Meet The Unconventionals

A bold, new breed of employees is emerging. They don’t wait for management approval, take ownership, and charge ahead. But, are leaders prepared to give them space, freedom and recognition—and to encourage others to work like this?

Jane McConnell

[Image by Rolanas Valionis from Pixabay]

Editor’s Note: This article is the first piece in Founding Fuel’s Masterclass: A Bold New Breed—a month-long bespoke learning programme on why leaders need to understand and embrace Gig Mindset. For more details, and to access related content as it gets published, click here. To register for the programme, sign up here.

I’ve been tracking workplace trends since 2006 and I’ve watched a certain entrepreneurial attitude emerge among salaried employees—what I call gig-mindset behaviours. Where individuals take initiative and control when they see an issue that needs to be solved.

My research shows this new behaviour is a significant and transformative trend, but it is often frustrating for those who display it—and it has stayed on the fringes of organisations.

I started noticing this—both the increase in the behaviour and the frustration—in 2018. That year, something new started happening as I talked about the gig mindset in conferences. I must have talked to more than 600 people in three conferences where I delivered keynotes in Berlin, London and Paris. Each time my talk triggered a similar reaction. People lined up to talk with me at the coffee breaks. They told me how I had validated the way they worked. A new sense of self took shape for some of them.

They said things like “Thank you for giving me an identity.” And “I had always felt something was wrong with me!”

One person actually said “You’re the first person to understand me.” I’ll tell you more about this person later. His story is a warning for organizational leaders.

But first, let me take you into my research, what I learned about the gig mindset, how leaders are involved, and, finally, what it means for our future.

How I discovered the gig mindset

I have over 20 years of in-depth, first-hand experience as a gig worker, advising on internal digital strategy with over 100 organizations in Europe and North America.

In addition, for 10 years from 2006-2016, I conducted annual surveys with 300 to 400 organizations from many sectors taking part each year: finance, life science, construction, education, energy, food and agriculture, healthcare, government, NGOs and other sectors. They ranged in size from over 100 to over 50,000 employees and were based in Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific. (Click on the interactive graphic below to see how my research and learnings have evolved over the years.)

Gig Mindset by Founding Fuel

Both the data and my first-hand experience showed that a fundamental shift was starting. There were always a few people who stood out from the others. People who dared to do things differently because they believed there was a better way. They acted like freelancers even though they were full-time, salaried employees.

They took initiatives without prior management approval; they ignored the protocol of starting with a manager-to-manager agreement and just started up new projects whenever they saw an issue to be solved. 

I was seeing these behaviours inside corporations, government agencies, educational institutions, not-for-profit groups and international organizations—and all in people with full-time, salaried jobs. Very often I sensed underlying emotions in these people, ranging from extreme frustration to extreme pride. However, in spite of some successes, this new movement has stayed on the fringes.

The dichotomy of the organization in the digital age

I could see that a clash between the old way of working and a new way of working was building up in the workplace.

People were gaining new capabilities in the workplace. Digital transformation was giving them the ability to communicate, collaborate, share, and learn. As these capabilities are digital, they go beyond the comfortable organizational silos of the past, weaving new channels and flows across organizations in all directions. A new energy was building up and by 2015 between 55 and 70% of organizations had these capabilities.

However, it was disturbingly clear that leadership attitudes were not evolving at the same pace. On the contrary, leaders were stuck in a control-and-command mindset. From 2014 through 2016, only 25% of survey participants said their top people practiced “open and participatory” leadership. The percentage stuck at 25% over those years, not advancing even a little. Worse still, from 2013 through 2016, the percentage of organizations where “people are encouraged to give input to business goals and to challenge business and work practices” did not even reach 25%.

So, what exactly was happening? This is what my research showed

I started by putting together an advisory board of 16 people from 10 countries who worked in diverse industries to help me shape an international survey about the gig mindset. We defined eight behaviours from the perspective of the traditional mindset versus the gig mindset, along with questions about leadership and work cultures. You can see the behaviours in the chart below.

In addition to the advisory board, I had numerous in-depth conversations with my bellwether friends, a group of mid to senior-level managers in 15 global organizations with whom I met once a month in Paris. We invited guests, had real time online explorations of their digital work environments and discussed change challenges. The lessons learned were shared freely in this trusted environment.

In one of our first conversations about the gig mindset, they pushed me hard to not ignore the values of the traditional mindset. I had tended to be very pro gig mindset and they pulled me back from the edge! 

