How to Deal with Unreasonable Contrarians
A river without banks drifts calmly into oblivion.
Constraint makes the river powerful.
Tell teams what they can’t do and where they can’t go and they’ll get further, faster. This applies to how they treat unreasonable contrarians.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” George Bernard Shaw
The path to oblivion feels like home to reasonable people. They drift along like rivers without banks. Everyone gets along. But, the path to extraordinary is turbulent.
There’s hope if you have an unreasonable contrarian on your team.
Innovators don’t fit in because innovation is the result of not fitting in.
Difference, not sameness, ignites innovation.
If you want innovation, don’t manage unreasonable contrarians, release them.
Friction between conformists and contrarians is normal, predictable. Reasonable people reject the unreasonable.
Conformists – those who get along – complain about contrarians who don’t let the opinions of others control them.
I asked Malcolm Gladwell for advice on helping teams get along with their unreasonable members. He said, “Tell them to grow up. Deal with it.”
Don’t push out contrarians; invite them in.
Stability is the result of accepting what won’t change.
Establish constraints for conformists. Tell them what isn’t going to change. If you give them hope that they can expel contrarians, they’ll keep trying. Be kind, but tell them their efforts are futile. Establish banks for the river.
The hope of the future lies with unreasonable contrarians. Eventually, the reasonable destroy us all.
What about jerks:
A contrarian without a noble cause is just a jerk. Remove jerks. Embrace contrarians.
How have you dealt with unreasonable contrarians on your team?
**This post is inspired by a conversation/interview with Malcolm Gladwell. Buy Malcolm’s book “David and Goliath.”
My friend Dave grew up on a cattle ranch in New Mexico. Occasionally, certain cows proved difficult to control and Dave recommended eliminating them. His father rebuked him and said, “Don’t kill the mavericks, they strengthen the herd. Ditto contrarians; they strengthen the team.
Thanks Jeff. Cool illustration. My roots go back to a dairy farm in Maine.
Good morning, Dan. I am really going to have to think about this one. It took me almost half the post before I understood where you were headed. In my experience, the unreasonable “contrarians” have always been the “literals,” the people on the team so attached to “the way we’ve always done it” that the team can’t move forward. And the literals tend to be singularly unreasonable about it, bucking change at every step. I can see how visionaries are out of step, but rarely unreasonable.
I guess what I am saying is that this post seems opposite to my experience. But perhaps that is because I tend to assemble teams of visionaries. Hmmm…
Thanks Steven. It looks like organizations have at least two types of contrarians: those who fight FOR the status quo and those who fight AGAINST.
Welcome contrarians who want the organization’s mission to succeed and support its values, and do so transparently. Innovators, disruptors, plain speakers, people who point out the elephant in the room are to be valued. Use them to flush out the social loafers.
Get rid of those who further personal agendas to the detriment of the organization, who have irreconcilable values, who manipulate or lie, who hold grudges.
Bingo!! Thanks Marc.
I think you make great points about channeling the natures and talents of two groups of people. You have those who function best by knowing the parameters and “rules.” Give them a structure to follow and depend on and they are better focused in their performance. Then you have those people who are choked by too much structure. The rebels and the misfits who are usually our colorful creatives and pioneers. While they also need a base structure to keep them tied to earth somehow, they also need their heads and they don’t function well under micro-management or without passion. Seems the answer is to strike a balance between. And to pick your battles.
I don’t know about anyone else but when I read articles like this I try to think back and do an honest assessment of both the team’s I’ve lead and those I’ve been apart of. In this case while I’d love to jump in and say “I’ve done that!” this time I don’t think I can. I’ve tried to coax the contrarian to become more of a “team player.” After reading this and thinking back on the personalities of “my” contrarians – I see that the challenge approach would have been much more productive – and enjoyable for all involved. It would have made my contrarians feel much more valued for their strengths. I will be including this in my management toolbox moving forward though.
Thanks Graydon. My experience is it’s foolish to hope a contrarian will change. It’s always challenging to work with these types.
every team can use a gadfly
I’ve heard it said this way, “Control the passion without killing the spirit.”
I am happy you added the part in the end about “jerks.” I was thinking to myself what about people that are contrarians yet are bullies and use power to persuade or talk down to others. That is a tougher nut because you need dissent, it just has to be tempered. Nice work Dan.
Terrific article… important to remind ourselves that all freeways have guardrails for a reason.