The Disagreeability Premium

Every team has a renegade. They refuse to follow the prevailing wisdom – and that’s a good thing, even if they annoy everyone along the way.

If you were a honeybee, finding nectar would be your prime objective. The entire hive depends on it, and so there is the equivalent of an advanced team. That team surveys the area and brings back intel.

The recon bees make their reports in the form of “waggle dances“. Those waggle dances are expert guidance for the hive’s foragers—the large groups of honeybees who find and retrieve nectar.

Imagine if your company had experts who could tell you how to solve every key problem. Whether it was the engineering team designing its next sprint or the marketing team solving a lead gen issue—the in-house advisors would provide high-probability solutions. Their advice would increase the odds of getting to the desired outcome.

If such expertise were available, would most of the employees use it?

In bee hives, foragers don’t all heed the waggle dance advice. But the bees who are most likely to ignore it are those who are most experienced.

In a typical group of novice foragers (sort of like first-year sales reps), 60% of them will follow the waggle dancer’s instructions. The other 40% will set out on their own to find new sources of nectar. (IMO, that’s still a lot of non-followers in a group of beginners).

But once those foragers have risen to (say) VP level, a mere 17% of them use the waggle dances to find the flowers. They are more likely to set out on their own.

Why Ignore Free Intel?

On a purely intuitive basis, this seems foolish. The senior foragers forgo a sure thing and instead, take a flier on their own skill.

In fact, even 17% is misleadingly high. Those instances of waggle dance reference occur mostly when an experienced forager went out independently but failed to find new flowers. The waggle dances are their back-up plan—a way to pull out a win when their solo efforts didn’t pay off.

This begs logic.

Imagine your senior VPs ignoring a tip that a major company is about to dump your competitor. Instead of calling that high-value and high-probability prospect, the VP reaches out to a loose connection he met at a party and takes him to lunch.

Of course, waggle dances are somewhat less explicit than a hot tip. They are neither as transparent nor accurate as would be ideal. For one thing, to understand them you have to be at just the right vantage point. Also, they need interpretation — a bit like a cryptogram. If you have the full letter replacement scheme, then you can read the whole message. But, if you only know the replacements for T, H, S, A and Y, you will miss a lot.

Apiarists aren’t entirely sure what the extra information might be, but it seems like some foragers have it and some don’t.

So, waggle dancing is less like Google Maps and more like the old man on a road in Vermont who, when asked the way to Montpelier, points and says “just keep going a while until you see the barn in the spelt field. From there, it’s a piece further”.

You might find Montpelier— or Quebec.

But even knowing the general proximity of a flower field is better than aimlessly buzzing around isn’t it? Without that guidance, a honeybee could end up at a salt mine, or over an industrial area–nary a flower to be found.

Apian Ingenuity

Are the renegades just curmudgeons? Or is there a benefit to this cavalier disregard for waggling?

As weird as bee behavior seems, humans are equally odd..

If you consider my earlier question about hypothetical experts who could provide sure guidance for every problem— the odds are that some employees would use their guidance. But many would not.

Think of the naysayers on your team. The ones who are always saying “yeah, but…”, and looking at their phones while everyone else high-fives.

Maybe they aren’t sold on the roadmap’s structure. or, despite inbound lead flow, they are prospecting in some incomprehensible way. Yet, although on first impression they seem to be simply annoying, they produce unexpectedly great results on a regular basis.

The grumpy engineer both finds an elegant solution AND reduces AWS costs by 25% —and the inscrutable rep closes a massive deal with a company no one else ever considered calling.

This is very similar to the experienced and renegade bees. They ignore the waggle dance and use their own combination of experience and ability to find different flower fields.

The Disagreeable Gem

In every company I’ve worked with, there have been individuals who contributed disproportionally high value while bucking the conventional wisdom—often doing so abrasively. They show up in any and every function.

While the renegade might be a technology innovator, he could as easily be an extraordinary empath who can salvage any account no matter how enraged the customer is.

