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.
And then there are those disagreeables that disagree because they are only really self fulfilled when they are the center of attention for being disagreeable. How do the rest of us know the difference between these classes of disagreeable people. The outcome.better known as history is the only thing that comes to my mind.
“Do you find the bloggernacle to be as unaccepting of unpopular opinions as people at church or elsewhere?” I’ve found that every blog has some sort of unwritten community expectations. Comments that will enrage readers at one site will be tolerated at another, and even warmly accepted as fact at a third. So, yes, there will almost always be a “popular” opinion at a particular site, and you will receive widespread pushback if you go against it (even here at W&T).
I have been mildly disagreeable on occasion in my ward, and I have been criticized and silenced for it. At the same time, I have seen multiple men be more disagreeable about the same topics, and they have been given “important” callings. It is frustrating and demoralizing to experience this sexism.
Stand Your Ground, could be another title for this post. Not agreeing with an individual or group comes with risk. If one is willing to take that risk, they need to have a good reason. The bloggernacle, hawkgrrrl, writes, is a place that ” 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.”
I think the bloggernacle started with all the right intentions, but has since become, as hawkgrrrl states, an “echo chamber of progressive ideas.” Disagreement in some spaces is met with intolerance, banning, or being ignored.
However, I find the same kind of behavior, although less obvious, at church (it comes with a smile). So what is one to do?
When one attends church, as they walk through the door, there is a known standard of behavior expected. The scriptures are the standard and my experience has been that it is unusual for anyone to ignore that standard. I’ve never seen anyone come dressed in swimming apparel, smoke, or fist fight.
When one enters the bloggernacle expectations are different. The standard is to take the church on. State how you feel about the old men who run the church (apostles and prophets). Sisters in the bloggernacle are mostly “feminist”. Scripture and testimonies (except in rare instances) are discouraged.
The bloggernacle is the Mormon Twilight Zone.
Why to I come? The scriptures teach that experience is good. The bloggernacle is an experience.
“ 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.”
This was the most discouraging part of this post for me. These two items are not revelation and should not be purported or accepted as such 😥
There is also a vice of disagreeability. As there is a virtue of agreeability. Organizations need some degree of agreeability to have functionality and for leadership to be able to steer the boat. Rocking the boat for the sake of rocking the boat – or for poor and selfish reasions – are not virtues. Learning when to stand up for a principle and when not to in favor of personal learning and potential acceptance of something foreign is an important part of everyone’s life experience.
Contention is of the devil, you say? Well, so are dumb ideas. And dumb ideas elevated to the level of binding doctrine or policy can do a lot more harm than a little contention. So we really need more contention at the senior level to kill some of the dumb ideas before they become publicly announced policy and practice.
Unfortunately Jared, I have attended an Elder’s Quorum meeting when a physical altercation broke out. In Texas, about 23 years ago. Believe it or not, it was instigated by a discussion of whether the Holy Ghost was a member of the Godhead .The igniting spark was when the missionary next to me whipped out his copy of Mormon Doctrine to prove his point. Suddenly the member with the opposing view shoved him and Elder McConkie over two rows of chairs. I remember seeing the EQ president, a motor cycle biker in his spare time, jump up immediately ready to join the fray but it quickly died down.
I’ve never been sure about the status of the Holy Ghost after that 😉
Jared: Now we are going to pile on with our stories of things you said you never see at church. I have seen someone come to church in a swimsuit! This was in Singapore. We often had visitors who only found out later that there was an LDS church available to attend, so they would wear whatever they could, and it was so hot and humid there every single day, that was sometimes shorts. Well, American swim trunks are often worn as shorts in other countries, so yes, I saw someone come to church in a swim suit. And he was warmly welcomed like all visitors there were.
While disagreeability is a virtue when it comes to transformational thinking, it can also be evidence of bullheadedness or arrogance if the ideas aren’t well thought out or are based on inaccurate assumptions. Not being a people pleaser is important, but sometimes so is listening, particularly in implementing ideas.
