I am an optimist. Actually, I’m even further out the continuum—I’m a dreamer, a believer, a blue skyer. Teams benefit from a healthy dose of optimism, but let’s face it, optimism can be vacuous. What a great team needs is a few skeptics. You just have to be careful that you don’t wind up with cynics.

What’s Wrong with Cynics

Cynics are lazy. They’re wimpy. They’re all talk. Cynics knock you backward with the force of their opposition, but they lack the energy or curiosity to suggest a path forward. Cynics suck the life out of everyone.

I encourage you to be ruthlessly anti-cynic. Find ways to make your team’s environment unpleasant—even unbearable—for cynics.

While we’re at it, I might as well take aim at the optimists too. Blind optimism is reckless. It’s just as much a form of laziness and intellectual dishonesty as cynicism.

Unbridled optimism and unabashed cynicism are both signs that your team members are forming their opinions based solely on emotion. Optimism feels nicer because those emotions are positive, but optimism is just as unproductive. Business decisions need rigor, reason, and research. Neither optimists nor cynics make the effort to include those things.

What’s Great About Skeptics

Just typing the words, “What’s great about skeptics,” is hard for me. As someone who’s more likely to be optimistic, I have to work hard not to groan and roll my eyes when someone responds skeptically to an exciting idea with “not so fast,” or “what about.” But skeptics deserve our gratitude. They engage with ideas. They wrestle and struggle and refuse to be swayed until there is sufficient evidence to justify a plan. Skeptics spot holes and assumptions where risk would otherwise creep in.

Thoughtful, rational, fact-based skepticism is rare and valuable. Lazy cynicism (or lazy optimism) is cheap and plentiful.

Balance the Optimism and Skepticism on Your Team

So, what can you do to decrease the cynicism, increase the skepticism, and keep a sprinkle of optimism? Try these steps.

  1. Start by discarding the terms “optimist,” “skeptic,” and “cynic.” Labels for people aren’t helpful. Start talking about optimistic, skeptical, and cynical behaviors or statements. Make it clear that everyone is capable of behaving how they choose to in a given situation.
  2. Discuss the idea of intellectual honesty with your team and create your own ground rule around it. Etncourage the team to value both openness to ideas (optimistic behaviors) and rigorous challenging (skeptical behaviors). Articulate what cynical behaviors look like and write a ground rule against them (e.g., Avoid the flimsy ‘no’ ).
  3. Make room for emotional reactions to issues, just be sure to label them as such. “Ok, you’ve heard the idea. Let’s hear your initial reactions.” It’s important not to deny that we have emotional reactions to issues. It’s also important not to confuse those reactions with critical thinking.
  4. Shift the optimists toward a more balanced approach. “I’m glad you love the idea. What’s one aspect of it we need to strengthen?” “What have we not yet considered?” “Which stakeholders might be less enthralled?”
  5. Shift the cynicso toward legitimate resistance. “You don’t believe this will work. What’s one thing we would have to solve for to make it work?” “What would we need to study further if we were going to proceed?” “What risk are we not yet talking about?”
  6. Document three categories of issues. 1) Benefits of the approach; 2) Concerns we would need to solve for; 3) Risks we would have to live with.
  7. Use the second category from #6 (Concerns we would need to solve for) to develop your action plan. Determine what additional data you need to collect and what plans you need to develop to be able to make a sound decision, one way or the other. Set everyone off with their tasks.
  8. Return to the process and use the additional work to further populate category #1 (what other benefits did you learn about) and category #3 (what risks do you now anticipate that cannot be eliminated).
  9. As the decision maker, with the facts outlined in front of the team, make the decision. “Thanks for your input. With these benefits and these known risks, I’ve decided to proceed. This is the plan we now need to rally behind.”

Sometimes people who are skeptical about a plan come off as the bad guys. They slow things down and force otherwise superficial conversations into a deeper realm. Don’t let that happen on your team. When you hear shallow optimistic or pessimistic arguments, channel them into something more constructive. The balance will serve your team and your business well.

Further Reading

How to change a teammate’s bad behavior

Why you owe it to your teammates to disagree with them

Is ‘Success Theatre’ Masking Rot in Your Organization?