“It’s more important to be polarizing than neutralizing”: The truth about being divisive at work

Does it actually pay to be a polarizing figure—adored by some and hated by others?
Does it actually pay to be a polarizing figure—adored by some and hated by others?
Image: AP Photo/Arthur Mola
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Actor and comedian TJ Miller is not afraid to get on people’s bad side. After leaving the hit HBO show Silicon Valley, he dissed his coworkers in a Hollywood Reporter interview. “I don’t know how smart [Alec] is,” he said of producer Alec Berg. “He went to Harvard, and we all know those kids are f—ing idiots. That Crimson trash.”

This week, his brash profile in New York Magazine further solidified his reputation as, well, kind of an asshole. And that would seem to be part of his career plan.

“People need a villain, and I’m occupying that space,” Miller says, going on to argue that negging Berg was a good publicity move. “If I’d just said it was an honor to work on Silicon Valley and was thankful to Alec Berg, I would have disappeared. Instead, by being just a little authentic, I infected the news cycle.”

Then, after misting his face, Miller adds, “It’s more important to be polarizing than neutralizing. That’s my position.”

Miller’s frequently-touted strategy may make sense for an entertainer who possesses a hefty scoop of white male privilege. In a highly competitive industry like Hollywood, it’s better to stand out than blend in. But for the average worker, does it actually pay to be a polarizing figure—adored by some and hated by others? Or is it better to be moderately liked by many?

The upside of being divisive

Polarizing people, like polarizing ideas, are those who disrupt the status quo. They’re inherently divisive, often loved and hated in equal measure. Socially, being polarizing can act as an invaluable filter—distancing you from people you wouldn’t get along with anyway, and bringing you closer to those who make you happy.

There are definite upsides to rattling people’s cages at the office as well. “Polarizing people do in fact get lots of attention, and in the work world they tend to be promoted in the short-term,” says Mitch Prinstein, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the author of Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. So long as you’re able to cultivate loyalty among an influential subset of colleagues, it may not matter how many others you tick off.

Steve Jobs is the quintessential case in point. While his aggressive, polarizing disposition got him temporarily fired from his own company, these same traits made him an invaluable re-hire. Those who worked alongside Jobs knew that however controversial he was, Apple wasn’t as competitive without him.

Polarizing people tend to make changes happen quickly, says Prinstein, as their charm and confidence can lure a critical mass of followers based on their emotional appeal alone. And polarizing people also tend to be more decisive, as epitomized by Miller’s resolute choice to leave Silicon Valley behind. This is because polarizing people tend to have strong beliefs and fairly rigid value systems, which allows them to more easily navigate uncertainty. For better or worse, their moral compass often points firmly in one direction.

By contrast, “even with high potential and great performance, someone who is chronically indecisive will almost never rise above average,” writes organizational psychologist Nick Tasler in his book, Decision Pulse. “By the same token, decisive people give themselves a better shot at success from the get-go, even if they perform poorly later on.” 

Going too far

However, polarizing figures face their own pitfalls. If they step on too many people’s toes, or become better known for the attention they generate than for the quality of their work, ill will catches up to them. Their coworkers will find their ideas less credible. And their direct reports will likely feel demoralized and disengaged, Prinstein says, making them less likely to support their leader’s future plans. 

What are signs that a polarizing person has gone too far? Behavioral patterns such as a lack of self-reflection, refusing to listen to others, engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, and not learning from one’s mistakes, according to Bill Eddy, a lawyer who co-founded the High Conflict Institute, a consultancy firm for professionals dealing with divisive types. He says that good leaders are neither aggressive nor passive, but assertive.

“The assertive person won’t let people walk on them, but they don’t want to walk on other people, either,” says Eddy. “They’re eager to speak up for their ideas, but facilitate equality by listening, and adapting to others’ input.”

The power of polarizing thoughts

Ultimately, Prinstein says, an ambitious worker’s best bet is to be a mensch in their personal interactions, but polarizing in their ideas.

“Some of the most likable people are polarizing in their ideas,” says Prinstein, “and they deliver those ideas in a way that truly shakes up and innovates an organization, but they do so without constantly generating disregard.”

Leaders who are both likable and innovative always credit others for their insights and contributions, as they’re well aware that no grand solution is developed in a vacuum. And when they have a polarizing idea, instead of imposing it upon their team, they try to move the group toward a collective decision. The “How Might We” method, for example, in which leaders pose open-ended, non-judgmental questions during brainstorming sessions, helps a group feel ownership over a polarizing idea and a risky—but rewarding—solution.

US Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor offers one model of striking a balance between being ideologically polarizing and personally likable. “I have a style that is Sonia, and it is more assertive than many women are, or even some men,” she tells the German publication Der Spiegel. “And it’s a style that has held me generally in good stead.” At the same time, she says, “I don’t think I would have been successful if I didn’t know how to soften myself and tone it down at important moments.”

Getting a whole group to engage in an intellectual discussion also makes it more likely that a leader’s initial idea will come to fruition, as Prinstein points out. Introducing a polarizing idea means violating group norms. Whether you’re proposing new rules for the office refrigerator or an industry-wide policy upheaval, the minute you egregiously and unapologetically violate those norms, you’re likely to generate resentment.

“People do not like the status quo being changed without their permission,” says Prinstein, “and that’s a reality every leader should know.” 

Mark Cuban, the outspoken billionaire entrepreneur, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and investor on ABC’s Shark Tank, says that he’s also open to discussion when he makes one of his trademark controversial statements. “I don’t think I’m polarizing,” he tells Quartz. “There are people who may not agree with me, but that’s just a starting point. I would rather be someplace where people disagree with me and I can be questioned and learn from the experience then someplace where everyone agrees with me.”

For my own part, I’ve been learning to embrace the fact that I have some polarizing ideas of my own. Recently, I was taken aback when a friend told me, “You know, your identity is clearly grounded in your opinions. It’s cool how you’re willing to be polarizing.” After a little thought, I realized she was right. I respect slow, contemplative thinkers. But my disposition toward strong beliefs often leads me to fascinating, intense debates, and ensures that my close friends know the real me. As my number-one leadership inspiration, Alexander Hamilton, says in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway production: “If you stand for nothing … what’ll you fall for?”