Sun | Sep 23, 2018

Naysaying - The Enemy Of Progress

Published:Sunday | July 10, 2016 | 12:00 AM

The three letters 'B-U-T' have derailed many progressive initiatives. Many worthwhile projects have been derailed and opportunities lost because of negative responses. I want to examine some of the reasons for naysaying and steps we might take to overcome it.



A lack of vision is perhaps the main reason people fail to support an initiative. People get bogged down by their own experiences and are challenged to look beyond those limits.

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

- Thomas Watson, president of IBM, 1943

"Television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night."

- Darryl Zanuck, executive at 20th Century Fox, 1946

Sometimes people don't get it and respond negatively. This calls for patience. We need to resist the temptation to condemn their lack of vision and to lament their 'backwardness'. Moving the process forward requires a totally different mindset.

We need to humbly recognise that we also lacked foresight with respect to some innovations. Step back and patiently pull together as much evidence as you can muster. Where evidence is not available, draw similarities (parables) from known activities to explain the initiative. We might also have to rely on the power of referrals and endorsements.



Fear is another reason for naysaying. The proposed action comes with some risk, and fear prompts resistance.

In this case, our focus needs to be on marshalling and presenting the facts. Identify and evaluate each risk factor and demonstrate how they can be mitigated. This action will actually strengthen the initiative, so we should welcome those who demand more detailed answers.



Jealousy and other selfish factors also encourage naysaying.

This is trickier to handle. The resistance may be more skilfully camouflaged and the true source of the objection obscured. A general rule is to be as inclusive as possible with your initiatives. Give active consideration to all stakeholders and their needs. Also, if you develop a reputation for supporting others and their progress, you may create an environment in which the success of any collaborator is celebrated as our own.



Competing interests is the 'biggie'. This initiative will make your department advance faster than mine and put you in a more advantageous position to get the promotion for which we are vying. This spirit of negative competitiveness has inspired not only naysaying but costly sabotage and undermining.

Traditional approaches favour the erection of protective defences-like being secretive or hiding true intent. Counter-attacking is another strategy.

At the heart of this problem is a scarcity mentality. This is the thinking that life is a large zero-sum game, which means that your gain can only be to my loss. Consequently, effectively overcoming this kind of resistance requires a fundamental shift in the psyche of stakeholders. People have to grasp the concept that there is abundance in the universe and by collaborating effectively all parties can achieve more.


Generic Plan

Overcoming naysaying requires us to put into action a combination of these five imperatives:

1. Count the cost. What is at stake? Gains/losses.

2. Provide the facts. Shed light, not heat. Respect raised concerns.

3. Recruit allies. Sell the concept to trusted people with clout at the outset.

4. Be courageous. Don't shrink in the face of challenge. Bravely pursue your valid goals.

5. Persevere. Recognise that this could be a long slog. Be patient and unrelenting.


Take away

We do need some element of caution as we navigate life. That is required to keep us on an even keel. Not every initiative will produce positive results.

However, too many of us are wed to naysaying and outright resistance to change. Reflect on your response to new ideas and see if you are often guilty of naysaying. Be open-minded!

If you are faced with naysaying, do not be discouraged or side-tracked. Apply the five imperatives. Push forward and make a difference.

• Trevor E.S. Smith is a behaviour modification coach with Success with People Academy home of the SHRM-accredited Certified Behavioral Coach. Email: