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Go against the Grain

The expression “to go against the grain” means to say or do things that are not usually said or done. One of the biggest organizational challenges is to develop a culture in which this is possible, or even encouraged (cf blog on the dissident voice).
But people who go against the grain are hard to handle for a manager. Very often managers are looking for comfort. They do not like people who do not follow automatically and who ask cutting knife questions. But remember that it takes courage to go against the grain. And if you give them the necessary space, they will be of great value to you and your team or company.

Why Someone chooses to go against the Grain

A first reason might just be personality and value-driven. Some people just do that. They will always question the status quo for different reasons. A lot of time these reasons will be positive. They just want to do well, move on, do better. They go the extra mile and they do not accept mediocrity or short-term solutions that will need to be revised later on. They tend to look ahead.
A second reason might be circumstantial. The circumstances force them to go against the grain. Everyone potentially can go against the grain. So if you see that someone does that, ask yourself what it is that makes him or her do that. If going against the grain is a new kind of behavior you should worry or at least be interested.
A third reason might be health-related. People who have been very loyal and have put their energy at the service of some cause, might get exhausted. They might get exhausted because they feel there is no appreciation for their efforts. At a certain moment they turn their energy against the very cause they have been fighting for. This is the essence of burn-out. If someone is in that case, the only thing a company should do, is take care of that person.

The Value of going against the Grain

Going against the grain means that the person willingly takes actions that are different from that what is expected. It goes beyond voicing dissidence. It’s like the salmon: going against the stream to reach a different target than the water. Most fish follow the current, the salmon does not. The energy the salmon needs to go against the current is tremendous. It takes skill and perseverance to do that. It’s just the same for people.

It takes skill and perseverance to be a salmon.

Companies need people who go against the grain. The reason is simple. These are people that are often the moral compass. They challenge mainstream ideas and do not take anything for granted. Oh yes, they are difficult to manage. But having them in your company creates value. Acknowledging their energy will simply give them more energy.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.


  • I don’t choose this , it’s stronger than myself.

  • kairos says:

    Definitely agree. Very often people against the grain are viewed more like a problem than part of the solution in some scenario, but they still could provide another perspective about one situation, problem, risk, routine operation, … . If questioning attitudes are completely cut-down, organizations are in risk of losing proactivity and maybe commitment among its ranks. If we take a look to some efficiency models, like LEAN, people is frequently encouraged to be proactive and let their ideas to be heard as a way to contribute to improve the overall performance of an organization. The longest journey includes thousand of simple steps. Sometimes, in driving out an idea, people could go against the stream and I think that, whenever it be worthwhile, the managerial abilities should exploit that situation and devise a path for the salmon.

  • bobgately says:

    We go against the grain at our own peril.
    It is far easier to change our own behaviors than to change other people’s behaviors and changing our own behaviors is nearly impossible for most of us without wanting to change and without help. Telling and insisting that others change is a fools errand and is a cause of employee disengagement.
    Change efforts fail if executives/managers think behavioral changes are needed for everyone but themselves. 

It is easier to insist that others change their behaviors than it is to change our own behaviors. 

Change efforts are necessary when those in charge don’t change their own behaviors.

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