Leading Skeptics and Believers

CANIf you are a leader you will face skeptics.

They are the people who will dismiss ideas rather than offer ideas of their own. They will respond to “how can we?” with “why we can’t”. They will question actions planned and judge actions taken. They might even question your motives.

The bad news is that skeptics usually make up the majority.

The good news, however, is that most skeptics actually want to get on board.  While they may not believe you or believe in you just yet, they want to believe.

Their challenges and questioning can even help you hone your ideas and make you a better leader.

However, skeptics won’t get on board because you tried to prove yourself to them.  In fact, the more you try to prove anything to a skeptic the more likely you are to reinforce their skepticism.  For many have “heard this before”.  Leaders before you may have tried and failed or promised and never delivered.  Experience may have given them good reason to be skeptical.

It’s not your fault, nor is it a problem you can fix.  So beware of the temptation to prove the skeptics wrong.

The best way to overcome skepticism is to deliver results, or at least show enough meaningful progress to give the skeptics room to say “maybe this is really possible”.

Show the skeptics the way to the future rather than try to tell them what could be.  Give them a reason to choose to believe that “things just might be different this time”.

In his article Proving the Skeptics Wrong, Seth Godin says this:

“Instead of working so hard to prove the skeptics wrong, it makes a lot more sense to delight the true believers. They deserve it, after all, and they’re the ones that are going to spread the word for you.”

That advice applies to leading an organization, too.  Seek out the “true believers”.  Focus on those who are already committed to the same future as you because they are the ones who will do the hard work to prove that which they already believe to be true.

To the committed success is a foregone conclusion. Find the true believers first and you might just create something the rest can actually believe in.


Enter A Comment

Soul   |   12 July 2013   |   Reply

Aloha Susan, as always, your posts – refreshing, clear and spot on.

Over the past 35 years, I’ve come to learn skeptics simply enjoy attention. The more attention they receive based on their ‘volume’ of skepticism – the more validated they feel.

Your post awakens the powerful community organizing concept of ‘building stake ownership.’ No matter how valid the cause, if there’s reluctance to ‘own’ a person ‘stake’ in that cause – no matter how successful they issue becomes, there’s an inverse relationship to success and support. I find it fascinating to watch skeptics become even MORE skeptical as success builds. Skeptics seem to enjoy endless ways to impose ever-increasing demands.

When I encounter a skeptic, I smile and say or write “thank you.” Then I ask, ‘how would you do it’ or ‘what’s your solution?’ If a skeptic lacks the desire to offer their solution or different way of ‘doing it’ – then I know they’re in need of simple attention. I ponder just how much attention will suffice before they discover their skepticism is counter productive.

Susan Mazza   |   16 July 2013   |   Reply

Thanks so much Soul! Appreciate your insightful comments.

There are certainly some skeptics who seek attention with their skepticism. Although anyone who gets more skeptical as success builds is more likely a cynic – someone who just wants to see the project fail. In my experience these are the outliers and success often drives them out of the organization.

I love you approach to dealing with skeptics – “give them the ball” so to speak. At some point they might just run with it! This points to what I think is a key principle for dealing with skeptics – engage them rather than try to placate them. Trying to keep anyone happy or satisfied who isn’t committed is not worth the energy as you point out.

Jon Mertz   |   13 July 2013   |   Reply

Agree, Susan. It is going with your strengths. In this case, our strengths are the believers. Gaining momentum through making it all work is the best way to ignore the skeptics and do what matters most. Thanks! Jon

Susan Mazza   |   16 July 2013   |   Reply

Great insight Jon – those who are committed are a strength organizationally.

Tempella Guernsey   |   16 July 2013   |   Reply

True! Often I’m expected to spend lots of time overcoming objections of skeptics, & they rarely come around! I’d much rather focus on believers.

Susan Mazza   |   19 July 2013   |   Reply

Thanks for “weighing in” on this Tempella! While I focus first on the believers I am always open and hopeful that the skeptics will join in. The good news is often they do after they see real commitment to progress.

Annette   |   28 July 2013   |   Reply

This is excellent! It is almost defies our logic sometimes to build on our strengths or in this case our believers. A great and impactful reminder.

ravi mehrotra   |   19 September 2013   |   Reply

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