I then opened the online survey, and at the same time asked two virtual colleagues to organize workshops in different cities to explore the upsides and downsides of the gig mindset. They took place in Boston, Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Geneva, London, New York, Philadelphia, Sidney, Toronto, and Washington, DC. 

Workshop facilitators reported that:

  • Industries “fearing disruption” have seen a surge in the number of gig mindsetters brought in to help foster new and innovative ideas, ways of working, products, and so on. Finance companies don’t fear each other, but are uneasy about the “new kids on the block,” such as fintech startups and small incumbents providing better banking experiences.
  • The gig mindset is nothing new—organizations bringing products or services to market have always needed people with this mindset. But the pace at which senior leaders wish to bring those people in, and the churn of people with these characteristics, has increased enormously, leading to frictions and a sense of uncertainty within the existing frameworks.
  • Onboarding in the “mixed reality” with gig + traditional people is hard—the gig mindset doesn’t fit with the onboarding often designed for the established roles and structures. Should they be taken through a different process, integrated in a different way, or introduced to the same things? Should it take the same amount of time?
  • What happens when gig mindsetters underperform and there are no checks? How do you manage underperformers in the gig mindset? It’s harder without the traditional roles and responsibilities.
  • There are more meetings with gig mindsetters. So, much time is often wasted. People with a traditional mindset know what has to be done, so they just do it.

Editor’s Note: This article is the first piece in Founding Fuel’s Masterclass: A Bold New Breed—a month-long bespoke learning programme on why leaders need to understand and embrace Gig Mindset. For more details, and to access related content as it gets published, click here. To register for the programme, sign up here.

A single-company workshop provided a more detailed look into the gig mindset. I participated in a workshop organized by Founding Fuel with a frontline private sector insurer in India. I ran the gig-mindset survey with their top 70 leaders to serve as input for the workshop. I compared their data with my benchmark from 300 organizations around the world, and shared these observations:

Their current strong points:

  • Very strong, shared sense of purpose 
  • A high degree of encouraging people to experiment
  • A gig-mindset way of working, starting in some areas, especially where people are in contact with customers/clients
  • A high degree of organizational flexibility
  • Senior management leadership which is open and participatory

Areas to explore for improvement: “How can we…”

  • Develop a stronger “radar” through networking
  • Increase cross functional/silo teams, and encourage working out loud
  • Encourage people on their personal development path
  • “Connect the pockets” and spread new ways of working across the whole organization

One of the critical aspects of my work was to understand the role of gig-mindsetters inside organisations. To this end, I conducted over 30 one-on-one interviews with people around the world over a few months. They told me amazing stories, some inspiring, some discouraging. 

I quickly saw a wide range of approaches, individual and organizational, and although impact varied from case to case, I began to draw some high-level common threads about gig mindsetters across these conversations.

1. They bring ideas from outside the company 

I interviewed a gig mindsetter who, in spite of years of experience, was forced to leave his organization.

The person who had said to me “You’re the first person to understand me.” later told me about his 20-year-long work experience as an IT strategist before finally leaving the company, a global organization in the world of telecommunications. He told me how he had been forced to follow long, complex procedures even when he saw faster, more effective ways to reach the same goals. He was told that everyone else followed them, so he should too. He was also told he was the only one to complain and he got several written warnings that he was not following procedures correctly. 

One day, he invented a different way to approach heavy IT projects. He was active in external networks and had been inspired by conversations he had with some people in other organizations developing new ways to manage complex projects. This led him to develop a tangible, easy-to-understand method for IT development. Interestingly, it was patented later and he was a co-owner of the patent. However, the hierarchical system where he had been for years was too strong, and he ended up leaving the company and starting a very successful development agency. 

2. They are ‘border crossers’ who connect people

I interviewed another gig mindsetter who ended back again at the company he had left.

A youngish test engineer in a very large industrial company in Europe decided to take a leave of absence because he was, in the view of management, stirring things up too much. He was facilitating an enterprise-wide social network where employees were sharing their experiments in new ways of working. He strongly believed there was no right way, and that people should discover what suited them and their colleagues.

