Spetner: When in doubt, take the first step back

It's much easier to point out challenges and obstacles after you've built rapport with management.

I just finished a three-month project working with a colleague who felt compelled to point out what was wrong with virtually every idea that was raised during our time together. To say this guy was a piece of work is an understatement. If you looked up negative Nancy on Wikipedia, there’d be a picture of him.

He wasn’t content just to pooh-pooh new ideas. He preferred to offer myriad examples of how similar approaches had failed in the past, why the organization would never react positively, and which constituencies would oppose the project. He loved to prognosticate on the internal opposition we could expect.

Since he had neither a filter nor an off button, he would often enumerate the flaws of various coworkers, and explain how each of them imperiled the success of our project.

Working with him was like carrying a 25 pound sack of weights. He sucked the energy out of the room like a black hole.

I found myself dreading future meetings with this guy because he transformed each interaction into a struggle. After working with him for 90 days, I couldn’t imagine what life must be like for people who suffer with him on a continuous basis.

Actually, I could imagine it, because every place I’ve ever worked at had a version of this guy.

One memorable colleague at a big financial services company was so dour, people would often take turns imagining her response to an idea. We would then attempt to imitate her negative tone and expected verbal spew.

A colleague who worked in the finance department at that company saved a voicemail from this woman that began with the memorable phrase: "You asked for feedback on your cost reduction memo? Well, I’ve got some feedback." She then proceeded to lambaste the poor man over the inanity of his suggestions. He often shared this voicemail to cheer us up when we were feeling down.

I contrast these downers with a different colleague who has the opposite energy. Her first step is always enthusiastic. She seems to look for paths to success no matter how preposterous the challenge. Even when it’s an idea she has deep reservations about, she expresses excitement before initiating a discussion about the feasibility of the project. Needless to say, I’d much rather work with her than with my grumpy downer workmates.

I’m not alone in my feelings. I learned early in my career that senior management responds to enthusiasm and optimism much better than pessimism and negativity. That’s not to say management only wants yes men, but it desires commitment and excitement along with objective thinking and analytics.

If you’ve ever played the outfield in softball, one of the things you’re taught is, "When in doubt, take the first step back." This means if a fly ball is hit your way and you’re not sure if it’s going to land behind or in front of you, the first reaction should be to take a step backward — it’s easier to make up ground in front of you than to backpedal.

Similar advice could be given when dealing with the C-suite. Your first reaction to a suggestion by management should be enthusiastic. It’s much easier to point out challenges after you’ve built rapport.

And nobody likes hanging around a black hole.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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