Project Management

Dealing with negativity: Stop naysayers from derailing a project

Negativity often stems more from personal interactions than from technical or business reasons. When an employee puts the kibosh on an idea in order to defeat a project, try identifying the source of negativity and treating the real cause.

 How many good ideas are never implemented because someone talks them into the ground? One naysayer on the team comes up with three or four very good reasons why the plan won't work, and nobody else can offer a convincing rebuttal. Even if they don't manage to kill the project outright, some other possible ill effects of negative thinking include procrastination, self-fulfilling prophecies, and even sabotage.

Rejecting negative thoughts is the second principle in a project management mantra that TechRepublic member tburkett shared with us a couple of weeks ago in response to a post that basically addressed the third principle (taking action and adjusting). Last week I wrote about the first principle of the mantra (getting started promptly), and this post rounds out the set by covering the second principle.

What do I mean by negative thinking?

I'm not talking about constructive criticism or the identification of constraints and potential obstacles that must be overcome. I'm also not advocating riding on unbridled optimism all the way to the project management equivalent of the Little Bighorn. I'm talking about objections that are specifically engineered to defeat the project. These are statements (however elaborately supported) that can essentially be paraphrased: "It can't be done."

Where do such negative thoughts come from?

Sometimes if you engage the naysayer in a nonoppositional manner, you'll start to hear phrases like, "We've been burned before, and we're not going to get burned again." Not getting burned is generally a good thing, so the negativity may come from benevolent intentions. But rather than trying to identify specific threats and how to overcome them, these people have generalized the danger to a whole class of actions to avoid forever.

One strategy for breaking down this resistance is to walk through each aspect of the threat: "We can't do this step because...?" Then separate it from the rest of the plan, and talk about other ways to accomplish the goal of that specific step.

Sometimes the objections are so strenuous and absolute that the best approach is to give the naysayer some rein. Affirm the negative thinking to the point that it becomes ridiculous. "Okay, I guess we just sit on our thumbs and wait for obsolescence then." After the laughter dies down and the red-faced naysayer replies, "No, of course not! That's not what I meant at all." Then you reply, "So what do you suggest we do about it?" Many naysayers like to be able to say, "I told you it wouldn't work" later on. Shifting some of the responsibility for the decision onto their shoulders precludes that option.

Objections don't kill ideas, people do

People use objections to justify their "ideacide." But objections can also be used to constrain and modify an idea without fatally injuring it.

Some people actively want to torpedo new ideas because they're happy with the status quo. As a consultant, you may encounter situations within your client's organization where project failure is politically expedient for some members. Often, you're regarded as the outsider, and your newfangled ways may pose a perceived threat to an employee's status. If you can identify the naysayer's motives, you can sometimes thwart their actions by actively engaging the threatened person and granting them a measure of authority over how things develop. Rather than taking the "I'm the expert" stance, try "I'm just here to help you decide what you want to do to meet your goals."

Negativity often stems more from personal interactions than from technical or business reasons. When that's the case, even a sound technical or business argument against it may prove unsuccessful. Instead, I recommend that you identify the source and treat the real cause.

Get weekly consulting tips in your inbox TechRepublic's IT Consultant newsletter, delivered each Monday, offers tips on how to attract customers, build your business, and increase your technical skills in order to get the job done. Automatically sign up today!

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

43 comments
Joe_R
Joe_R

They spread their poisonous venom throughout a team or organization, and bring everyone down with them. I try to avoid those people like the plague. And in interviews, any hint of negativity, and they go into the [i]NO[/i] pile.

bus66vw
bus66vw

I scanned the article and found this sub title "Objections don?t kill ideas, people do" and that ended my desire to read the article. So eliminate people and the problems go away. So do all projects.

mckinnej
mckinnej

Show them the door. It's a lot easier and faster than trying to win them over. You've got enough on your plate, no point in adding a "turkey" to the menu. Sends a clear message to the rest of the team too. The only time you should attempt changing a team member's attitude is when you have no choice (i.e. you don't get to pick the team members). In those cases you can try to woo them. If it doesn't look like you're going to win them over fairly quickly, go for a direct confrontation. That will typically shut down a bully. One last thing to consider is maybe that person has a point. If no one can come up with a good rebuttal, maybe your project is flawed to begin with. You might need to fix it or kill it.

