In defense of the skeptic

If scarlet letters existed in the business world, the letter would likely be N for Negative. The workplace prizes the can-do attitude, so skeptics risk their necks (and sometimes literally risk their jobs) when they pipe up too many times with “We can’t do that” or “Should we really do that?” In our 9 types of Collaborators quiz, one of the most feared results is “Skeptic” (right up there with “Dinosaur”). The quirks of, say, an oversharing Socialite or a pedantic Taskmaster are typically construed as healthier or, at the very least, easier to overlook.

My own recommendation? Cut your Skeptics some slack. They bring value to the table – and can certainly be just as committed to your company’s success as your more consistent cheerleaders. Obviously, we’re not talking about the toxic coworkers who shoot down everything; that’s not even skepticism, that’s just laziness or rudeness. Skeptics look to improve the ideas on the table – or to advance ideas of their own.

“Anecdotal evidence and personal testimonies generally don’t meet the qualifications for scientific evidence, and thus won’t often be accepted by a reasonable skeptic; which often explains why skeptics get such a bad rap for being negative or disbelieving people,” writes Brian Dunning, host of the popular science podcast Skeptoid.

I studied writing in college – and while this recent Onion article hit a little too close to home (ironic sidenote: one of my many points of pride in my alma mater is that it’s the birthplace of The Onion), there are lessons from writing workshops that directly translate to business. The primary one: it seldom hurts to have your ideas critiqued and battle-tested. I mean, it can hurt your feelings, but it doesn’t hurt the power of the idea itself. After a (hopefully constructive) attack, you can see more clearly whether to scrap, revise or forge ahead exactly as designed.

Skeptics can also be powerful allies. In the collaboration space, we’ve certainly seen examples of skeptics transforming into enthusiastic champions. Voicing questions and concerns today can save headaches down the road.

The occasional dash of pessimism can even help your own productivity, as Dr. Julie Norem, author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, points out: “Defensive pessimism—thinking specifically about what might go wrong—can turn anxiety into action.”

This may all sound like I took the quiz and am going to great lengths to defend my result, but I’ve actually never tested as a Skeptic (I’m either an Expert or an Executive). During the course of my career, though, I’ve witnessed a few bad or impractical ideas get a reprieve because a company’s culture frowned upon skeptics while shying from confrontation and embracing can-do platitudes. Maybe your 5-person startup will become the thing that takes down Google or Facebook. Dream the impossible dream, et cetera. Just don’t tune out the person raising her eyebrow; she’s here to help.

Adam McKibbin
Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.

4 Responses to In defense of the skeptic

  1. Mark Fordham

    I used to see the skeptic as an impediment. Now I see them as a positive influence and even a challenge. Get them on board, and everyone else will follow.

  2. Trey

    I tested out as a skeptic … but I question those results.

    But seriously, skeptics should be good defense from group-think or even ivory tower management. Don’t think of skeptics as nay-sayers but more of a the devil’s advocate. I love new tools (and am probably most often their champion) but you always have to find the skeptic inside of you and make sure you are choosing the right tools the right reasons.

  3. True, skeptics can be annoying especially if they are going against your personal opinion. However, they sometimes do have a point and it sometimes pays to hear them out and consider their side and then interpret it in your own way.

  4. Krystal

    The thing to remember about skeptics is that they don’t remain skeptical forever. Once the evidence is presented and evaluated, they will either dismiss your idea completely or wholeheartedly get behind it. If you can win over a skeptic with a truly brilliant idea, their support will be invaluable.

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