When I was a young boy, growing up in a small Utah town, one of my favorite things to buy from the local Mercantile was a balsa wood airplane; particularly the one with a wind up propeller, attached to a rather large rubber band. Now, obviously this was long before the internet, hand-held devices and digital games – but through the eyes of my memory, it was a great way to grow up.
One of the great things about this particular airplane was that the longer (and tighter) I would wind the propeller, the greater force with which the plane would take off – and the farther it would fly. Sometimes, you could even wind it tight enough that it could sting if you let it go and have the propeller hit your fingers.
When I think of what’s happening within “The Church” right now, in terms of members “finding their voices” and pushing back on leadership – sometimes forcefully, I can’t help but think of my wind-up airplane analogy. For well over 150 years, people have been directed (told) what to do; by those who (supposedly) are closer to God because of their particular calling.
It’s been my life’s experience that when people are spoken down too, made to feel less than and/or forced to “bottle up” their own feelings, perceptions and ideas (many times against their will – through shaming techniques) that when they FINALLY LET GO OF THE PROPELLER – WATCH OUT! I feel little sympathy for “The Church” and it’s leaders these days – for (I believe) that they are now paying for feelings, emotions, misdeeds and unrighteous leadership which have been swallowed by many, many members for decades.
“When one attends church, … there is a known standard of behavior expected.” I was tempted to be “disagreeable” about this, but decided instead that it might just be right that there is an expected standard of behavior known to Jared, even if not to all who “walk through the door.”
I’ve occasionally felt compelled to vocally express respectful disagreement in church settings. Results have been mixed. Sometimes I have been shouted down or ganged up on, other times ignored, and a few times appreciated. I don’t do it intentionally to be haughty or mean spirited, but to share a different point of view in what is usually an echo chamber of stagnant ideas. The church can be a breeding ground for groupthink, and often it feels like we are all passengers on the proverbial Bus to Abilene (look it up). Disagreement, managed well, can be healthy for an organization; “opposition in all things” and all that.
I choose to interpret the “contention is of the devil” passage in 3rd Nephi 11 in context; here, Jesus was instructing His audience to avoid getting locked into any more multi-generational wars. Disagreement can lead to violence and bloodshed, but between civil people it usually does not–it can even strengthen the relationship.
Mary Ann wisely points out that blogs have unwritten boundaries that are enforced by the participants. I have found that wards do as well. Comments that were welcome in my former California ward would not go over well in any ward I have attended in Utah. Correlation has not yet succeeded making uniform the boundaries of participation in local congregations, and that is probably a good thing.
If scriptures tell us how to behave at church, as stated by one commenter above, perhaps the last time I went to the temple I should have tipped over the cash register at the clothing counter.
In other words, it all depends on how you interpret the scripture.
• Do you think most ward members respect a fresh perspective, a person who is willing to upset the status quo? Why or why not?
As a general rule people dislike change and will resist against it. If the person who presents the change is well liked and has built up a sufficient record respect and good judgement, then they can effect change with less push back. But will still see push back.
• Are you a disagreeable person (by this definition)? Now, by being disagreeable… 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.
Yes. On many occasions, sometimes it works out good, sometimes it does not. When it comes to being disagreeable two things need to be considered. First, is this the hill I want to die on? And second “what they believe is right”, are you sure you are 100% right? What you think is right or best may not be right or best. This is a tough issue. Plus remember crazy people and evil people think they are “right”.
• Do you find the bloggernacle to be as unaccepting of unpopular opinions as people at church or elsewhere?
In my observation and experience sites like W&T are far more unaccepting of unpopular opinions that church. As for elsewhere it depends on the elsewhere. I find people down voting some people just on the principle of “I don’t like this person’s response on my pet issue so I will down vote them on all their comments so they lose credibility”. The bloggernacle does tend to be a bit of an echo chamber, and that is the way the people want it.