reisen55
reisen55

I recommend Zig Ziglar's comments on salesmanship and negative reactions - in sales trade OBJECTIONS - are very very common and can easily mask a wide variety of other subjects. IT people are usually not versed in the finer points of sales. In a previous career in sales I can more easily relate to objections and very often they hide a deeper issue. These can be surprisingly personal and or business political if the objection is in a large organization. In small business consulting, I look at objections depending on my relationship with a client. If I have a straight-on relationship, an objection is more often than not a REAL one and I can either sideline the project or cast it into a different mold to accomodate the client. The latter is almost always the better approach. The client is giving you feedback, whether right or wrong but there is it is. Arguments are usually destructive. To use a military axiom, commanders do not directly assault a heavily fortified position and wind. See Day 3 of Gettsburg for more details. Flank the objection, go around it to a position where the argument is weaker and maybe not even valid, then you can re-cast your project in a light more acceptable to the client. High sounding words I know but they work. Be prepared with alternatives too. In sales it is common to have three such items with one of them being a total straw-man that can be easily shot to pieces, by intent. That leaves A and B with C now a total wreck. The client feels good having gotten his licks in with destroying project C and will then listen to projects A and B with an open ear. If you do it right, you can build the lesser alternative project as a front-end to your larger project. Do some of it today and the rest tomorrow and sometimes the "rest tomorrow" will become evident to the client after passage of time too. "Oh, you'll find out....." Zig Ziglar is a wonderful source of material. I have an audio tape, CLOSING THE SALE, that is great.

robin
robin

Students of leadership and peak performance have known for years that negativity is a trick our unconscious minds play on us. We are conditioned from birth by a disproportionately large number of negative, limiting messages. Our mind acts in accordance with what it's been taught, i.e., negativity. Moreover, saying "it won't work" enables us to be right, even when it's actually to our detriment. We think we're acting professionally and responsibly; but the fact is that our broken record response is the same regardless of the situation. Other people have learned not to believe the naysayers, both the individuals and entire communities, such as IT and other engineering-related disciplines. The irony is that many of those who most vocally claim something can't be done, and I've been the loudest voice many times, often then prove their lack of credibility by going out and doing it, often through Herculean individual efforts.

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

If you really want to find out what is going on you have to get feedback. Once you "deal" with people you end up getting that pasted on smile as the project goes down in flames, BECAUSE YOU SHUT DOWN YOUR FEEDBACK! I once watched a project go under because the project manager wanted happy faces. Since I have seen it often particularly in large corporations. Large, large projects.

niko.stas
niko.stas

is easier said than done. How would you go about this? For example, I had a project where I had to formulate advice on the renewal of the infrastructure. The resulting report was followed up by a business analyst. From the get go this person was thinking negatively and when I cleared up all the technical issues, having no more arguments to bring down the report for it's content, the person started ranting on the gramar and use of technical jargon in my technical report... So... was this person satisfied with a status quo? I don't think so, the concerning infrastructure was really outdated. So it must've been personal... but this person didn't see me, let alone know me, before the first meeting where they already were very negative. So they were pre-determined to make my job a drag, but why? jealousy? dissatisfaction with their job? How can you debunk things like that? Maybe it's just my face and i should have gotten plastic surgery to get rid of these negative comments? ;)

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Somebody who says you can't use MySQl because open source is for commies is trivial to deal with, unless it's the CEO. How do you address we need all twelve of you to help us put in a system where we'll only need four of you? How about we need your help over the next two years to rewrite the product in an up to date environment, but you won't be doing it. You'll be maintaining the old one. At which point you won't be needed as such and you'll be six years out of date? In that case, we got you can trust us, and it's for the good of the company. Didn't exactly work..... If you need buy in to succeed from people that your success will harm, blaming it on them being c*nts is a cop out.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Sudden Innovation Death Syndrome -- having been shaken too hard before it had a chance to develop?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Those who say no and look for a reason Those who look for reason why they should say no, and then say it. Careful which ones you bin.

reisen55
reisen55

"All progress begins with an idea." Registered trademark of Raymond Eisenhardt & Son, Inc. - my father's consulting company. An objection never killed an idea. If so, then not one new idea would ever exist because each and every new idea is met with a plethora of objections. Probably started with the invention of the wheel. Objections and ideas both come from PEOPLE, living reasoning beings. Some objections are rational and are of value. Some are then horrid and to be negotiated. A successful presentation can overcome most any objection. Have an open mind. Discarding an article because of a single heading is indeed an objection unto itself. And your computer did not type that message - you did!!!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... to do more than infer incorrect generalizations from a few words that you picked at random.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... most of us independents don't get to pick our team members at any finer-grained level than picking our clients. On your last point -- yes, even someone with evil intentions may provide insights. They need at least a smattering of truth to support their arguments. And you can't win them over by being dismissive.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I try to present all of the alternatives I can think of to my client. Perforce, these usually include a few that are pretty impractical. They make great straw men.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've often seen especially the technically gifted follow that pattern. Sometimes it almost seems like a conscious effort to cast themselves as the hero who marches in and saves the day. And sometimes it really is that.

metalpro2005
metalpro2005

And let me to think that there must be other motivators for this behavior than just the content of this project of change. Maybe the real motivation is that someone feels unappreciated or wants to say there is a huge gap between management and the people actually doing the job. Often specialists do not know how to address these problems so they concentrate on the negativity on the project content and not on the project's form. Dealing with these issues require leadership, management will not be enough !

