Why hiring contrarians is good for business

Derek Mackenzie, CEO at Investigo, on the merits of hiring non-conformists and original thinkers
Derek Mackenzie
Derek Mackenzie
Derek Mackenzie

Human nature trends toward peace rather than conflict. This means that employers have implicit biases towards people who already align with their beliefs and values over those who oppose them. While this might make for easier conflict resolution, it can cost a company creativity and innovation.

What is a contrarian?

Contrarians refer to employees who are non-conformist and trend away from existing company norms. This might mean that they push back against common practices, reject doing something ‘the way it’s always been done’, or may think very far outside of the box. In this way contrarians help challenge company norms, which could lead to growth.

Professor Alf Rehn proposes that there are three typical kinds of workers: corporates, creatives, and contrarians. Corporates refer to those at the core of business operations, those who follow orders well and get the job done. Creatives means those in the design and branding spaces who help support corporates. Finally, there are the non-conformist contrarians.

In order to function successfully, all three types of employees are needed. Many businesses tend to hire only the first two, but they risk innovation and growth by avoiding contrarians.

Why contrarians are important for business

Contrarians push boundaries and challenge how corporates approach tasks by offering alternative points of view. Contrarians can also inspire creatives to think outside of the box and drive new and fresh ideas. Business benefits from creative thinking and constant improvement, something contrarians are experts at. Indeed, diverse companies increase innovation revenue 19 per cent more than non-diverse companies.

Creating a more diverse work culture is the way forward to productive, innovative business. Contrarians help scale high performance practices through their original ideas and tendency to challenge norms. In the words of Professor Rehn, “contrarians are like the salt of your organisation. They bring out the best in the creatives, and they push the corporates out of their comfort zone.

It is important to note that while non-conformism can bring new insights and approaches to a company, it should not outweigh a potentially wider negative impact. Contrary beliefs should never be a reason for behaviour that negatively impacts others. Indeed, contrarians do not diminish the value of others’ work. Rather, they should be thought of as an amazing addition to a team, not the sole driver for success.  

Why cultural fit isn’t the be-all and end-all

Companies often reject hiring contrarians, or those who see things differently, based on ‘cultural fit’. This term is based on how well an employer and an employee’s values align. In fact, most companies hire candidates they think will fit well within their company’s culture. While it is understandable to want to create a cohesive workplace environment, it can also screen out high potential employees.

Professor Rehn of the University of South Denmark warns that screening out employees that do not immediately conform leads to “organisations with hard-working, earnest, and dependable corporates and creatives, and almost no creative friction or innovation potential.”

How to create a supportive and efficient work environment

Contrarians approach tasks and problems differently than corporates and creatives. While this can be seen as challenging, it can lead to great innovation. In order to tap into this potential, companies must create a supportive and efficient work environment. A contrarian needs to have their strengths tied closely to their company’s business objectives, ensuring their skills are being used efficiently and they’re always working towards the common goal.

Contrarians are often labelled as difficult to understand or tricky to work with. They are also sometimes misrepresented as confrontational, which can lead to a hostile work environment if a company values conforming opinions over non-conforming ones.

It is essential to manage teams in a fashion where contrarians aren’t misunderstood or even completely left out of team decisions. Coaching, mentoring, and other support schemes can help contrarians realise their full potential through encouraging their originality. Giving their skills a purpose is essential, otherwise a contrarian might lack the awareness needed to channel their abilities in productive ways.

One way to support all workers is to acknowledge everyone’s value and skill that they bring to the table, regardless of how they align with a company’s cultural fit. Supporting all team members and listening to their voices equally is key. It is also important to understand a team’s strengths and weaknesses to bring out the best in all employees.

Finally, it is key to acknowledge implicit biases in the hiring process to avoid screening out contrarians. Hiring with an open mind and an acknowledgement of all the positives that contrarians can bring to business is often the first step to creating a diverse and efficient work environment.

Written by
Derek Mackenzie
CEO at Investigo
September 15, 2023