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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Essential Contrarian

      If you don’t have a contrarian in your group, go find one.

     Contrarians are those people who  doubt everything, question beyond reason, keep pushing for more explanation. They stretch out discussion when you just want to get some damn thing done.

     The contrary spectrum runs from skepticism to all-out opposition. Wherever the bothersome person is on the spectrum, responding with anger or dismissal – which is really tempting – is the wrong way to go. And don’t ignore it – some staff members will be listening, and you should be, too.

     Contrarians aren’t always just plain negative, but sometimes they really are. When that is so, they need to go find work elsewhere.

      Mature managers know how to handle the entire range. They understand the importance of listening before acting, seeking to understand what drives a person’s beliefs. Sometimes complainers benefit from explanation, sometimes they just need a respectful listener.


   Once the heat of a complaint is dissipated, the manager can gain useful knowledge. The good listener benefits from detecting and employing any useful insights. Contrarians often expose undetected kernels of truth.

     On another front, managers don’t have to be inhumanly calm all the time. Flashes of irritation in certain situations can strengthen relationships and improve performance.

     In general, though, your job as a manager is to keep your eye on the, ball maintaining momentum toward clear purpose.

      In most of the places where I worked back in the day, we didn’t have that kind of management. There was a consistent effort to suppress disagreement, sometimes simply by enforcing the boss-is-always-right syndrome; sometimes through a lazy need to just get on with it, smothering all that bother of doing it right. 


    Groupthink can be a pleasant way to operate if nothing needs to change much. Of course, It doesn’t contribute much to growth and improvement.

     A companion syndrome is conformity, voluntary or enforced.

     I once worked at a daily newspaper where the senior editors tried to smooth any raised hackles with a favorite maxim: “We’re all ladies and gentlemen here.” At a daily newspaper! (Well, not a very good one.)

     Enthusiastic newsgathering pushes up against, and often over, the outside boundary of politesse. “Our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

     Actually, neither promoting the status quo nor inciting confrontation/conflict is essential in the character of successful news organizations. They happen when any medium of information is characterized by integrity, curiosity and candor, a pursuit bound to support healthy communities and, on occasion, ignite friction and irritation.

     While we want it to be that way, although we won’t always  like its outcomes.   

     Groupthink tends to favor the easier route, while the contrarian makes sure the uncomfortable possibility isn’t suppressed simply because it is uncomfortable.

     When a groupthink process is launched by a snap  decision-maker, it can be dangerous.

     Thinking is work, and bringing a group to a decision can be uncomfortable. So, when the snap-thinker volunteers to take care of something, we all happily concur. We stop thinking and jump in the back to ride along and let the  volunteer do the driving.

     That is not quality decision-making. It breezes right past the questions and possibilities whose application would have made a stronger process. Or maybe headed off a bad outcome.

      The important lesson to be drawn here is one every good manager has learned, often from painful experience: Stop, look and listen. Never make a decision without ensuring that you have done your due diligence. It is not at all unusual for a modest amount of probing to turn up important new facts, pro or con.

     None of us is immune to annoyance when one of our assumptions is diminished or dismissed, perhaps without much respect. Mature acceptance at such times is a necessary piece of the manager’s toolkit.

     You must at times cause the commotion yourself. As you create or sponsor innovation, you’ll be supporting contrarians or creating the discomfort yourself. 

     Good for you, because one of the most shameful failures of bad management is the avoidance of a good idea because it could “cause trouble.”

     A meaningful advance for your organization will disrupt accustomed functions, inject change in roles and processes. You can’t expect everyone to be enthusiastic about that, and people issues often are the manager’s most difficult challenges in introducing change.

     Groupthink is not always your friend when changes are being laid on a group.

     In fact, carefully preparing, introducing and conducting a big change is itself a large project. The change is distinct in performance while intimately connected with the organizational function.

     Change managers often have overlooked that reality because of haste and/or poor judgment. Sometimes their focus on some new process and its perceived benefits blinds them to the possibility of problems.

     That’s where the contrarian is most valuable: Pressing you to stop, look and listen.






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