The toxic naysayer. The person who seems to enjoy raining on everyone's parade. The one who never has met an idea he liked. The type who seems to savor spewing out a dozen reasons why the team's plan is not going to work, yet is unable to come up with a single reason why it will.
If you've gone through life without ever encountering one, count yourself lucky. If you've had the misfortune of having one on your team, then you know first-hand how destructive this type of person can be to the group's momentum and success. Without effective strategies for dealing with such people, your smooth-running team can quickly become derailed. But how do you derail a derailer? And how do you do it in a way that doesn't bring you down to their hostile, insenstive, and negative level?
It's not an easy task by any means, but it can be accomplished by implementing consistent strategies that focus not on personality change (that is an extraordinarily difficult feat to accomplish even for the most skilled of therapists), but instead on behavioral changes—on your part and on theirs.
Know one when you see one. In his blog on toxic negativity, the late Bob Artner of Tech Republic makes an important distinction between naysayers and toxic naysayers. He points out that having a naysayer in a group is not necessarily a bad thing: "All of us occasionally have a bad day, or even a bad month. We all grouse and complain. It's human nature, and a little negativity isn't a bad thing—it keeps us honest." Moreover, as one of Artner's readers mentions, it's often the job of problem solvers to find problems with ideas to best ensure that the solutions that are finally settled upon are going to be effective. However, toxic naysayers are not occasional complainers nor do they constructively challenge ideas with the intent of making the ultimate solution better. Their perspectives are perpetually negative, their commentary destructive, hurtful, and nonproductive. In fact, their ongoing critcism, cynicism, and negativity can single-handedly bring down a group, leaving a string of casualties along the way. As Roger Turcotte, an author and keynote speaker on leadership writes, team members who are "constantly second-guessing or criticizing ... will not only create enormous frustration in the life of the leader and in that of other group members, but can also seriously disrupt the team's ability to work."
Listen. Don't fall into the trap of automatically dismissing what a toxic naysayer has to say. First, this will likely make her even more vocal in an attempt to make sure that her voice is heard. Second, not only is it possible that she will raise a valid concern from time to time, but by summarily dismissing each and every issue she raises, you will actually give credence to her argument that no one in the group ever wants to hear possible faults or errors in their thinking or logic. If she raises an interesting or valid point, it should be thoughtfully discussed. However, if the group consensus is that her point has no relevance to the issues at hand or has no significant merit, politely say so and move on to more productive ideas, suggestions, and commentary. If that doesn't nip the behavior, advise her that her position is a minority of one and that the group has to move on; however, if she had additional concerns, she can put them in writing and send them to the team leader for further review and consideration.
Put the ball in his court. If an interesting or plausible idea is being tossed around by the team and the toxic naysayer begins a doomsday rant (e.g., "That's never going to work"), don't give him a chance to spew negativity by asking him why it won't work. Instead, ask him for ideas that will make it work. This serves to (or at least attempts to) bring him into the circle, so to speak, and encourages him to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. If he isn't able to come up with any positive ideas or suggestions, yet the rest of the group is, at least he can't legitimately argue that he wasn't given a chance to be a productive part of the discussion.
Don't take it personally. Chronically negative people usually have deep-seated issues that have led them to be the way they are. Sometimes it comes from insecurity. Sometimes it's the result of unresolved personal problems. Whatever the cause, toxic naysayers have learned to be critical of just about every idea that anyone cares to share, which is the key evidence that it's not personal; it's universal. So when you're feeling personally attacked by a toxic naysayer, take a step back and ask yourself how can this possibly be about me when she's never met an idea she's liked? The reality is that it's not about you. Trust me on this one. It's about her. Taking it personally will only make you feel hurt and/or angry, and responding from a place of hurt or anger usually does more to escalate the problem than to de-escalate it.
Don't get sucked in. Let's face it. Toxic naysayers can make even the most mellow team member want to strangle them. They are pros at sucking team members into an unproductive debate, knowing that the longer they can keep you engaged, the longer they're able to deliver their harangue. After all, what's the best way to keep someone engaged? Tug at their emotions. Once you allow the naysayer to pull you down to this level—the level where you're so angry or frustrated that you want to jump into the ring and throw a few punches of your own—the battle is over. He's won. Instead, use what I call psychological jujitsu. Don't respond with emotions. Respond with logic and facts. Keep the conversation focused, short, polite, and rational. If the group doesn't find the naysayer's position to be relevant or valid, offer counterarguments and ask for a group consensus. Repeating yourself over and over just gives the naysayer the opportunity to repeat himself over and over, causing everyone involved to become frustrated, disillusioned, and emotionally exhausted.
Practice. Effectively dealing with a toxic naysayer takes skill, and honing a skill takes practice. Since you know the naysayer's MO, there is no reason to be unprepared for the next crisis she's going to create in the group. In fact, I suspect you can fairly accurately anticipate when, where, and how it's going to happen. So be prepared. As Lifescript blogger Jennifer Gruenemay writes in her article about dealing with difficult co-workers, "When you're unprepared, you're likely to react instinctively to your anger and annoyance with childish behavior that accomplishes nothing. This will only succeed in making a bad situation worse." Instead, Gruenemay suggests that you practice how you will respond before an inevitable encounter. You can do this by playing out the anticipated conflict in your mind, or by role-playing with a trusted friend. In fact, you should try out a few responses to see which one is most likely to effectively resolve the issue in the most efficient and rational manner possible.
Establish clear boundaries. Although toxic naysayers tend to come off as disrespectful to just about everyone in the room (another way to know it's not personal), it doesn't mean that their behavior has to be tolerated. Each of us have different thresholds of tolerance—things that we're okay letting slide off our backs and things that we're not. For some, that might be a raised voice. For others, it might be name-calling. For still others, it may be violations of your personal space. Whatever it is, make sure to speak up if you're uncomfortable with the direction that your interaction is taking. You don't have to be rude about it, but you should be direct and clear. For example, you might say, "I don't mind getting into a discussion about our differences of opinions, but name-calling isn't acceptable to me. I'd appreciate it if we could keep the conversation civil and polite." Sometimes, simply calling people out on their behavior will make them realize that they crossed a line and the inappropriate behavior will stop.
Don't inadvertently reinforce bad behavior. Toxic naysayers are often so pushy, obnoxious, and persistent that many people grow weary of the constant arguments and eventually give in. Well, forgive the Psychology 101 lesson, but each time you give in, you're inadvertently strengthening the toxic naysayer's intermittent reinforcement schedule. Remember the experiments with the rats pushing the bar to get a food pellet? Well, toxic naysayers don't always get the proverbial food pellet when they push people's buttons, but over time, they've learned that the more they push, the more likely it is that they will eventually wear people down and get that tasty morsel. Unfortunately, intermittent reinforcement is one of the hardest reinforcement schedules to extinguish. So be careful! Each time you give an inch, it just makes them push harder. If what the naysayer is trying to advocate for or against is bad for your team, then no is the answer. The moment you say, "That's an interesting idea and at some point in the future we might ..." the bar pushing is going to launch into high gear. So be strong. Be consistent. And no means NO.
Good luck! And remember these wise words of Eleanor Roosevelt - No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
In Part II of this series, Taking on Toxic Naysayers, I offer advice specifically for team leaders who want to prevent and/or contain the damaging effects of toxic naysayers on their teams.
© 2014 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved
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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout
(Prometheus Books, 2011).