Why Office Haters Actually Make Good Employees

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June 24 2014 11:18 AM

What the Office Grouch Brings to the Workplace

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Every office needs an Oscar the Grouch.

Photo by Matthew Peyton/Getty Images

This post first appeared on Business Insider.

Whether grouch, gadfly, or sourpuss, every office has a hater: somebody who just doesn't like anybody or anything. 

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In a weird way, that disagreeability can be an asset. According to new research, haterade can be good for productivity by virtue of the way that your "dispositional attitude"—whether you generally like or dislike things—shapes your behavior.  

New York magazine's new Science of Us website has a nice recap of the paper: 

In two studies, participants reported all of their activities over a one-week period and also completed a measure of dispositional attitudes. Although haters (someone with a low dispositional attitude) and likers (someone with a high dispositional attitude) did not differ in the types of activities they pursued, haters tended to do fewer activities throughout the week than did likers. Nearly 15 percent of the differences in how many activities people conducted during a typical week was associated with being a hater versus a liker.

That curmudgeonly selectiveness is a net positive for skill development, study authors Justin Hepler of the University of Illinois and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Pennsylvania argue.

Getting excellent at something takes lots of time—10,000 hours is a popular, if contentious, rule of thumb—so it follows that if you're doing fewer things in a week, as a hater would, then you'll make speedier progress in that area of study. The authors said as much in a statement

... likers may adopt a jack-of-all-trades approach to life, investing small amounts of time in a wide variety of activities. This would leave them somewhat skilled at many tasks. In contrast, when haters find an activity they actually like, they may invest a larger amount of time in that task, allowing them to develop a higher skill level compared to likers. 
This same pattern could also be relevant to attentional control. For example, likers may have more difficulty sustaining attention on a task because they perceive so many interesting and distracting opportunities in their environment. In contrast, because haters like so few things, they may be unlikely to be distracted when they are doing a task, and thus their generalized dislike may actually benefit their attentional control.

Of course, the study's not exactly conclusive. What's missing here is context. It would be great to see how grumpiness predicts skill development in different roles. "Generalized dislike" might be functional in a setting where you're not interacting with humans (and their pesky feelings) all the time, but would be less helpful in highly social gigs — say sales or management. Like any part of personality profiling, we need to consider the world in which the person is working. But it's still quite interesting to have research that takes a behavior that we tend to judge as "bad" — that of being a hater — and shows its more positive qualities, in the same way that neuroticism can be channeled into critical thinking.

Similarly, in David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell argues that entrepreneurs tend toward disagreeability, or not needing social approval. For the entrepreneur, not needing others' approval is one vehicle by which they bring their vision into the world. He writes

[C]rucially, innovators need to be disagreeable. By disagreeable, I don't mean obnoxious or unpleasant. I mean that on that fifth dimension of the Big Five personality inventory, "agreeableness," they tend to be on the far end of the continuum. They are people willing to take social risks—to do things that others might disapprove of.  
That is not easy. Society frowns on disagreeableness. As human beings we are hardwired to seek the approval of those around us. Yet a radical and transformative thought goes nowhere without the willingness to challenge convention.

But a hater, of course, would probably just be annoyed by all this psychobabble.

Drake Baer reports on strategy, leadership, and organizational psychology at Business Insider.

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