Nay-sayers Make Important Contributions

“Remember 20 percent of the people are against everything all the time”” Robert F. Kennedy

Nay-sayers: They come in all shapes and sizes. And every organization has at least one.

While management usually sees them as annoyances, the more astute leaders will not ignore nay-sayers. Often, they have a contribution to make. The trick is to understand what they need, what motivates them and what they are saying to the organization.

There are four types of nay-sayers:

Pessimists

These are the “Eyeores” of the company. They consistently see the glass as half empty – they’re pessimists at heart. Any project or plan will be met with worried remarks such as, “I don’t know how well that will work” or “These kinds of things don’t tend to go well.”

They tend not to break an issue apart. They foresee an inevitable negative outcome to anything. Discussing issues with pessimists can feel draining and defeating. But engaging them can provide you with a valuable perspective. In fact, what should we be careful of? What might not go well and what has happened in the past that could inform a future outcome? When given permission to be pessimistic, this type of naysayer can provide a thorough analysis of the risk associated with pet ideas and projects. The exercise can be helpful in determining a successful outcome for new ideas, products and projects.

In some instances, this type of naysayer is actually depressed. The pessimism simply masks the condition. It is important to differentiate between feedback that “perspective- takes” from a sober second look point of view, from one based on helplessness, a sense of feeling out of control and sad. The former, not the latter will be most helpful to the organization.

Cynics

These folks take a world-weary, “we’ve seen it all” approach to innovation. They are not joiners but are the organization’s built-in “deceit and deception detectors”” Talking to cynics can provide a read on the implicit reasons an organization is launching something new. If the reasons are indeed self-serving, the cynic can alert the organization. It is important to realize that they will not do this directly and the ability to read between the lines when talking to cynics is important. Most cynics are not whistle-blowers. Their self-preservation instincts and built-in cynicism prevent such risk taking. At times, cynicism can mask poor performance, especially when the comments or attitudes are sneering, derisive or insubordinate. These “cynics” are hiding incompetence, mistakes or fears of being held accountable.

Critics

The critic is neither pessimistic nor cynical. They just enjoy engaging in the critical analysis of new ideas. They often have a philosophical bent and enjoy debating. They are logical and follow an argument to its conclusion. They are expert at picking an illogical argument apart and they abhor fuzzy thinking. They love to look at as many points of view as possible and discern whether a plan or strategy holds water. They quickly identify weaknesses in a plan and can point to areas of weakness. The may seem demanding and overly analytical, but have an important role on any team. If the critic can be given free reign, he or she will ask simple but incisive questions, unravel shoddy thinking and identify gaps in logic. Then, the organization can respond.

Critics tend to ask questions that seek rationales and explanations for why something’s being done and why it’s being done in a certain way. They want to understand the business case and the timing. If sponsors of projects cannot answer these simple questions, they become aware they must think more deeply about the issue or communicate the need more effectively and succinctly. Critics push organizations to look at the reasons they are doing what they are doing, help them tighten processes and structures and keep communication to the point and simple.

Critics can be hard to include if sponsors of projects get defensive or take their projects too personally. The antidote to this is to quickly begin considering the critic’s viewpoint as soon as it is voiced. Ask the critic what she means. Be curious. Be prepared for the critic to appear somewhat frustrated with questions as they often want people to “get it” quickly.

Curmudgeons

These people are crabby, grumpy and generally feel terminally inconvenienced by the requests others place upon them. They just want to do their job and would rather not interact much with others, preferring to be alone or working with one understanding workmate. Curmudgeons help organizations when they are encouraged to consider how to streamline processes and make things easier—especially for themselves. They are helpful in spotting what can go wrong with projects and people. Enlisting a crabby person to tell you what you might have to watch out for when embarking on a particular path can help, but they won’t give advice easily. They need to see that you have a genuine interest in their opinion. Otherwise they’ll dismiss you. The best way to get a curmudgeon’s advice (and it’s worth it) is to bear their initial dismissive, grumpy reaction with good humour and refuse to give up until you get an answer. Be sure to thank this staff person for his help. They want to help but don’t want to waste their time, so be sure to respect them and you’ll be rewarded.

Obtaining input from nay-sayers is important to the success of projects and to preparing for potentially negative outcomes. Finding a way to give nay-sayers permission to be nay-sayers, accepting them and their position in the organization goes along way to helping project sponsors mine for information crucial to the eventual success of the plan or project.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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