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I'm not talking about constructive feedback here. I'm talking about those who have a motive to make the project fail. But you're right -- sometimes those who seem to be merely negative do have the best feedback. The trick then is to get and act on the feedback without letting them poison the project.

biancaluna
biancaluna

I would probably call this person and play up to him. Hey, how would you write this, do you have some time to fix up the document, I am a technical person, I could sure use your expertise in writing to get this through management. Sometimes people need to feel wanted and needed and valued. But then again it could be your face :) or your gender :) Sometimes the only thing that helps is a cricket bat. I have a project management tool like that in my drawer.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

A few months ago in an attempt at carving himself a better position, he proposed something very like what you did, but management didn't believe him, because he wasn't a consultant.... You were the management fall guy to take the flak for them f**king with him. I bet his report as less technical but grammatically correct. :p You've got to get the background, take the guy out for a beer, be sympathetic, defuse the situation. Sometimes there's just nothing you can do, but you've got to start by trying to put the other fella's shoes on. He went straight for your throat for 'no reason' , from then on you simply reacted. Maybe, who knows, perhaps he was just a c*nt.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... and the most important. Yes, it can be very difficult. I'm not pretending to give you a magic lamp that you can rub in case of emergency. I'm just pointing out the threat of negativity to hopefully make some of us geeks more aware. We often focus on only the technical merits of an argument, and we need to deal with the interpersonal issues as well.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

I would be heading for the door and another job.

AlexNagy
AlexNagy

I'm sorry, could you please restate? I didn't 100% understand the point you are trying to make.

biancaluna
biancaluna

I had a discussion with my project sponsor last week about what I dubbed the Emotional Black Hole in this organisation that nearly derailed my project. I had to bring it back from the trainwreck it was when I took over from the previous PM who chucked it in. What I saw: - Towing the company line is a foreign concept, there is no backbone in the leadership to encourage the One Voice - The business is afraid to let go of "secrets" - I was an outsider, spot on the money - It ain't broken - We should not be doing this, deliberate obstruction - Fear of exposure how bad the current state really is - But we've tried in 1969 and it failed - It will never work, nothing ever works around here -Sigh - But the new system does not solve world hunger nor does it wash my car or bake a pecan pie - We should wait until.... Seen it all. It is mostly about the fear of change. This is why I engaged a change manager and focussed a lot on the arm around the shoulder. But the sponsor did not have my back, he dropped me in a mess without support as he felt threatened, we were uncovering a big mess. Once we had a good honest heart to heart about this, we could move on. For stage 2, I am identifying the likely obstructive forces in the business and giving them ownership in how we turn things around. It might just work. If not, I will be the sacrificial lamb, yet again. Isn't that my job?

pwoodctfl
pwoodctfl

I was hired to improve a process....without offending anyone....or changing the status quo. At first, I was astonished that they would waste the money to hire me. It would have been funny if it were not so sad and frustrating for the last two years. But I was asked to persevere and I have. Instead of the sweeping changes needed, I have had to insert small changes that became such undeniably good ideas that the change has snowballed. Now, two years later, with some changes in management outlook and proven successes, I have the formal project that I was hired to do two years ago. The key to the turnaround was getting buy in and that means working as many people into your success as possible and spreading the credit around. Have confidence in your idea even when the others don't. A big idea can be a combination of several good ideas - so chop them up into baby sized pieces until the client can handle the scope of change. It is slow patient work, prone to setback, but if what they needed was a change agent who could get things done....not necessarily get them done quickly. The only comfort that I have is that the next generation of ideas is gaining sweeping acceptance with people trying to get on the "innovation" team, not trying to jump ship. I like my job much better these days, but that was two years of my life tilling the ground for innovation.

hlhowell
hlhowell

I have seen projects foisted off because someone had a "good idea", but that person was a sales or marketing type fresh out of college. They had something passed on to them in a course and they decided to implement it in the workplace. The school or group where they got the idea core said "This will improve the process by shortening the time of X." put your favorite piece of work in X. But X turned out to be the least significant bit of the task, so the effort, millions of dollars, hundreds of man hours, and other input went in to reduce about 10% of the 10% task, thus having a 1% overall effect. At the same time, as the implementation took place, it cost more hours in other areas, resulting in a long term loss of productivity of more than 3%. All involved got promotions or moved on. The company lost millions in value. I was a nay sayer in these projects. I was rebuked by the "good idea" gal/guy in each case. In each case I moved on. Their loss. Maybe you should listen and think about or at least discuss what the folks there may already know. Not all ideas are good or even useful, many are harmful. In fact, most are harmful, and only a select few are really good. Regards, Les H

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, good advice. At least as a first approach. If after a couple of beers he's still an a$$hole, then it's in his DNA and there's nothing you can do about it.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Some times the people you need to succeed are going to be binned by the success. I'm saying that the project will be attractive to management because of that manning reduction. Ridiculing the opposition in this case, no matter how 'silly' their objections, will just make you look even more of a c*nt, and guarantee you won't get the help you need.

