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Controversy pays

A new book by Dr Thomas Roulet of Cambridge Judge Business School outlines how generating negative feedback can be beneficial.

Welcome to Trumpland sign on the side of road in rural North Carolina.
Thomas Roulet.
Dr Thomas Roulet

Being controversial can surprisingly yield positive results by opening up new opportunities, says a new book by Thomas Roulet, University Senior Lecturer in Organisation Theory and Deputy Director of the MBA at Cambridge Judge Business School, and Fellow in Sociology at Girton College.

The book, entitled The Power of Being Divisive: Understanding Negative Social Evaluations, building on existing research in the behavioural and social sciences and Thomas’s own work, outlines how being “up against the rest” can bring significant benefits to both individuals and organisations. It was published by Stanford University Press on 1 September.

For organisations, a bad reputation can sometimes drive corporate identity and firms facing strong public hostility can benefit from internal bonding. The book draws on examples such as Uber, Google and video game maker Electronic Arts to underline the key role that audiences play in assessing controversial actions. Despite public hostility, these firms “have managed to survive, and even sometimes to capitalise on outsiders’ anger. For these firms, public disapproval has not been an obstacle for growth, and it has opened a world of new opportunities,” the book says.

The book highlights how firms through their actions can “simultaneously have a good reputation and a bad rap”. In other words, organisations can be both “stigmatised and esteemed” by different audiences, the way Electronic Arts (which makes games such as FIFA, Madden NFL and Battlefront) is a company “despised by hardcore gamers but a favored provider for casual gamers.”

In a similar way, individuals may face negative evaluations and benefit from them. Research on dirty work shows that many stigmatised professions from funeral directors to exotic dancers are able to draw on a unique culture to build self-esteem. But Thomas also examines a “bounce-back” effect for the stigmatised: from failed entrepreneurs to top executives who fell from grace, the negative evaluation is a fruitful source of frustration that might lead to new highs.

Finally, Thomas identifies a new form of leadership, which he calls “divisive leadership”. Many leaders have the tendency to take strong controversial positions, to generate polarisation between followers and outsiders. He points out the mechanisms through which Donald Trump gained significant support despite being heavily criticised and even vilified – and the book details how the same principles apply to corporate leaders and executives, and the ethical concerns such strategy raises.

In this era of social media saturation, in which online trolling and cancel culture are commonplace, the implications of the book go well beyond the corporate world to explain more broadly how social evaluations have considerable societal implications.