You need to eventually listen to naysayers

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Here’s a bold life theory: a lot of success is tied to how you deal with naysayers.

Professional example: companies where the culture is “Well, we’ve always done it that way” have a shot at getting disrupted by an upstart, even if they’re sitting on piles of cash. What were they doing when a few naysayers piped up ideas/concepts?

Personal example: Someone tells you you’re off the rails or doing something wrong. You can either thoughtfully evaluate that and grow from it, or sneer “asshole” and walk away. Maybe they are an asshole, yes. But maybe what they said was right and you needed to hear it.

Naysayers. They drive it all. The power of no, right? Let’s explore this for a second.

Naysayers and some interesting research

When a project tanks, what do you think people blame it on?

Well, from 2013 research, I can tell you.

People tend to claim:

  • Politics
  • Poor planning
  • Weak execution


The real reason?

  • The team failed to ask the simple question of why they chose Road A over Road B

Again, logical. In my mind this speaks to three things:

  1. Common work desire to rush ahead on projects before contextualizing what they are
  2. Generalized lack of self-awareness in the workplace
  3. Team leaders/members being unclear on what problem they are even solving

How could naysayers help?

Think of what you learned in civics class back in the day: checks and balances. Naysayers operate as a balance because they can say something like:

  • “I don’t understand what we’re doing here.”
  • “This strategy or plan seems to have holes.”
  • “Are we thinking this through?”

People smarter than me, like Art Markman at UT-Austin, have argued that a core business need these days is finding people who have ideas opposite your own. You know, naysayers. This is a bit of a variation on “hire good people and get out of their way.”

The naysayers-professionalism issue

The big elephant in the room here is how emotionally mature the leaders of a team/company are.

If they are mature and believe the goal is “the good of the company,” (at least when you’re at work) then a culture with some naysayers can work.

If they’re not, it’s doomed. Here’s why:

When we talk about stuff like EQ in leadership, this is what it really means: can an executive/leader have their idea contested and not take it personally? Or will the contesting employee be sent down the tubes? If he/she will be career-wrecked for a bit, then you cannot tolerate naysayers.

And what happens then?

That would be a culture of homophily, or utter sameness. (Think “We’ve always done it that way!”) These places can be fun to work because it feels like family and there’s a lot of tenure, but they can also be horrible for productivity or growth. Eventually someone will come along and disrupt the hell out of a company like that, because their decision-making is so slow and cautious.

How do you get more naysayers?

I wanted to say “Ask candidates in the hiring process to challenge an existing process,” but that doesn’t work. See:

  • No one would do that in a job interview.
  • They may not know existing processes at all aside from what you’ve fed them.

So how could we hire for/acquire naysayers? A few ideas:

  • Look for genuinely smart, curious people. They tend to push back more.
  • Ask people in interviews how they deal with a tangibly bad idea or process if it’s presented to them.
  • On Friday afternoons, do debates in the office — random topics or work topics. It might strengthen those brain muscles for some.
  • Create a process where every project/idea needs to go through a “What could we be missing?” quadrant on the four-box planning deal.
  • Have a culture where speaking up/out can get you advanced as opposed to dressed down.
  • If managers are consistently punishing new points of view because they’re threats, punish those managers in the wallet. (This might be dicey legally.)
  • I’d like to say “encourage a culture of transparency,” but we all know that means nothing to most people with any clout in companies.
  • Make the idea of asking questions more relevant in your business, because it’s been proven to be effective as a growth approach.

Anything else you’d add on developing a culture of (some) naysayers to help along projects?

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