Lastly on the note at the end  Elevating the PoX and Proc to “revelation”…
On the Proclamation: “Most church members think the Proclamation was revelation anyway (because most of them don’t look into things)” is a great example of most members are stupid because they don’t see it the way I see it.
Were as most members see it as a common sense statement that supports their life experience.
“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.” In reality most people don’t give a flying rats… about the PoX, it is simply a non-issue for them, they do not know anyone affected by the PoX just like they don’t care about the same restriction on polygamist children that has been in effect for a hundred years. And by the way why is it that the restriction on polygamist children is not champed by the bloggernacle? It is a niche issue that has very little affect in their lives. Maybe I am being too harsh in the statement that “people don’t care” maybe a better word would be “indifferent”.
Great story about swim wear–Singapore style.
In my Ward and Stake, I’ve been an advocate for using the churches Essays as lesson material. So far, no takers. I’ve tried not to be disagreeable, but a few local church leaders have mildly chastised me for making such a suggestion.
I can understand their position. They don’t want to blow anyone away. Unfortunately, that leaves church membership with too many members who are uninformed. How will uniformed church members help their children, grandchildren, and others when they ask about topic presented in the church Essays.
I think the High Council, Bishoprics, Relief Society Presidency should be taught jointly one Essay at a time. There will probably be causalities but in the long run I think it will inoculate many members and strengthen the church. In my opinion, its best to hear about the topics covered in the Essays from leadership than from other sources.
At this years BYU Education Week there were a few classes that lightly touched on some of the Essays topics, but didn’t mention the Essays, per se.
When I read your title for this posting, my mind went straight to Lavina Fielding Anderson. (She’s just four years older than I am, so I’ve kept myself aware of her for a long, long time.) It seems from my distant view that Lavina exemplifies a virtue in disagreeability as a feminist and as an intellectual. I recommend (somewhat ironically here I guess) her article in the Spring 1993 issue of *Dialogue* entitled “The LDS Intellectual Community and Church Leadership: A Contemporary Chronology”. Most ward members, I believe, deserve fresh perspectives, no matter where they come from, if they come with charitable respect. I can be and I am at times a disagreeable person, but I hope to do so charitably, as charitably as I saw Christ do so. Also, like contemporaries like Lavina seem to me to have done, despite the treatment they got. I have not generally found the bloggernacle as unaccepting of unpopular opinions as most of the people at church are. It’s as if a majority of active members like their blinders kept just where they are.
Elsewhere? What does elsewhere even mean? I am not elsewhere.
I probably fall under the category of disagreeable in my ward. I’m never contentious though. I just see the world from a very different perspective so when I comment in classes, my comments end up being outside the norm.
I’m careful in what I say so as to not offer more than the teacher is really looking for (teaching is hard, and I don’t want to make it harder on the poor person!). But even with that, I’ve noticed that almost always my comments are followed by four or five people offering up more traditional answers to whatever the topic under discussion is. I’m not entirely sure what to do with that. I end up feeling a little pushed aside as it feels somewhat intentional. I’m not sure it is intentional, more likely whatever I said triggers a traditional response every single time (it is generally the same people that always follow whatever I say up).
And I should add this is never about big ticket items. Last Sunday I made a comment that came down to ‘it’s okay to have personal boundaries in relationships with other members of the ward (ie ministering)’ and the responses were all about needing to sacrifice ourselves to serve our fellow members.
If anyone has ideas on how to handle this, I’d love suggestions as I’ve been mulling it over for months on how to improve the situation (or if I want to be bothered as perhaps it wouldn’t be better to just stop trying to participate at all).
Jared writes “Scripture and testimonies (except in rare instances) are discouraged.”
On the blog, yes, they make people uncomfortable, but it is so in person as well. If someone came to you right now saying he had seen God and talked to him (common) but God talked back (uncommon), would you be comfortable or maybe on guard for what this person is going to demand from you based on that claim?
But uncomfortable or not, it is better (IMO) to lay your cards on the table; to cast at least some pearls so that others know you possess some pearls.