Almost every team has one: the resident contrarian who takes issue with every plan. They are the first to poke holes in new ideas and explain–in detail–why it’ll never work. Brilliant but negative, naysayers may also feel entitled to express their opinions, even when unwarranted.
This type of employee can be more than just annoying— it can also be disruptive. Chronic contrarians tend to slow progress and cause unnecessary friction that sends morale careening downward.
Take Brad (not his real name), a software engineer at a fast-growing startup. Being a highly critical thinker, Brad loved to debate everything from the colors used in new designs to the company’s business strategy. For a while, his manager, Laura, who was my coaching client, tried to welcome Brad’s dissent for the sake of creating a creative environment. She recognized that Brad’s strong opinions signaled that he was passionate about the work.
But as Brad increasingly shared passive-aggressive opinions with colleagues via chat, she grew tired of him always playing devil’s advocate. It was wearing down the team’s motivation and distracting them. The final straw came when Brad demanded to meet with the CEO because he disagreed with how the company was handling customer service issues. His pattern of critiquing had escalated to a point where it only served to waste people’s time and wasn’t contributing constructively.
It can be a challenge to manage a person like Brad. As a leader, you must balance encouraging healthy conflict alongside harmonious team work, collaboration, and cooperation. Here are a few ways to reframe naysayers’ passion and opinionated nature from triggering to helpful and positive.
When constructive criticism shifts to arrogant, denigrating communication, it’s time to set a boundary. Make clear what type of behavior is not appropriate and assertively say so. In Laura’s case, her first course of action was to tell Brad that his passive-aggressive Slack comments were not okay. She used the Situation-Behavior-Impact feedback tool to explain how his negative attitude and resistance was complicating the delivery on a high-priority project. First, Laura defined the situation (“Last week on Slack when we were finalizing the launch plans…”). She then described Brad’s behavior without making subjective judgements (“You shared a number of questions about features that we had already come to agreement on.”). Finally, she explained the impact Brad’s comments had on her and the team, from her own perspective (“I was surprised to hear your objections so late in the process. I’m concerned that the team has lost confidence in the project as a result.”).
Create a container
Next, Laura set expectations about the appropriate time and place for Brad to share his ideas and input. In their one-on-one meetings, she began explicitly engaging Brad in debates. Instead of instinctively resisting his suggestions, Laura started validating his concerns and thanking him for looking at their projects with a critical eye. She did what great managers do–empower employees to positively maximize their strengths and recognize their contributions through active listening.
Naysayers often fall into the trap of seeing situations in limited, black-or-white terms: Ideas are good or bad; directions are right or wrong. They fixate on trying to find the “right” solution, which is a losing battle because perfection doesn’t exist. Naysayers also tend to have a pessimistic explanatory style, meaning they see problems as permanent and pervasive. To inspire greater open-mindedness and optimism, engage your employees in solution-focused dialogue. Ask them to consider questions such as:
- Let’s operate from the assumption that we will be successful. How does that shift your perspective and ideas about what to do next?
Work on your personal relationship with conflict
Naysayers can be frustrating, but be careful not to demonize them unfairly. If disagreement makes you uncomfortable, you may be quick to shut down critical viewpoints. While this helps keep the peace in the short term, it deprives your team of opportunities for growth and innovation in the long run. Examine your own beliefs around opposition, feedback, and confrontation. Be careful not to internalize disagreements as a sign that you’re wrong or incompetent. Separate other people’s cynicism from your own self-worth.
Most of all, remember that conflict is a healthy, necessary part of any well-functioning team. When Laura began to set limits and create a container for Brad to express his opinions, their dynamic shifted. Brad started to feel like his voice was being heard, which lowered his defenses and opened him up to accept other ideas and viewpoints. Through the process, Laura learned about herself, too, and grew into a stronger manager.
Melody Wilding is a high performance coach and professor of Human Behavior at Hunter College.