I was recently listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History (Episode 7 of Season 3 “12 Rules for Life”). In this episode, Gladwell talks about the value of being disagreeable as a means to be able to do what makes sense or truly works in the face of social disagreement and pressure. Without someone who is willing to be disagreeable, someone willing to disagree with the group’s wisdom or conventional thought, transformational change can’t happen.
Now, by being disagreeable, Gladwell — and the psychological research literature he is drawing from — doesn’t mean being obnoxious. Rather, someone who is disagreeable is someone who does not require the approval of others to do what they believe is right. And it’s obviously a trait that resides on a spectrum across the population. “If you don’t care one iota what your peers think of you, you are essentially a sociopath,” says Gladwell. “But it is also a precondition for doing things that are extraordinary.” quoted here
As an example, he uses the film Moneyball (based on the book by Michael Lewis), a 2011 film starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane who transformed baseball in 2002. He had an epiphany when reviewing player statistics that led him to make unpopular player choices (to fans, players, and even owners) that nevertheless were a sound strategy for underfunded smaller city teams who simply couldn’t compete with major metropolitan areas for top talent. He recognized that the conventional wisdom involved scouts who had discarded “flawed” players in favor of big-name expensive stars, many of whom were over-valued as a result and out of price range for the Oakland A’s he was managing. Instead, he focused on bargain priced “flawed” players to build bench strength.
Sports is an excellent place to find examples of successful disagreeableness, particularly because fans, players and owners can be so emotional about decisions, and so unwilling to question the conventional beliefs of their industry. Gladwell says in his podcast that he’s a fan of “pulling the goalie.” He’s very aware that hockey is sacrosanct to his fellow Canadians. “Pulling the goalie” refers to removing the goalie from play, freeing up a position for another offensive player, but leaving the goal itself untended. It’s usually done as a last minute desperate move in an attempt to tie a game, but statistics showed that teams benefited from pulling the goalie a full eleven minutes before the end of the game. Eleven minutes without a goalie is like an eternity to hockey fans who famously hate this strategy, even though it works. The thing is, fan loyalty may boost morale, but it doesn’t statistically win games.
Another example of this trait that he shared:
He illustrated this with the growth of IKEA in the 1950s, which persevered with an unlikely concept of unassembled “shipped flat” furniture from a then-unpopular lower-cost source of labor (Poland). It wasn’t just that Sweden was higher cost, but also that the furniture establishment rejected his disruptive model. quoted here
As Gladwell notes, the problem with relying on social approval in making changes is that some of the people who disagree are incredibly invested in the status quo. In the example of IKEA, of course more expensive furniture companies would dislike the idea of undercutting on pricing! It disrupts their entire business model!
Another author I’ve read in the past is Tim Feriss, author of the 4-Hour Work Week. He famously became the 1999 Chinese kickboxing champion in his 75 kg weight class with his unconventional strategy of shoving opponents out of the ring and by dramatically dehydrating himself before weigh in, and then rehydrating immediately before the fight in order to compete several classes below his actual weight – a practice known as weight cutting.
Tim Ferriss talks about a similar “disagreeable” behavior in his book, The Four Hour Workweek. If Tim got a grade he wasn’t happy with, he would schedule a 2 hour meeting with his teacher and then proceed to pepper them with questions. His goal was to make the session as unpleasant as possible, making his professors think twice about giving him a bad grade in the future.
Tim Ferris certainly take his disagreeableness to new levels. It reminds me of a book I saw once called “How to Win at Trivial Pursuit” that we thought should be renamed “How to Be a Dick at Trivial Pursuit.” Strategies included things like deliberately mispronouncing words when phrasing the questions and arguing your opponents to a nub.
Malcolm Gladwell shared his wisdom about disagreeableness in a speech at the University of Michigan, followed by an open Q&A.
