You might not always be the most popular person on the team when you play devil’s advocate, but it will make your team better, says research being conducted by a professor at the Broad College of Business and others.

Photo of Don Conlon

Donald Conlon, professor of management and interim chair of Broad’s Management Department.

According to the studies, which looked at post-graduate business students in India and employees of a finance firm in the Netherlands, teams require a contrarian in order to reach their potential—someone willing to go against the rest of the team and create conflict.

This recent finding from a study conducted by scholars including Donald Conlon, professor of management and interim chair of Broad’s Management Department, has managers rethinking the criteria for a successful team.

At first, the idea of a contrarian may seem counterintuitive. A teammate recklessly creating conflict and questioning every decision may not have a positive impact, but someone hoping to be a productive contrarian must walk a finer line, Conlon says.

Conlon noted that the key to a successful group dynamic is finding someone who can voice an opinion “in a way that doesn’t offend the majority that holds a different opinion.”

This finding bears out even in student group work. Garret Bauer (BA Finance ’16) noted, “The most unproductive teams I have been a part of were the ones where no one questioned anyone and the first idea is the one we went with.”

Conlon also suspects that that those who played this contrarian role with success are likely to be high in emotional intelligence and self-monitoring. Those high in emotional intelligence and self-monitoring tend to be more aware of the emotions of their teammates and are more responsive to social cues. As a result, when they disagree with a majority opinion, the conflict is introduced subtly—so subtly that teammates don’t even recognize it as conflict.

Conlon mentioned that managers can identify high self-monitors as those who “appear authentic or real in many different situations.”

Teams with a skilled contrarian were thus able to experience healthy conflict, sniffing out bad ideas and nurturing good ideas without offending teammates.

Incidentally, a study from Penn State found that self-monitoring has value beyond that of being an effective teammate. High self-monitors were more likely to achieve both cross-company and internal promotions.