When you think of an entrepreneur, you think of someone with an original idea, who dares to go in a new direction and takes on huge challenges to build something truly innovative. What you think of less often is someone who is disagreeable.
Yet essentially, this is the characteristic that often decides who succeeds and who fails in the world of startups.
So what exactly does it mean to be disagreeable?
Malcolm Gladwell defines someone disagreeable as a person who “does not require the social approval of their peers to go forward with disruptive ideas.” In other words, someone disagreeable is someone who will keep pursuing an idea, even when met by opposition.
In this sense, being disagreeable doesn’t mean being unpleasant or obnoxious - those are bad traits for anyone, especially team leaders. It’s not a license for being a jerk. Instead, being disagreeable means pursuing an unconventional idea when discouraged by others, or disrupting the status quo to create new rules and new products. This is Gladwell’s point: that innovators are fundamental disruptive, and through disruption they create space for new ideas.
Every entrepreneur encounters opposition when they try to create something new. They’re told that their product won’t work; that they won’t be able to carve a foothold in the market; that they’re taking too big a risk and should settle for something less chancy.
Take Steve Jobs for example: the industry fought iTunes when it was first rolled out, but he fought back against the record labels and revolutionized the way music is purchased. Jobs was an incredibly difficult person to work with; temperamental, stubborn, a perfectionist. But by insisting that there was always a better way to do things, he made a profound change in the world of consumer electronics that raised the bar for every other tech company out there.
Another example Gladwell uses when discussing disagreeable leaders is Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA. In 1961, Kamprad found a way to give IKEA an edge by outsourcing his furniture to Poland. This was during the height of the Cold War: many were outraged that he outsourced work to a communist country. Actions like this challenge the established order and say that there is in fact another way of doing things - one that helps your business get ahead.
Of course, whenever you challenge the status quo, you open the door up to criticism. Doing something like Kamprad did in the 60s is only possible “if you’re indifferent to what the world says about you.”
This, Gladwell says, is a very rare trait to have. As humans, our instinct is, after all, to seek approval from our peers, not defy them. Most of us want to be liked and find confrontations uncomfortable.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when it leads to conflict avoidance and groupthink, it stifles innovation.
Conflict in the workplace
Conflict in the workplace has negative effects if it arises from poor communication, is provoked without trying to reach a meaningful conclusion, or is a symptom of lacking collaboration. However, if it arises because people are passionate about different ideas and want to discuss them, then it’s healthy to encourage it and turn disagreement into constructive dialogue.
People will always have different views, but only certain kinds of environments encourage creative or unconventional thinking. If the culture you foster at work is one that allows room for discussion and honest feedback, then you’re more likely to incorporate those different ideas in your strategy. In an environment where it’s okay to disagree, communication becomes healthier and more transparent. And in the end, you reach better solutions: disagreement results in a more thorough study of options and more informed decision-making.
Peter Block, author of The Empowered Manager, highlights the importance of participating in organizational conflict. Without dealing with conflict head-on, the problem isn’t resolved, and the company doesn’t move forward. Thus, it’s necessary for a leader to be a little confrontational - a little disagreeable - for a company to keep making progress.
So what’s the science behind being disagreeable?
As examined by Timothy Judge, Beth Livingston and Charlice Hurst in a paper published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2012, disagreeability has two factors. Firstly, there’s the extent to which you value getting along with others; secondly, there’s the degree to which you are willing to be critical of others.
Both of these factors are vital to understanding how you react in leadership situations. As a leader, your job is to nurture and encourage your team, but also to be open about problems that need to be solved. This often means telling people things they don’t want to hear. Standing up for your team also means confronting experts, other departments, or other members of the industry.
Judge and his colleagues found that for men, being disagreeable directly correlated to higher earnings. In their study, the difference in income between someone agreeable and someone disagreeable was as high as $10,000 dollars a year. For women there was no significant statistical difference in earnings based on disagreeability. This gendered difference is far from surprising; Judge says, "if you're a disagreeable man, you're considered a tough negotiator." On the other hand, the same behaviour in women is seen as them being too controlling.
Despite this persisting double standard, it is valuable for both men and women in an entrepreneurial setting to be blunt, forward, and persistent. When you’re trying to turn visions into reality, you need a good dose of stubbornness and audacity to get your idea rolling, a team on board, and attract the curiosity of investors.
Sheila Marcelo, among many entrepreneurs, found this to be a valuable lesson.
Sheila Marcelo and Care.com
Sheila Marcelo is the CEO of Care.com, which helps families find caregivers of all types. From a small company she started while having trouble finding care for her first son to a hugely successful public corporation which raised $91 million in a successful IPO, Care.com has gone a long way.
And how did she get there? Marcelo said, in an interview with Business Insider, that the most important thing she learnt as an entrepreneur was to be disagreeable. For her, this meant focusing on her passion without caring for naysayers. To start Care.com, Marcelo had to defy her family’s expectations and turn away from a successful law career.
Making this kind of decision is never easy. But if you look at most successful businesses, you’ll see that most of them started this way - with someone daring to go in a new direction, against the expectations of their peers.
Being a disruptive innovator
Innovators by definition are seeking to create something which doesn’t yet exist; which isn’t yet accepted; by using entirely new methods. This inevitably leads to friction with traditional methods and with big companies that can’t adapt as fast. Without embracing this disruption, a startup can’t make the best use of its nimbleness and flexibility.
For Malcolm Gladwell, being disagreeable doesn’t mean intentionally offending others; it means you care more about making progress than about being liked. Think of it as striving to be a team leader who isn’t necessarily loved but is profoundly respected. I at least would rather be this kind of leader than the kind who is well liked but can’t move the company forward because of conflict avoidance.
Innovators are troublemakers, and that’s what makes them great. They stir things up instead of following the group; they look at the established rules and realize that they can change them and make a whole new game. From Harvey Weinstein to Jack Welch to Larry Ellison, being a bit disagreeable is what made them great, imaginative innovators.
Being an entrepreneur takes a lot of guts, a certain amount of stubbornness, and a willingness to confront things directly. When you embrace this trait and combine it with a great idea, you’re on the road to success.
What are your thoughts on disruptive innovators? Would you see being disagreeable as a valuable trait in the startup world? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below.