I’ve always thought of myself as contrarian. Generally, I think this is a good trait—but the contrarian in me has me wondering otherwise.
Actually, Leah Clark has me wondering. Leah is an executive coach at Blessing White, a leadership and employee-engagement consultancy. A while back, she and I had an interesting conversation during which Leah asked: Would you rather be labeled contrarian or critical?
I’ve been thinking about her question ever since. After all, if I’m going to slap a sticker on myself, I better make sure it’s the right one.
The Madonna of HR
A common definition is that a contrarian is someone who habitually opposes accepted policies, opinions, or practices. That’s me—but that’s only because there are so many policies, opinions, and practices that are messed up.
Another definition explains that a contrarian accepts nothing that anyone says—that is, a person who takes the opposite opinion for the sake of it. Is that me? I like to think that when I take an alternate position, it’s because I believe what I believe.
I’m also self-aware enough to know when I’m lying to myself. The truth is that I sometimes argue different viewpoints because I enjoy screwing with the status quo. That’s why they call me the Madonna of HR, and by “they,” I obviously mean no one.
If contrarianism can sometimes seem self-indulgent, it is. But is it a bad attribute?
That depends. Would you rather employ robots who nod agreeably on demand or people who regularly raise new points of view? The best organizations recognize that my question is rhetorical. They understand that they need Madonna—or at least employees who are just as eager to express themselves—to push the boundaries of what’s possible.
A Scarlet C
Back to Leah’s question. When I asked a slew of colleagues which label they prefer, many picked “critical,” citing a desire to be known as someone who carefully analyzes things.
Except, their answer suggests that they are choosing the “critical-thinking” meaning of the word. The problem is, I don’t think that people mentally add a hyphened appendage when referring to someone as “critical.” If anything, they’re emblazoning a scarlet C onto the lapel of such an employee.
In other words, if you are critical, you’re probably an asshole. If you’re contrarian, you’re probably creative. The former label connotes its negative definition, while the latter implies its positive interpretation.
Either way, words matter. So call me a a critical-thinker. Call me a contrarian. Call me the Madonna of HR! (OMG, please call me that!) Call me whatever you want—except critical.
Most of all, if you’re an employer desperately seeking a great employee, just call me.