Disagreement versus Contrarian Views

Quick Summary: Discussing disagreements leads to effective decisions while contrarian views can be destructive.


There are very few absolute situations with clear-cut, simple choices that occur in business.  Instead, issues have both short-term and long-term consequences associated with the various paths that can be chosen to follow.  Healthy dialogue based upon opposing points-of-view help an organization to make proper decisions.  However, consistent contrarian positioning, only being perused with the purpose of opposition, needs to be recognized for what it is and dealt with accordingly.

In business as well as in life, there are many absolutes that we unquestionably accept.  However, there are far more issues and conditions whose positions are relative depending on culture, timing, point of view, and a host of other mitigating factors.  We often refer to these situations as gray areas, with no “black and white”, absolute, clear-cut, or binary choices.  To further define the gray area, it can be thought of the absence of only zeros and ones with the choices of only 0.49 and 0.51 instead.  All of us, at one time or another, have been convinced of the “right” answer to an issue only to be presented with one new fact or consideration and have our opinion quickly flip.  Often, we hear the phrase “with all things being equal…”.  Unfortunately, they seldom are.   The end result of living in a probabilistic and not deterministic world is that disagreements are common.  We witness or participate in disagreements every day.  As an example, often we hear that there was a difference from what was said versus what was meant.  In most cases, the words that were said can be proven facts in which there is little room for disagreement.  However, what was meant is completely up to each individual’s own interpretation and therein lies the genesis of disagreement.

In a business setting, with the almost limitless number of variables, there are few indisputable facts and “all things are never really equal”.  Disagreements should be naturally occurring events as each person interprets the facts and situation from their own perspective.  Contrary to our inner feelings, none of us have all the answers all the time.  Openly discussing those differences of opinions is both healthy and necessary.  There is, however, a fundamental difference between genuine disagreements and contrarian points of view. 

While disagreeing points of view can create an atmosphere of open dialogue, those with contrarian points of view can be disruptive to the entire process of issue discussion, consideration, and resolution.  Those with contrarian attitudes may simply feel compelled to take the “black” position while others are taking the “white” position independent of any logic or facts.  Instead of objectively trying to find common ground and build bridges, they focus on building walls.  A contrarian position is considerably different than a Devil’s Advocate position in which someone takes an opposite position in an effort to test assumptions and challenge a consensus decision.  A contrarian often is focused on non-consensus and waits for the opportunity to say “I told you so” to others or hold that view internally to justify their positions.  Their motives may vary but, in the final analysis, do not matter.  They can create destructive turmoil in an organization.  One result of their presence and position is to suppress genuine discussions and considerations of alternative to avoid their consistent opposition to mainstream thought.  Their memories may be very long, and they will point to past situations in which they were correct; conveniently forgetting the numerous times in which they were wrong.

Dialogue during disagreements typically results in better decisions through a process called collective wisdom in which individuals share information and observations that others may not know.  Contrarian dialogue often results in collective antagonism due to their emotional positioning.  When confronted, they may say something to the effect that “I am a realist and am just trying to help” when, in fact, their conscious or subconscious goal is just the opposite.  They may rely on one “fact” taken out of context to “prove” their point or use the single point to project future outcomes that may actually be only one of many possibilities, ignoring all the rest.

Contrarians can exist at all levels of an organization and through their strong, absolute beliefs in their positions can unduly influence others.  They may appear to “be in the know” or possess insight that others do not have, to spread their one-sided opinions.  It does not take long for them to have a negative influence on the organization that can have significant and long-lasting impacts.  Companies need to encourage open discussions of opposing points-of-view by those who genuinely believe they have the company’s best interest at heart.  Consistent contrarians, on the other hand, need to either truly change their attitudes or leave the organization.  True change, not merely suppression of their public display, needs to occur or the contrarians will present a ticking time bomb that will probably result in more serious consequences later.    


Article Number : 4.040506   

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