The Six Constructs of Skeptics and How to Engage Them to Support Organizational Success

by Tom Larkin

Engagement happens in the most unlikely moments with the most unlikely people. Every organization has them: those who question everything, voice doubt and demonstrate apprehension. These "skeptics" are often negatively regarded as uncooperative, pessimistic or difficult. Amidst these characteristics, however, is incredible underlying worth that is often overlooked or undervalued.

Skeptics—or cynics—are inherently suspicious of human goodness and sincerity. Whether through experience or predisposition, these employees have adopted a unique intellectual attitude that lends them to critical thinking and perspectives that are often contrary to the majority. When change is implemented or new initiatives are started, these people analyze strategy and outcomes and form strong opinions. The value they can offer an organization lies in their perspective and their influence.

Before harnessing the value they can offer your organization, we must fully comprehend why they are of value. We can do this by closely examining the constructs of a skeptic:

  • 1.  Skeptics are analytical. George Patton, a United States Army general famous for his leadership during the second world war, once said, "If we are all thinking alike, someone isn't thinking." This speaks loudly to the first valuable characteristic of a skeptic. As soon as they are introduced to a new strategy or concept, their mental gears start turning. They do not accept direction or instruction as is—they pick it apart. In doing so, they realize boundaries and challenges and come up with questions and suggestions.
  • 2.  Skeptics are not naïve. They are experienced and exercise their judgment with ease. And, it shows up in the form of sharp questions. And when sharp questions come, it can put people on the defensive and appears judgmental. However, it can be a style issue and not necessarily an intended judgmental question.
  • 3.  Skeptics are highly influential and often vocal. They share their ideas with others. Sometimes they do this openly, by raising complaints to management or asking questions during large meetings. Other times, they do this quietly by sharing their thoughts with a few coworkers in a break room. Regardless of how they spread their opinion, other impressionable employees will hear their perspective.  
  • 4.  Skeptics are investigative. Their analytical nature prompts their curiosity. They will research past policies and procedures, look up other companies' approaches and informally interview other employees to gain critical knowledge needed to piece together their opinions. Often times, their investigative work peaks above and beyond what was done by management teams in preparation for the launch of a new initiative.
  • 5.  Skeptics read through the lines. They recognize spin and manipulation when it is being used and understand real motives behind work.
  • 6.  Skeptics value progress. They generally adopt the viewpoint that progress is a challenge but is very important. This said, they focus their attention on initiatives at hand and want to help work towards the right goals.

Knowing how a skeptic thinks, we can start to evaluate how he or she can add value to an organization instead of being a source of frustration or negative attention. When it comes to driving organizational progress, there are three main ways skeptics can be of support for success:

  • Skeptics can help proactively identify gaps or issues in preparation for initiatives. They can help clarify potential pitfalls of ideas because they are highly attuned to the intricacies of an organization's complexity. For instance, they may say something like, "If just a few go through the training program, it may be cheaper; but if more people are trained from the get-go, it will create efficiencies that will save the company money in the long run. It's worth the investment."
  • Skeptics can offer authentic insight as to what other employees think. They are often willing to share sentiments that others won't risk vocalizing. This can help uncover blind spots and reformat work to gain more engagement. For instance, if workload is high during tax season, skeptics might point out that others are complaining of being overwhelmed and would prefer to be trained at a more convenient time.
  • Skeptics can be influenced to serve as an ambassador for important initiatives. When organizational leaders take the time to engage with the skeptic by truly listening to his/her concerns and opinions, they gain respect and support. Working together toward an optimal solution positions the skeptic to help positively promote the work, similarly to a satisfied retail customer who is highly likely to share news of their outstanding shopping experience.
Dharmesh Shah, founder and chief technology officer at Hubspot, a company that develops and markets software-as-service products, has consistently relied on skeptical colleagues to help propel innovation at his business. He writes, "Skeptics temper the enthusiasm—often in a good way—of the instantly enthusiastic and in the process often apply a level of analysis and rigor that transforms a good idea into a great idea." The success of his business further evidences the idea that every team needs at least one skeptic.

Tom Larkin is president, CEO and co-owner of Communico Ltd. and has more than thirty years of experience as a consultant, coach, facilitator and business owner. He is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® and is also a part-time professor at Fairfield University.
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