How Contrary


Back in the late 90’s I attended one of those trendy power management workshops, which were so much vogue at the time. Apart from long sessions of inane team building (paint guns at 10 paces), there wasn’t much I remembered. That is, apart from one session dedicated to describing four classes of employee that exists within every organization. There was one type in particular that stood out – “the contrarian”, or those people that always take a counter or diametrically opposite view to what’s proposed by the vast majority.

Now some might say that contrarians are a necessary part of business. Arguing that they are needed to champion lost causes, drive innovation, and break the shackles of mediocrity. Sure they can be a pain in the neck, but the value they bring offsets the management overhead, right?

Well, perhaps, but that not been my experience…

Over the years, I’ve met and worked with many what I would call destructive-contrarians, which for the most part has been an unpleasant experience. Indeed, every one of the people in this category has been egotistical, lazy and generally disruptive.

So here’s my list of the 5 worst behaviours of the destructive-contrarian:

Show-Ponies – destructive-contrarians love nothing more than to take centre stage in team meetings. Their agenda here is quite simple – talk long and loud enough about things that will benefit them in the hope that people will come around to their way of thinking. Seriously, I’ve seen people so bored and bamboozled by contrarians that they’ll agree to anything.

Know it all – In my experience destructive-contrarians will always seek to impress by claiming expertise in anything from project management to financial accounting to sales management to graphic design. I’m always amazed how contrarians claim to know so much, but how little they actually deliver.

Hidden agendas – while the destructive-contrarian wants you to believe that his or her opinion is in the best interest of the company, it normally isn’t. Rather, it’s in their interest only. They constantly look for ways to glorify their superficial ideas on anyone willing to listen. Destructive-contrarians are also very good at finding and exploiting weaknesses and knowledge gaps in their managers.

Innovation Vandals – destructive-contrarians feel most threatened when faced with real thought leadership from other team members. Here they will try every underhand and devious method available to quash anything valuable that they haven’t directly contributed too.

Duck and Weave – destructive-contrarians produce very little tangible work, but are masters at getting onto lengthy “skunks-work” type projects where there is no measurable outcome. If they are cornered into actually delivering something useful, they will attempt to pass it off to an unsuspecting team member – often claiming that they themselves are far too strategic to do this type of work.

Sound familiar? I’m sure many of you have come across these types of individuals, but what can you do about it? Here are some practical tips:

If you work as a peer, always be aware that their modus operandi is to undermine any high value work you produce. As such, make sure you build a network of mentors across the organization, seeking out people who are respected and will openly endorse your work. Additionally, during team meetings, be prepared to challenge their lengthy procrastinations – normally I find short, sharp responses, such as – “sorry I lost you 10 minutes ago – what do you actually mean” or “well I take it that’s a no then” work really well.

As a manager, consider yourself a professional wrestler with these types of reports. Always be prepared to pin them down on deliverables that are short and measurable. Get them to submit (ahem commit) to goals that directly support your own team

objectives. Be prepared though for a lengthy struggle as the destructive contrarian tries every trick in the book to counter your moves. Also, work proactively with HR to identify better ways to track and manage the performance of the destructive contrarian, especially if the current performance management systems are deficient.

There is of course value in challenging the status-quo and constantly selling yourself to your peers and managers. But doing so in a manipulative way with scant regard from anyone else’ contribution is just plain destructive. Well, that’s my experience, but you of course may have a contrary argument.



Living in a land far-far-away, zapeteo writes about anything and everything related to the management and mentoring of really talented people. As such, he frowns on wooden phrases like ‘human capital management’ and ‘performance-based culture’. Instead preferring to discuss real issues, involving real people and especially what can help them build fruitful and rewarding careers.

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