Carry the wounded and shoot the stragglers: dealing with cynics and skeptics

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 12-02-13

A question frequently asked of me is “what do I do about the people who won’t get on board?” This is too broad of a question, because there isn’t a single answer to the question, except “it depends.” What does it depend on? Primarily, the reason for people resisting is unique to them. Do not overgeneralize the cause and then you will not overgeneralize the solution. I actually recommend you take a bit of a lean approach. Take a look at the current condition:

Have they resisted other things or just this?
What is their history? Have they been a part of bad implementations before?
Are the people around them resisting? Is their boss?
Have they been engaged about other efforts? What was different about those situations?

Instead of just guessing and throwing tactics out in a random approach, seek to understand the specific cause of resistance and then develop specific countermeasures to resolve them. Two common reasons (but not the only ones) are that the person might be skeptical, or they might be cynical. Those two reasons are actually very different and require different solutions, yet here is the challenge: skepticism and cynicism sound very much the same. It’s hard to tell the difference between the skeptic and the cynic.

The cynic generally doesn’t like anything. A bright sunny day just means you’re going to get sunburnt and that it can’t last forever. One person described these folks as CAVE-men, meaning Citizens Against Virtually Everything. Logic isn’t going to win the day. Inspiration won’t. Peer pressure won’t even likely solve the problem. It is very hard to get the cynic engaged as they are indeed, against virtually everything. The cynics must be removed from the equation. Perhaps we remove them altogether, and if we can’t do that, we put them in a position where their voice isn’t so loud, and if we can’t do that, we make the voices of everyone else loud enough to drown them out.

In one organization, there was a team engaged in lean improvements. The team had several people engaging in new methods, tracking problems, and collaborating on solutions. One person, an informal leader with lots of experience who was often barking out orders, simply refused to participate. The new process elevated many of the people on the team to, putting it bluntly, people who had opinions and ideas. The thought of not having an exclusive grasp on the process did not sit well, and this person subtlety sabotaged the process at every turn. The process matured to the point where teams were put together to work on and develop solutions for some chronic problems. The cynical employee was not chosen for one of these teams, severing whatever lasting influence they had on the team itself, and allowed the rest to continue moving forward.

The skeptic is much different. They still have many negative comments, still give off resistant body language, and limit their participation. But there is a reason. They aren’t usually against the effort, but they are skeptical that we will do it right and be successful. They have specific concerns, and if you can get past the style of presentation, it is often very useful to understand (and of course resolve) those concerns.

For skeptics, I suggest a much different tactic. I suggest bringing them into the fold, often into leadership roles. This enables them not just to talk about risks and concerns, but actively do something about them. One organization had a “lean steering committee”, a name I dislike but can’t argue with its purpose. This team was made up of all of the lean zealots, deeply committed to lean and resultantly, sometimes blind to some of the problems in the journey. We removed several of those people from the committee since they would continue to be lean leaders anyway. We brought in some of the skeptics, who could no longer sit on the fence. While they lead differently than the zealots, they still lead, and the journey was better off for it.

So, we carry the wounded (the skeptics) and shoot the stragglers (the cynics). Not everyone who thinks and talks differently is your enemy. See behind the words, and engage. Lean is a journey of one heart and one mind at a time.