One day he organized what he called an act of civil disobedience. Around 200 people set up stands with posters, snacks and drinks in a large area in view of senior managers’ offices. Each stand was organized by a person or team who wanted to share their new approaches. The event was deemed to be a success when one of the very top people came out of the offices, and asked why these people were doing this, and why HR was not involved. The civil disobedience had triggered attention at the highest level. Nonetheless, the engineer went ahead with his decision to take a year off, but was called back by his manager to head up a new, leading-edge project where his rare skills would be essential and his gig mindset would be appreciated and actually needed!

The two stories above illustrate two key behaviours of gig mindsetters: high awareness of what is happening in the external world and a strong desire to connect people across organizational walls. They are both “border crossers” and take others with them.

3. They are ‘inside outsiders’ who see inside potential through an external eye

Another gig mindsetter has managed to blend his insider and outsider roles successfully.

A senior digital expert in a UN group based in Geneva was asked to come and work with his colleagues in the same agency based in New York. They wanted to use their digital workplace to stimulate new behaviours (openness, networking, sharing) in their organization but did not know how to go about it. They decided not to look for an external consultant, but rather to benefit from someone inside the agency who had extensive experience in the external world. This person did because he was a sought-after speaker in conferences and his reputation for talking about workplace change had preceded him over to the US branch of the agency. He told me they considered him to be an outsider when it came to digital and change expertise. He had previously admitted to me, privately in several conversations, that he had more than once felt so frustrated in his current role that he had looked for other job opportunities.

Changing management’s mindset about gig-mindset behaviour   

So, how can organisations move from a traditional-mindset work culture to one that is more gig-mindset oriented?

Leaders enable the gig mindset. This is a new way of thinking about change. Leading people to new perceptions requires concrete actions which rarely come from company-wide transformation programmes. They are more likely to originate with individuals who act, interact and share, influencing the people around them. 

We will see three examples where the movement from individual to organizational worked well. In fact, all three initiatives were validated by people at the top of the hierarchies, and, in that way, became part of the organizational way of working. The difference is in the design: each one started with the individual person. 

But before that it’s important to understand ‘positive deviance’.

Managers, and people in general, perceive certain gig-mindset behaviours with apprehension or even fear. This is a classic case of positive deviance: perceiving something good as being dangerous. Positive deviants are people whose behaviour is perceived as negative, deviant, even harmful, but who end up with positive outcomes thanks to that behaviour.

The table below shows five gig-mindset behaviours and how they can be perceived either as deviance or as positive deviance, depending on the observer. 

How leaders enable a gig mindset

1. Using a traditional tool to build a gig mindset

A senior leader in a European global life sciences company was in charge of a large team of specialists. She wanted to get her people to see new perspectives through understanding how other specialists worked. She asked her team members to interview people with specialties very different from their own. Then they had to write a summary of the conversation. 

“I brought all of them out of their comfort zone. A technical person got a marketing objective, a marketing person got an expert in the mathematical calculation of ROI and so on….”

She used an unusual tactic to reduce the risk that the new project would not be taken seriously. 

“I decided to use a familiar process, the performance evaluation in which I included this new activity.

“I realized new ideas are more likely to succeed when their approaches are familiar. People cannot criticize the process because it is accepted by everyone. But I hoped it would lead to new perceptions.”

After the first year, she no longer had to include the activity in job objectives and performance reviews. People were reaching out to others voluntarily and gradually beginning to build multidisciplinary teams, and define responsibilities by skills rather than traditional roles. 

In one year, she had managed to bring a gig-mindset way of working in one part of the company by starting at the individual level. This case involves three gig-mindset behaviors: fluid roles based on skills, high awareness of internal and external worlds, and networking and interacting extensively with others. (See descriptions of the behaviours earlier in this article.)

2. Learning beyond my own goals

Sanofi is a diversified global healthcare company present in more than 170 countries. A senior director led the development of an original learning strategy based on three principles: Learn, Apply, Share. It starts with the person and finishes with the organization. The first step is asking people who are interested to fill out a form and answer six questions (which I have simplified here):

  1. What will I learn? My target topic or skill.
  2. How will I learn? Online resources, in-class training, on- or off-site?
  3. Why will I learn? Myself but also how Sanofi will benefit from my investment. 
  4. When will I learn? Approximate dates and time involved.
  5. Where will I learn? My usual work site, or another place?
  6. Who will help me? Who will my mentor(s) be? Who will help me make this a success, for myself and for Sanofi?

The ideas are nearly always approved and become an official activity included in performance reviews. It is part of building a gig-mindset work culture although Sanofi does not use that term. The ambitions of the person are aligned with the ambitions of the organization, and both are based on gig-mindset behaviours, in particular networking and taking responsibility for one’s personal learning.

