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Rewarding Contrarians

My recent Blog (A Culture of Trust) has generated several comments regarding the value of and rationale for rewarding contrarians. I assume that those who have e-mailed have had bad experiences with contrary personalities and, by their comments, would rather excise them from the organization.

As noted in that Blog, the suggestion to reward contrarians was among a list of recommendations cited in Bennis’ and O’Toole’s Harvard Business Review article A Culture of Candor (P. 54, June 2009). Following their reasoning, the premise is simple – organizational and public trust cannot be generated without open and honest communication, and it must begin with the leadership. To become a cultural norm, all employees must be comfortable with candor before a pervasive spirit of trust grows into a core organization characteristic.

Safety breeds trust

Particularly in the public sector, where employees face public doubt, escalating scrutiny, and a constant barrage of reductions and constrictions, building trust is difficult. Many employees have grown wary of expressing feelings, perspectives, and recommendations, even when their suggestions or observations have merit and could contribute to the agency or community. Due to this, we are losing enormous horsepower from extraordinarily talented people. Somehow, this must change. Being open to new ideas and willing to express thoughts and concerns in a safe environment is essential to efficient, productive government. Whether elected or appointed, creating such an environment is among a public leader’s most important roles.

Enlist the Outspoken

The people in an organization who are fearless about expressing their views or suggesting new concepts are invaluable. The key question pertains to whether they are positive or negative influencers. Of course, there are many malcontents and you must be able to distinguish them from frustrated, expressive but contributory employees. Many are great thinkers who are under-appreciated and who, if invited to engage, can grow into potent elements of the workforce…the key is to ‘enlist’ them in productive dialogue and harness their energy. Many men and women fall into the ‘Alpha’ mode of management and battle these types of people because they are similar to themselves or bring out their insecurities. Rather than enlist individuals with inherent talent, character, and intellect, they battle them and practice exclusive, as opposed to inclusive management.

If you show appreciation for contrarians and provide them an avenue to bring positive change or contribute in meaningful ways, you just might gain enormous support from employees who are influenced by these individuals. They are champions who are brave enough to speak for the majority…the risk takers and therefore the informal leaders. In my experience, while some contrarians are malcontents with little interest in positive outcomes, there are far more dedicated employees who are willing to take risks, voice opinions and share perspectives. As a manager, I want that level of passion and participation. It is my challenge to forge contrarian behavior into energy that leads, contributes, and transforms.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies. Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and organization planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

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