that it has met all the stipulated criteria.

Do not be tempted to provide them with tasks that are not challenging, mavericks want to be stretched, and they will cause disruption if things slip into routine and become boring. This can be a difficult balance to maintain and, in the early stages, mavericks can take up a lot of your time if you do not lead them properly. This is Pareto’s Principle, the 80/20 Rule. Mavericks can take up 80% of your management time but be in the 20% of the company’s top performers.

3. Structure without structure

Mavericks prefer to work in an environment that supports ‘structure without structure’. Without structure, mavericks find it difficult to start a task although it is important that the structure should not be constraining. One of the advantages of mavericks is that they can quickly see the holes in an argument or understand why a process isn't working properly. This is one of the key reasons why mavericks tend not to follow rules, they simply do not believe that the rules are helping the company achieve its stated goals.

Therefore, it is important that managers check the reasoning as to why a maverick has stopped following a rule, rather than obsessing over a broken rule. It is important to ensure that there is a culture that supports openness and transparency. This enables the manager and the maverick to have a discussion on why the maverick was breaking the rules and what can be done to improve the processes.

In closing, while mavericks can be a challenge, they can be huge assets to any organisation with their lateral thinking and creativity. Once you learn how to harness maverick power and lead mavericks effectively, the results in performance will be impressive.

Judith Germain is a chartered fellow of the CIPD, MBA, PgDip and iauthor of The Maverick Paradox: The Secret Power Behind Successful Leaders.

Image credit: Paul Bradbury via Getty Images