In response to a student question about the “disagreeable” trait and how society finds it more acceptable in men than women, Gladwell noted that focusing on traits of male entrepreneurs might reinforce a pattern of male dominance in the field. “I think that’s a very useful argument to raise. I don’t know the answer,” he said. But “we are very unforgiving of disagreeable women in all areas, and we need to get over that.” quoted here
He expanded on this idea of the difficulty for women:
Gladwell recognizes that it’s easier for some groups within society to be disagreeable than others. He advises a young White male questioner in the crowd that he should be out there taking more risks than anybody because he comes from a group in society for whom failure produces the “softest landing.” Gladwell also argues that while he does not think women are necessarily any less disagreeable than men by nature, they have been socialized to be agreeable, and hence face larger costs if they are perceived as being difficult. quoted here
Unfortunately, that means that women who are disruptive to status quo are more likely to be marginalized and criticized than men are (who largely benefit from it anyway). I’ve been binge-watching Mad Men which illustrates this point repeatedly. Peggy Olsen is a female advertising copywriter, promoted from her secretarial position into this creative role. One storyline involves a client (Pepsi) that wants to advertise a new diet drink called Patio. Conventional wisdom at the agency (and which the client believes also) dictates that having an Ann Margaret look-alike actress perform a flirty song looking directly into the camera will appeal to men. When Peggy objects and says she doesn’t get what is appealing about that, she is told that women really only care what men think and will identify with the Ann Margaret actress, so clearly the ad will be effective. Peggy’s objections to making an ad for women based on a male fantasy are dismissed out of hand, and she’s reminded that she isn’t on the creative team.
The agency creates the ad exactly as requested by the client, a frame by frame copy of Ann-Margaret’s Bye Bye, Birdie song, only to find that the client rejects it based on some unknown lacking quality. They can’t really articulate why they don’t like it, but they don’t. Later, Roger Sterling points out that it wasn’t Ann-Margret, just a copy. And ironically, the drink was designed as a low-calorie copy of their popular soda.
Peggy smiles smugly after the Pepsi people reject the Patio ad. She believes she’s been vindicated: Cosgrove should have persuaded them to take a different approach, one that was tailored to the target audience of women. She may be right—her ad might have sold more Patio. But would it have gotten past the Pepsi reps and into production? quoted here
Peggy felt that the ad was phony and based on a male fantasy, not a female one. Don, head of accounts, says that male fantasies are what sells, but as Peggy points out, she finds Ann-Margret’s performance “shrill” and childish, with the actress pretending to be much younger than she is. Being disagreeable didn’t pay off for her, but being agreeable to the client’s wishes also didn’t pay off for any of her male colleagues.
Within the Church, we are often told that “contention is of the devil,” which some conflict-averse members imply to include all forms of disagreement. The bloggernacle came into existence to give those “disagreeable” members a place to talk, to discuss things that are not necessarily the mainstream opinions of the church they hear every week in their congregations. But since it’s also a place where those who are disagreeable, or not seeking approval from those invested in the status quo, it can itself become a space where disagreeableness is discouraged. Social pressure to disagree with the group is very difficult to maintain. Some have found the bloggernacle to be an echo chamber in which progressive views are the only ones being touted as “brave” and applauded. But there’s a big difference between saying something progressive in a progressive space and saying that same thing in a conservative space (or vice-versa). When it comes to the virtue of disagreeableness, “there must needs be an opposition in all things.” When it’s socially approved or pressured, it’s not disagreeableness at all.
It occurs to me that some of the changes Pres. Nelson has proposed are rather disagreeable. He’s not making changes that everyone wants anyway. Obviously, he’s in the type of role that most Latter-day Saints (or whatever we are calling ourselves today) aren’t going to argue with, but that doesn’t mean people don’t find some of his changes uncomfortable or unpleasant. High priests who enjoyed the privilege of rank may feel that they were busted down to a lower level by being merged into an Elders Quorum. Some of the Elders may feel that they just got taken over by older, more invested men who want things the way they want them. And nobody is sure how to comfortably short-hand the religion’s name suddenly, so we are left with awkward formal options (Peggy Fletcher Stack’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion of Ziontologists was amusing). Everyone is still figuring out what to do with “ministering” (a name nearly as terrible as Patio) that differentiates it from the Visiting and Home Teaching program we were doing last year. Good thing we get to talk about it for the next six months! And the monthly councils of the round table in RS/PH are still a bit unusual. Some of these changes are more disagreeable than others, but the fact that we have a leader who is willing to do disagreeable things is at least creating discussion of status quo. 
- Do you think most ward members respect a fresh perspective, a person who is willing to upset the status quo? Why or why not?
- Are you a disagreeable person (by this definition)?
- Do you find the bloggernacle to be as unaccepting of unpopular opinions as people at church or elsewhere?
 Elevating the PoX and Proc to “revelation” is an example of a change being pushed by Pres. Nelson that is not “disagreeable,” at least from what I can see. Yes, I disagree with these things because I know the history of how they came about, and I see them as morally wrong, but “disagreeable” only applies if there is social pressure to do things differently. Most church members think the Proclamation was revelation anyway (because most of them don’t look into things), and even if they don’t like the PoX, many church members will simply short-hand anything coming from the FP as “revelation” whether it merits the name or not.