David Wray

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Succeeding Despite Naysayers Telling us it’s Impossible!

Dilbert naysayers saying it's impossible for most people except himself. Cartoon credit: Scott Adams

What are naysayers in the workplace?

Naysayers, at their most basic level, are “ones who deny, refuse, oppose, or are skeptical or cynical about something” as defined in Merriam-Webster. In the context of the workplace, it’s a person that chooses to say, regularly and creatively, something cannot be done.

Before rushing to condemnation, we need to recognize that a smart naysayer is a valuable asset to any team so it is about how to manage them well. 

What are the typical traits of naysayers?

It’s a person that has been in the organization for a long period of time, understands the company history and industry well, and is often (but not always) in positions requiring risk management skills. So, for instance, finance, legal, operations, or supply chain. Naysayers can often suck the life out of a meeting with their pessimistic views of the ideas being tossed around. They can also be the person that overtly, or covertly, say something to undermine the success or optimism of other individuals.

Typical naysayers’ scenarios

Let’s use a couple of business examples.

Tom is sitting in a room listening to several peers brainstorm a new product. He is sitting teeth clenching, arms folded, and cringing at most of the ideas in the room. Occasionally, he will say: “Guys, I am trying to be open-minded, but…”. True to form, the energy in the room plummets as Tom explains why the product won’t work or won’t sell. Tom is doing this because, in his mind, someone must be the devil’s advocate and save the team from itself! And that someone is Tom himself. 

Louisa is listening to Joe share his excitement at receiving an invitation to speak at the company conference, a significant honour reserved for the best performers. Louisa cannot seem to help herself; she chips away at Joe’s self-belief: “Joe, are you sure you are up to the speaking event in front of 500 people?” In this instance, the naysaying is more destructive because it is personalized and directed at Joe. Joe’s sense of self-confidence starts to crumble one comment at a time. Left unchecked, it will have long-term detrimental effects.

Managing a naysayer within the team

Let’s tackle the “Louisa” case first as it needs more immediate and direct intervention. Leaders with a “Louisa” on the team need to nip that behaviour in the proverbial bud by confronting it head-on. I cover techniques for managing toxic workplace behaviours in Facing and Beating Toxic Workplaces.

Turning our attention to “Tom”, there are more concrete leadership steps available to leverage insightful or intelligent naysaying individuals. Four steps will prove effective with “Tom”:

  1. Recognize that you may have a problem that Tom can see, be open to this reality
  2. Leverage Tom’s method of assessing issues to proactively address those areas, use it to align on the issue and options
  3. Consult with external expertise, as needed, to get a balanced view from which to make decisions
  4. Partner “Tom” with experts to delve more deeply into the issues, together better solutions may be achievable

The impact unmanaged naysayers have on a team

Any individual who is routinely negative or cynical, will generally not buy into programs, ideas, or changes being considered. Their inability to see the bigger picture or the vision, from which to work backward, generally results in their negativity or complaining. That in turn pulls peers or teammates down because they hear constant complaining, doubt, and a general lack of optimism. The result is an infection of team dissatisfaction which undermines genuine efforts to grow or change something.

The bottom line is that we can ill afford to retain an attitude that is constantly negative within the team.

Final thoughts

Leaders intuitively know managing challenging (aka difficult) employees requires specific skills which require a combination (and balance of) decisiveness, empathy, and communication.

To achieve a fair and consistent outcome, leaders must focus on addressing behaviours rather than “fixing” the person. A positive outcome requires calm, direct, and constructive discussion. Using the Creative Centre for Leadership (CCL) feedback model of Situation, Behaviours, and Impact (SBI) – leaders must objectively describe the situation, the behaviours observed and the impact it has on the team. Because only then will constructive solutions emerge to resolve the issue.

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views and ideas for pushing through in the face of people around you telling you “it is not possible”.

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: Scott Adams

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