3. Being proactive, just in time

Air Liquide, an international company with a presence in 80 countries, is an example of a global company that was well advanced in the self-learning domain when a need emerged overnight—the Covid-19 pandemic. Thanks to several years of earlier work, the Air Liquide University, led by a senior leader who was also head of transformation projects, was ready to meet people’s needs when the crisis hit.          

Their self-learning programme had been launched in 2019 and was branded as #ILoveLearning “Self-Learning for Everyone.” It consisted of a collection of digital resources available on-demand to all employees. The collection includes e-learnings, microlearnings, “executive stories” (recorded by Air Liquide executives), digital magazines, articles, and videos, all of which are free and available to employees through self-registration. The self-learning resources are curated by the Air Liquide University with support from the business and global HR teams. They are then organized by topic into playlists, an appealing approach for people used to streaming music and movies.

When the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic started, they launched the “Managing Virtual Teams” playlist, originally created to support the teams in Asia in response to the novel coronavirus. Shortly after, as the virus spread, they created a second playlist called “Working Remotely,” translating it into seven languages. Other playlists are “How People Innovate,” “Well-Being and Work-Life Balance,” “Leading Transformation,” and “Continuous Improvement.”

People at Air Liquide are able to take charge of their individual development. This is a strong underlying trait in gig-mindset work cultures. Air Liquide does not use the term, but that is effectively part of what they are doing. Gig mindsetters strongly believe their growth path and personal brand are important, and that they are the ones primarily responsible for learning and increasing their knowledge and marketable skills. This is exactly what Air Liquide has enabled people to achieve.

The 2020 pandemic: Gig mindset in remote work and hybrid workplaces

An important question to ask today in 2021 is, “Did the global lockdown affect the gig mindset?” After talking to my bellwether friends in Paris and other people, there seems to be three opinions emerging:

1. Stronger: Some told me they were sure the gig mindset was stronger now. They felt people had been working remotely so they are more likely to be acting in more autonomous ways. This viewpoint came from people in fairly traditional companies.

2. Weaker: Others said that nervous managers were monitoring employees digitally even more than when everyone was at the office. People did not feel free. Going back to the office would be a relief.

3. No change: A third, very small segment, said that the work conditions under lockdown had changed nothing. They were truly international with cross-organizational teams made up of people in different countries, and had already been working remotely for several years. 

The 2021 gig-mindset survey is still ongoing so it is premature to draw conclusions about how behaviours and perceptions have evolved since 2018.

The way forward

Gig mindsetters are a new breed of employee who dare to challenge the traditional thinking and ways of working that in the end will make your organization more resilient. However, they are unseen and often not recognized for their potential impact.

Are you, as a leader, scanning the horizon inside your organization to spot these people who are potential game changers?

Your honest self-assessment on these four questions is an indication of where you stand today.

  1. Are people in your organization able to communicate directly with you or your immediate team when they have ideas that may challenge the status quo, without having to go through layers of management?
  2. Do you encourage teams across your organization to work out loud, sharing their work in an ongoing way before it is completed?
  3. When an experimental initiative fails, do you consider it a positive experience and ask the people involved to share what they learned?
  4. Do you give people time for outside activities such as external networking, conferences, and taking external online learning programs?

If you answered “yes” or “sometimes” to two or more of the questions, you are likely one of the rare senior managers cultivating a gig-mindset approach to work in your organization.

The role of leaders is key here: provide a framework, encourage learning and then leave people freer to work autonomously. This will be a major breakthrough for most organizations. As we saw at the beginning, this kind of work culture change is slow, but perhaps the pandemic has kickstarted it for some people and companies.

A Bespoke Masterclass

Editor’s Note: This article is the first piece in Founding Fuel’s Masterclass: A Bold New Breed—a month-long bespoke learning programme on why leaders need to understand and embrace Gig Mindset. For more details, and to access related content as it gets published, click here

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About the author

Jane McConnell
Jane McConnell

Organizational analyst and strategic adviser

Jane McConnell is an organizational analyst and strategic adviser. With over 20 years of experience as a researcher and consultant—assisting healthcare companies, industrial and retail operations, and United Nations agencies, among many others—her insights into leadership and work culture in the digital age have helped dozens of organizations focus, adapt, and stay relevant. She lives in the Provence region of France and can be reached through her website at

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