Naysayers Get a Bad Rap!

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By Eileen Habelow, Ph.D.

There is one in every crowd.  You know…that one colleague who always has to disagree.  Or, who is constantly playing the ‘devil’s advocate’ role.  (Personally, I don’t know why anyone would ever advocate for the devil, but that is a blog for another day.)

Early in my career, being the positive (Pollyanna?) person I was, the contrarians in the room absolutely drove me nuts!  I would label them uncooperative, negative, and even progress-blockers.  The team would be on a roll, getting close to an agreed-upon plan, and then from the back of the room…“can we hold-up a minute here?”


In my emotionally immature phase of life, I likely rolled my eyes, muttered under my breath, folded my arms and totally disengaged when the “naysayer” had the floor.

I am happy to say, I am much smarter now.  And, when I am patient, the naysayers can make me even smarter!  (Who knows how many great ideas I missed hearing when I was young because I was too convinced of my ‘rightness’ to listen.)

The value of an effective, genuine contrarian view is, in fact, totally underestimated on most teams.  When someone on the team is willing to challenge or question assumptions or proposed solutions, be willing to listen.  Be willing to hear their viewpoint, reconsider your own view in light of their perspective, and maybe, just maybe, even change your mind!

A valuable contrarian is one who is genuinely curious and challenging for the sake of ensuring we have all the best thinking on the table and that we have explored from a few different perspectives.  If handled well, their views or questions can move the team to broader thinking and well thought-through decisions.  Every team needs a good contrarian.

But, as with any strength, being the contrarian can be taken too far.  If you are always the ‘naysayer’, it loses its punch.  If you are being a contrarian out of spite or ego (e.g., you like to hear yourself talk), it erodes trust with others.

Here is my advice for building in a contrarian viewpoint for the benefit of the team.

Make sure you are using the contrarian approach:

  1. At the RIGHT TIME – when debating and discussing and exploring…not after the fact!
  2. With the RIGHT INTENTIONS – genuine curiosity that could benefit the team
  3. In the RIGHT WAY – with humility and respect for the opinions and perspectives of others
  4. And, in the RIGHT DOSE – don’t be the boy who cried wolf. It doesn’t end well.

How does your team use the contrarian effectively?  What value might it bring to the team if you allowed, or even created space for a contrarian viewpoint in your discussions?

If you want to learn more about how to maximize the value of a contrarian, consider our workshop or our online LearningBurst titled “Disrupting Cognitive Bias”.  There is much to be gained.

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