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Embrace Contrarians for Insight

Embrace Contrarians for Insight

Allies for Overcoming Resistance to Change?

WP_20130929_004I think I was 7 or 8 years old the first time someone called me contrary. It was my grandmother. I can’t remember what I did or said that prompted this. I do remember being curious about what contrary meant. Was it something to be ashamed of? The way she said it certainly made it seem that way.

My Nana wasn’t the last person to call me contrary. It took me years to decide how I felt about being called contrary. I decided to accept it and claim it.

Contrary isn’t as simple as being negative…Merriam Webster puts a finer point on contrary as “not being in conformity with what is usual or expected”. I get that nonconformity makes some people uncomfortable. Status quo feels predictable and that makes it high on the list for many folks.

But–who do you want on your team? Folks who like the feel of safe and predictable…or someone who is curious enough to entertain different perspectives?

Not every workplace is open to contrarians. People who ask questions slow down action and execution. If you’ve got a great system humming along… maybe status quo is exactly where you want to be.

Is that the case for you? If not, is it time to make room for contrarian viewpoints?

Scary? It is if you don’t know how to distinguish between contrary and obstinate. Obstinate people are resistant to change. That’s a whole other blog post.

Contrary people aren’t resistant to change.

They question the path to change. Is there a better way to accomplish this? In the complex world we live in, having conversations that vet the route to change can highlight unintended consequences.

Consensus dialogue is not the same as alignment. This isn’t a small distinction. The purpose of consensus is get people agreeing. That’s how you end up with going along to get along.

Alignment that occurs after healthy dialogue and transparent, constructive disagreement is true alignment. It means there’s been a fair airing of multiple perspectives. The key is to have respectful, candid and constructive dialogue that explores divergent thinking.

Source of innovative solutions?

You can leverage contrarian viewpoints for insight if you channel their energy productively. Here are my suggestions for doing that:

  • Ask contrarians to describe the alternative path they see and what they believe makes it better?
  • If there’s a gap between perspectives, is there a bridge between them? Ask, what would that bridge look like?
  • If the paths are going in opposite directions, make sure your ultimate destinations are the same. If not, that’s a separate conversation designed to vet the destination not the path. Can you see how misunderstandings or disagreements about destination would interfere with alignment? Get clear on that first. Then you can go back to paths.
  • Keep the conversation solution oriented. Focus on “how do we accomplish our goals in light of these differences?” Avoid either/or choices, look for both/and bridges and solutions.

One last laugh to my story. Imagine how funny it was for me when my sister bought a lake house on Contrary Creek? (Yes, it’s a family thing.) The picture in this post is of Contrary Bridge. It’s tough to see the name in the small photo image. You have my permission to use this photo as a reminder to look for contrary bridges the next time you need one. Simply enlarge the photo and print it.

As for me? I plan to spend a lot of time at Villa Contrary. (That’s what my sister named her lake house). I think it’s an appropriate resting place to scatter my contrarian ashes from this bridge into Contrary Creek. That way… I continue my contrarian legacy.



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