an interview Alf Rehn

When the misfit is the best fit – hiring a contrarian could upgrade your cultural mix

When promoting high performance work practices, why is the contrarian often overlooked?

It’s human nature to conform to the beliefs and behaviours of others – we want to fit in! It is also natural to seek out perspectives that align with our own – we prefer peace to conflict. When building a team, we want our people to share our vision but is it also important to recruit a balanced mix of personalities?

The importance of hiring non-conformist and often contrarian candidates has been championed by Alf Rehn – a professor of innovation, design, and management at the University of Southern Denmark. He spoke to us to explain why sometimes a dissenting voice is not necessarily an unhealthy one.

This blog is a quick-read summary from our TIG Culture magazine article, ‘Corporates, creatives and contrarians,’ which you are welcome to download here.

Balance is Key – for high performance work practices

Cultural fit is often seen as the glue that holds an organisation together. There is nothing wrong with the notion of cultural fit, but if it is used as the only screening criteria it can exclude talented individuals who may provide fresh innovative ideas.

Alf Rehn told us, “Leaders have become so enamoured with the values-aligned harmonious company culture and ever-elusive notion of ’cultural fit’ that many organisations suffer from not just a lack of healthy DEI, but a critical lack of contrarians. The result? Organisations with hard-working, earnest, and dependable corporates and creatives, and almost no creative friction or innovation potential.”

He proposes that there are potentially three archetypal forms of workers – corporates, creatives, and contrarians. The corporates are the core of the organisation – people who do what they are asked to do, and do it well. The creatives who are often involved in branding, design, marketing, and all things digital, etc. They use their creative capabilities to support the corporates. Finally, the contrarians – often seen as non-conformist mavericks. Remember, we prefer the comfort of everyone fitting in – peace not conflict! But can conflict actually be a good thing?

Let’s Rock the Boat

Contrarians are curious creatures, and their peers can often find them difficult to understand. They are often misrepresented as purely confrontational, seeking out conflict in every situation. However, they can also be seen as great innovators. They are not looking at the world in the same ways as corporates and creatives. Their perspective can sometimes find solutions and innovations that can change the world.

Alf Rehn explained, “Whilst it is not something that we tend to emphasise in business books, the people who produce great innovation and enact great change are quite often a bit difficult, a tad ornery, and somewhat idiosyncratic. They are often allowed to be so because someone has recognised that despite being less than easy to work with, they can generate huge value by way of being contrarian. Often, contrarians get labelled as narcissists, perfectionists, or lone rangers who aren’t collaborative. According to statistics, there will be some who do indeed tick those boxes, but generally, they’re not. They’re simply wired differently to most of us.”

The Best of Both Worlds

Once we understand what contrarians bring to the workplace, we can create the perfect mix to get the best out of everyone. Therefore, it is crucial to have a good grasp of your teams’ strengths and weaknesses – so collectively, we promote work practices that deliver high performance outcomes.

If we think of corporates as the core of the business – the ones who are getting the job done – they are organised and functional but not always imaginative. Contrarians can show corporates how tasks might be approached differently, challenging existing assumptions and offering a different viewpoint. Whilst the corporate benefits from the contrarian’s alternate way of seeing things, they can also be the voice of reason – hindering the contrarian’s tendency to run wild.

The same supportive relationships can be achieved between creatives and contrarians. Over time a creative’s work can become safe, sticking to what they know. Combine them with a contrarian, and creatives can be inspired to experiment and push boundaries.

A Supportive Culture

There will be contrarians working alongside you already – maybe you have already figured out who. However, it can also be the case that a contrarian will modify their challenging behaviour if they feel that this goes against the cultural fit. We are back to that natural human instinct of wanting to be part of the group.

A contrarian rarely gets the attention they deserve. Often their personality is misunderstood, and others just don’t want them on their team. So, it is essential that teams are managed well. Coaching and ongoing support can help contrarians navigate the norms of your organisation, whilst still encouraging them to be innovative and original.

Dare to be Different

If you want to upgrade the culture mix in your organisation, remember that finding the right fit shouldn’t mean hiring people who are all the same. The values and attributes that make up an organisational culture should be reflected in a richly diverse workforce.

Seek out candidates who can provide fresh and innovative ideas to scale high performance working practices. Clinging on to what is familiar often leads to hiring candidates whose CV looks just like your own, and the rest of the team’s. If you want to attract new types of employees, you may need to change how you think about recruitment – perhaps approach it the way a contrarian would.

The positives of contrarians vastly outweigh the negatives. As Alf Rehn points out “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.”

Want to learn more about the benefits of a contrarian and how to boost high performance work practices?

Alf Rehn is a professor of innovation, design, and management at the University of Southern Denmark, and is recognised as a thought leader in the field of innovation and creativity. In addition to being an academic, he is a bestselling author, a strategic advisor, a board professional, and a globally active keynote speaker. For more, see or connect with Alf on LinkedIn.

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