Your Combative Colleague May Be Your Innovation Champion

Gumi & Company
4 min readApr 25


In my professional and personal experience so far, the seemingly difficult, combative, and argumentative people are one of the most passionate and conscientious people I know. They turn out to possess personality traits that characterize innovation champions.

We are all wired to avoid difficult situations, colleagues, friends, and family members. In some cases, it is right to flee all appearances of evil; however, in other instances, we give up before striking gold. Leaders who make a conscious effort to seek out and understand the seemingly troublesome team members, may find out they are brilliant people with brilliant insights and can give the team the push it needs.

If you find yourself trying to figure out how to manage a difficult team member, first, try to identify any antagonistic personality traits using the Difficult Person test.

Personality tests are a popular workplace tool. The Difficult Person test is a free online quiz based on personality research by Clinical Psychologist Chelsea Sleep, and was developed by the Individual Differences Research Labs (IDRLabs) at the University of Georgia. The test measures seven traits using 35 questions. The traits are:

  • Callousness: the degree to which they lack empathy or concern for others
  • Grandiosity: the feeling of self-importance and entitlement
  • Aggressiveness: the tendency to behave rudely and hostile
  • Suspicion: the tendency to be unexplainably distrustful of others
  • Manipulativeness: the tendency to exploit others for their own gain
  • Dominance: the strong desire to feel superior and look down on others
  • Risk-taking: the tendency to take unnecessary risks just for thrills

A team member scoring high on these traits is truly difficult; is not a team player, and definitely not your innovation champion. If they score low, then you might be mistaking their confidence, enthusiasm, and assertiveness- which are three strong personality traits of innovation champions.

Next, suspend judgment and bias to stay open-minded.

Case Study

My experience with two people will help illustrate this fact: meet SS and GO.

SS and I were colleagues during my MSc program in 2017. Before knowing SS, every single course mate I knew complained about how nasty and unfriendly she was, and how difficult it was to do group work with her. They cited an instance (which I also witnessed) during a lecture when she answered a question in class with ‘I don’t like people’.

I found SS to be brilliant, funny, and easy-going when we worked together during the Winter and Summer semesters of the MSc program. She completed the program with a distinction. She suggested the smartest ideas during brainstorming sessions and she had a unique ability to simplify complex concepts so quickly. SS had joined the MSc program from Palestine, where she trained as a medical doctor. The Israeli-Palestine conflict in 2017 unsettled her family back home and delayed her husband’s relocation plans for several months, till they reunited during the Christmas holidays. Asides that, it turned out her Autumn semester group mates were always late for group meetings and they were relatively less receptive to her ideas. She was perceived to be innately difficult and combative whereas, her demeanor at that time was a result of her circumstances.

GO currently leads the Venture Excellence team at my firm. GO seemed brash, confrontational, and impatient with her colleagues in my first few encounters with her. After about a month working together, I realized that, what I previously perceived as aggressive and callous, was merely enthusiasm and passion for the work, with assertiveness about her perspectives and a sarcastic sense of humor. GO has consistently outperformed her colleagues and she is able to maintain a high level of energy throughout work cycles.

To conclude, a statement Amartya Sen- the Nobel Prize-winning Economist and Philosopher- made in his book ‘The Argumentative Indian’ triggered my initial mindset shift on this issue. He said:

The identity of an individual is essentially a function of their choices (and circumstances), rather than the discovery of an immutable attribute’.

In other words, you might be (mis)judging your colleague as being innately difficult based on your biased criteria. The ‘difficult’ colleague may simply seem so due to a cocktail of life’s choices and experiences, as opposed to it being a negative personality trait.

That being said, what will you do the next time you meet someone who appears difficult?