By Kevin Meyer
Last week I discussed the value of listening to naysayers… and how that can make the difference between creating an Apple iPod and a Motorola Iridium phone.
Jim Collins likes to talk about "getting on the same bus" and some
leadership gurus have then taken that concept one step further to say
that everyone needs to be in the right seat on the same bus. Really?
Perhaps that means that a bus-load of very smart people, all aligned
with blinders on, will be driven right off a cliff. Even in the lean
world we often say that people who don't buy in to the magic of lean
need to be removed quickly before they irreversibly contaminate the
rest of the organization.
Perhaps their concerns should be confronted, discussed, and
analyzed. Perhaps a lean tool is being implemented simply because it's
a cool new tool and doesn't have a defined need or problem to be
solved. Perhaps the operating environment has changed.
Embrace the naysayers, the people that ask the tough questions and
present alternative views.
Several readers publicly and privately brought up an important point: there's a difference, albeit sometimes a fine line, between being a naysayer and simply being negative. A naysayer may play devil's advocate, but is honestly trying to spur discussion and the consideration of alternate perspectives. A negative person, who simply can't see a positive outcome in anything, is a contagious force and needs to be dealt with… as long as you're sure he's truly negative.
Not recognizing the difference can lead to some interesting management (not leadership) philosophies… such as the one described in a recent article in that bastion of leadership thought, The New York Times.
I fired the unhappy people. People usually laugh at this point. I wish I were kidding.
I’m not. I have learned the long, hard and frustrating way that as a
manager you cannot make everyone happy. You can try, you can listen,
you can solve some problems, you can try some more. Good management
requires training, counseling and patience, but there comes a point
when you are robbing the business of precious time and energy.
Which is true, to a point. Some people are truly just plain negative and if action isn't taken they will create a negative organization, which will fail.
In the worst cases, the problem of a bad fit can have a bigger impact
than just one employee’s performance. Being in charge does not
necessarily mean you are in control, and being in control does not
necessarily mean being in charge. Have you ever seen a company or
department paralyzed by someone who is unhappy and wants to take
hostages? It is remarkable how much damage one person can do. If you
haven’t seen it, I suggest you watch “The Caine Mutiny.” Basically, one
guy takes apart the ship. He was unhappy. It only takes one.
Ok, enough. Well before you get to that point there needs to be a lot of thought. Lots of questions like "why?" And a lot of introspection in terms of leadership style. One comment put that concept succinctly:
As someone who left a position in economically disastrous times because
I was unwilling to work under the leadership of an irresponsible,
degrading and manipulative boss, I fear that this could be used to
justify the decisions of bad managers who choose to get rid of people
with legitimate complaints instead of addressing those complaints. In
these times, employees are willing to stay quiet in terrible
circumstances because they cannot or know they may not be able to find
I'm sure this is a good approach when used by good
people. Unfortunately, I expect it will prove most useful as
justification for managers who prefer to blame an employee than take
responsibility for an employee's legitimate concerns.
Bingo. So perhaps instead of the simplistic "everyone on the same bus" philosophy, the Collins mantra should change to be something like "take the time to find the right bus by listening to those who are hesitant about getting on the bus but once you listen and think and analyze, then don't be afraid to drive off with some left behind… or to kick some off."
Sure beats "just fire them because they're unhappy."
William Pietri says
Agreed. I have helped a number of software development teams adopt new methods. It’s been my frequent experience that the people openly skeptical at the beginning were the biggest proponents once the changes started working for them.
That somebody cares enough about their work to question and object is generally great by me.
Tom Morgan says
Everyone comes to work to do a good job. Few would admit to coming to work to do a bad job. The reasons why somebody may appear negative are many but usually they are victims of bad system design e.g. a command and control system obsessed by metrics or targets = demotivator
Dale Savage says
Sometimes those with the most passion about their work are those who can come across as naysayers because they want to make sure any changes to the process will not have a negative effect. We must ask “Why?” when we encounter a naysayer and then be willing to admit that part of the negativity may be the actions of management in the past. Too often, decisions for change have been made my managers without sufficient input from the line associates. Then the associates are left to deal with a process that is inadequate and they are held responsible if a mistake is made. This approach has lacked respect for those on the line and has destroyed trust in the company. We must be willing to face the possibility that we are responsible for naysayers, low morale, and unhappy people. The lack of trust is simply multiplied if the “unhappy” people that we have created are fired because of what we have made them to be. It is going to take time to build that trust again and we have to be the ones who do it by humbly accepting responsiblity for our past actions and then empowering associates and addressing their concerns. Then truly negative people will become obvious as opposed to naysayers. Then they can be dealt with on a different level.