Beware the naysayer

It’s helpful and necessary to have multiple perspectives on an opportunity, including from those who say no. But a person should never play the role of naysayer over and over.

Beware the naysayer by Nancy Knowlton

We all know them – the people who tell us persuasively why our ideas and plans won’t work, how we’re going to fail if we try anything. They criticize and poke holes in plans. They shoot down early-stage brainstorming and what-if thinking. They talk about best practice as if it is the definitive word on anything and everything and that nothing will move beyond what is known at the time. Risk and boogey men are everywhere.

Fear of the unknown

If we always listened to the naysayers, little would be attempted let alone accomplished. Columbus would have never set out for the New World. Man would have never gone to the moon or dreamed about space. The oceans would remain unexplored, and we would know only what we knew. New ideas are indeed fraught with risk and uncertainty. Chances are great that failure is right around the corner, because plunging into the unknown is risky business. One would be right more often than not warning against anything new.

One of the oldest stories about fear and paranoia is Chicken Little, an entertaining story that amused many of us as children. The image of the chicken running around issuing his dire warnings when he had simply misinterpreted the fall of the acorn is something that remains in our language and lore today. The story satirizes the chicken’s behavior, and that is the source of the amusement in the story. Irrational fear, as it turns out, is quite funny.

Valuable input

But, is there any value to the naysayers? I believe that there is a role for the challengers, the ones who demand a sober second look at plans that may be unreasonably optimistic and not comprehensive in nature. Questions are legitimate, and they truly do save from waste and failure. Listening to the reservations that team members have is part of a comprehensive assessment of a plan. But a person should never play the role of naysayer over and over. To do so risks a diminishing of input. To be characterized as a naysayer allows people to dismiss input as “That’s just Joe being negative.”

Balanced contribution

For an entrepreneur trying to get something off the ground, naysayers need to be heard but they cannot be the sole determinants of the path ahead. Know the risks but don’t be paralyzed by them. Hear the risks and then work to mitigate them. Appreciate the insanity of starting something new and keep on going.

The bottom line for me – naysayers can balance the inexperienced and the sycophants – they just cannot be the only voice at the table. If you have a naysayer, challenge that person to be part of the vision for making something work given the person’s awareness of the risks and pitfalls.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.