Let's say you're hiring for a key role in your company and the choice comes down to two highly qualified candidates. One is super nice and gets along with everyone. The other one isn't a jerk but has a little more contrarian edge. Whom do you hire?

The knee-jerk response of most hiring managers would be to go with the highly agreeable candidate. We all like to work with nice people, after all. But according to two leading HR experts, this is one decision that might be costing your company way more than you suspect. If your aim is to maximize success, your better bet is hiring the troublemaker.

Contrarians are annoying but valuable.

The first expert making this case is University of California, Berkeley psychologist Charlan Nemeth, who has a new book out called In Defense of Troublemakers. In it she points out that while contrarians are annoying -- all the way back in ancient Greece Socrates was forced to drink hemlock for asking irritating questions -- they're also incredibly valuable, both to organizations and to society at large.

"Most people are afraid and they don't speak up. Companies have that problem all the time. And the research really shows us that that even if it's wrong, the fact that the majority or the consensus is challenged actually stimulates thinking," she explains to Quartz. "We actually do others a favor because our dissent--provided it is authentic--stimulates them to think more broadly and deeply. Our groups make better decisions."

She's not the only academic reminding leaders of the limits of nice. Speaking at the Society for Human Resource Management annual conference, star Wharton professor Adam Grant reminded the audience that the best employees aren't the sweet types everyone wants to grab lunch with. Instead, he says companies derive the most value from employees who are givers (as per his bestselling book Give and Take) but also lower on the agreeableness scale.

"The agreeable giver may seem like the ideal employee, but... their sunny disposition can make them averse to conflict and too eager to agree. Disagreeable givers, on the other hand, can be a pain in the ass, but valuable to an organization," another Quartz article reports him saying.

These group-minded gadflies are "more likely to fight for what they believe in, challenge the status quo, and push the organization to make painful but necessary changes," he said, echoing Nemeth. "And because they're stingy with praise, when it's offered, it generally can be trusted."

Go ahead, hire that gadfly.

But while these experts make a convincing case for hiring more contrarians, actually offering one a job in real life can be daunting. It's hard to sign off on working with someone who is going to make your workdays less pleasant and more conflict-filled.

These interpersonal concerns are an important consideration, don't forget to weigh the often less visible benefits rough-edged troublemakers can bring to your business. Yes, you may curse yourself for hiring them some days, but on others they could be the only thing standing between your company and stagnation or groupthink disaster.

Published on: Jun 26, 2018