For the bees, it is a winning formula, albeit counterintuitive.

Because the renegade foragers are looking for nectar in different areas than the other foragers, they don’t duplicate efforts. By applying their experience and expertise to different terrains, a hive may locate twice as much nectar because it has diversified and expanded its creative options.

Now, instead of the 2 flower fields that the waggle dancers reported, the hive benefits from 4 flower fields because the renegades found two others.

From time to time, the independent efforts fail. Then, the waggle dances must suffice. But over time, rebelliousness pays.

In organizations, something similar happens. As much as leaders want teams that are aligned, cohesive, happy, and agreeable— creativity benefits from naysayers and grouches.

Psychologists talk about the difference between collectivist and independent cultures. An individualist culture is one in which people follow their own instincts and disregard the prevailing trend. While it might be hard to work in an organization where everyone is so individualistically oriented, that culture wins for creativity.

If you must solve hard problems, your best team will include several disagreeable individualists.

There is an additional benefit to having bees who go about foraging without using the collective intel.

They are multiplying the community’s competencies. And that too is true in the organizations.

Although your curmudgeons may occasionally fail to deliver and find themselves missing a target—their quest to figure out novel approaches adds to the organization’s core strengths. This becomes critically important when something about the conditions changes and the strategy falters.

Say, when there’s a pandemic, a cyber-security breach or rampaging competitor. [Click to tweet this thought].

Double the Trouble, Double the Fun

It happens in two ways. First, the whole time the curmudgeons are going their own way, they are crafting new ways of developing the product, securing the codebase, or acquiring prospects. They are in effect a bespoke R&D team who are never satisfied with the tried-and-true way of achieving results.

Plus, they are also likely reinventing the organization and its mission.

Stewart Butterfield, CEO of the video game Glitch, couldn’t see their video game succeeding financially despite its growth. But he saw potential for its internal communication software. Despite vehement pushback from investors who were certain that he would never succeed in enterprise software, Butterfield took his small team and pivoted Glitch into Slack. No one agreed with him.

Granted, Butterfield was a founder, not an employee. But renegades can fill any role. It is doubly unusual for a founder to be the naysayer. He had to fight to make the pivot that eventually would become the ubiquitous communication platform.

And like Butterfield, renegades can often reimagine the product in advance of an emergency that forces change.

Even as they reject a current pet project, they are imagining a new incarnation of the strategy that will transcend a future challenge.   

I’ve come to think of these team members as bellwethers for my client companies.

Beneficial Pests

Before they are prophets, they are annoying— because they rarely carry water or boost morale. That grates.

And when newish managers have disagreeable team members they get understandably frustrated. They feel their authority is threatened, or that their team members are arguing just for the sake of it. (Of course, that is sometimes true).

But often, the naysayer on the team isn’t trying to undermine anything. Instead, she is determined to get to the best answer. And that focus overshadows niceties.

Voicing disagreement on individual decisions or specific approaches can seem antisocial. But usually, they are just laser-focused on the ultimate goal and on what is possible. That focus leads them to unexpected solutions, or, as with the bees, new flower fields.

We tend to think of the disagreeable team members as not just being annoying, but also being selfish—and creating indirect problems. But the data suggests something different. They are likely to use their creativity to find a solution, and then slot that solution into an existing process without creating a mess.

In other words, their divergence from the pack is only short-term. It has no long tail that whips around and hits the organization. They are following their innate genius and solving the problems that matter most.

That’s why I say they’re a bellwether.

If they see a strong upside, it is probably even better than they claim.

The renegade flower foragers view the waggle dances with side-eye. Instead of following the crowd, they sense seas of lilies and lavender just around the corner—and following their own inner compass they find that fragrant field.

When they fail, they still have the tried-and-true signals to use.

And when the organizational renegades fail, they are quick to recover; either finding a new solution, or a better problem to solve. As leaders, we do well to allow them the lattitude to try. Over time, those unique problem-solvers may come up with the safety net that saves everything in a crisis.

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