Rastor9
Rastor9

The issue is if the project is designed to cut the technical staff necessary for the "client" by introducing new technologies, and processes you won't get much "buy in" from the local techs. It would be expected to get torpedoed by the "staff", if they knew that the successful consultant project would cost them their jobs. Company management would have to have tools and reviews in place concerning this potential sabotage, before I would take on such a venture.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

A very good point -- insisting that the project try to do too much can either kill it or drag it out forever. Just create solutions that each do one thing well, then put them together as needed. In the future, whenever someone tries to shoot down an idea because it doesn't do enough, I'll say "DNSWH".

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Sounds like you finally cracked the nut. Sometimes people mean well, but they fear change. Giving them only as much as they can handle shows great wisdom and patience.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You're certainly right that many projects are launched for the wrong reasons, and therefore do more harm than good. We should always question our assumptions about that. One good method is to go back to our basic goals -- what are we trying to accomplish here? And if someone provides a good reason why it won't work, then the next question is: how can we change the plan to reach our goals in another way?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Just getting it out of the work setting, coupled with a bit of "truth juice", you can find out all sorts of stuff. My first day at this job, they took me out for a getting to know you swifty, and I came backed armed with a lot of political and strategic background. Very useful, I don't like accidentally stepping on people's toes...

pwoodctfl
pwoodctfl

Before I take on an assignment, I try to find out what the plans are for the incumbents. If they have to stand around and watch their jobs evaporate, I pass the assignment by. When the current team has to "keep the lights on" while their jobs are being reworked, I try to have "lunch and learn" exchanges where the new guys on the block can exchange information with the team doing the maintenance effort. If there is training available to get them up to speed, I encourage it. Otherwise, I am working with management for some early decision about their ultimate placement/outplacement. For those who either cannot or will not retool, their fate is sealed.

biancaluna
biancaluna

9 out of 10 the naye sayers are not the technical folks, but scared business people and process owners. There are many books about corporate psychology, and what type of situations trigger the herd mentality to oust the threat. As a PM that is IMHO the cause of many project failures. This is displayed as politics, sabotage, fear of change but at the end of the day, typically it is not the technical complexity that has made some of my projects trainwrecks.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I've been the ushered out, I've even dodged being ushered out. It isn't good. Trying to do this sort of this is hard enough on paper. When success is presupposed on the usherees being stupid enough ( I mean company oriented and loyal, :p )to contribute to their own exit with a big smile. The last thing anyone on the recieving end needs is some smug git telling them it's for the greater good. The best you can do is accept you are doing them up the arse, and 'apologise' in anyway you can. Just try and look contrite while you are both pulling your trousers up, can't hurt as much as what just went on.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I try to avoid taking on projects that require the help of those being ushered to the gallows. It can't be good.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Aligning individual goals with company ones is a process fraught with ambiguity, so in the end it gets down to personalities and politics. I'll take money over praise any day, and when praising costs money....

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Although they're often necessary, they only increase resentment in my experience. Unless they're glowing, in which case they often diminish productivity by promoting smugness.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

overshadowed by "we can reduce our manning by 75%". Can you get on key player saved to ease the transition maybe, all of them not a chance. As you say plan on at least them being on jobserve all day, bogging off at seriously inconvenient moments and not setting anything except your memos on fire. Managemeny will be quite happy to put the blame on you, they'll be quite happy not to address the situation, and as long as you deliver the manning redcution, you will be a success. It's a sh1tty job, but someone has to do it. :(

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I've done a fair bit of industrial automation as well, that can put your shop floor boys out of work as well. Sabotage might be a bit strong, I'm mean if it was you who being asked to engineer yourself out of the door, if you could find a reasonable objection you would, wouldn't you. It's quite possible some of yiour reasonable objections might look a bit iffy as well. :p These are extreme cases, but they do highlight the problem. Basically you have three options, you can kill the plan, you can be prepared for sacrificing there input now or soon, or you can cross your fingers and hope they are dumbasses. Reviews and tools will help you manage the outcome, they aren't going to get you buy in.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

In my mind, one of two things needs to happen: 1. Make sure that there will be a useful place for existing folks in the new order. People are valuable. 2. If not, don't include them in the project. They will make it fail, or at least cause trouble. if they're expendable, do it now rather than later. My vote is for #1. If they're good people, you should be able to find a good use for them that will make them happier, too. They need to realize that trying to keep their job by holding onto the old order is not a good long-term plan for them, either.

Editor's Picks