How to deal with the Idea-Trashing Coworker
“That’s not the way we do things”
“Who came up with this lame idea?”
“There are a lot of problems with this…”
Idea-trashing coworkers from Hell. They rarely have positive things to contribute, preferring instead to tell you why things are Bad Ideas or why they won’t work. And even when it’s not a direct comment such as the ones above, the sarcasm in their tone of voice can send the same message (“Oh yeah, the boss is just going to loooove this one…”). They aren’t fun to work with.
Idea-trashers don't think they're negative people
Oddly enough, your idea-trashing coworkers don’t perceive themselves as ‘negative people’. They’ll tell you instead that they’re ‘logical’, ‘rational’ or ‘critical thinkers’. They like to think of themselves as the voice of reason piercing through the mediocrity surrounding them. They don’t realize the damage they do to a company’s internal customer service.
For some, their negative behavior is part of their self-esteem defense mechanism. They are like bullies, putting other people down to make themselves feel superior. By positioning themselves in the judgment seat, they feel a sort of power position over the people they work with. Others have an intense fear of failure, and are just trying to avoid risk at all costs.
Whatever their motivation, one thing is certain – idea-trashers are experts in throwing cold water on hot ideas.
Get them to clarify themselves
There are a number of good ways for dealing with idea-trashers. Perhaps the best and simplest approach is with a series of questions that force them to clarify themselves, and contribute something positive. For example:
- Is the whole idea bad or just part of it?
- How do we fix the part that needs improvement?
- In what ways do the risks you’ve identified outweigh the benefits?
- Is there a better idea we should be considering?
These questions force idea-trashers to examine their objections and, in a collaborative way, to challenge their all-or-nothing thinking.
If you try this, and they continue to be negative, the last resort may be some gentle sarcasm with a question like, “So, basically we should stop trying to come up with new ideas altogether? Is that what you’re getting at?”
I am not generally a fan of sarcasm in the workplace, but it does have it’s place on occasion. In this case, it serves to bump idea-trashers out of their comfortable judgement seat — something that will definitely get their attention.
You may not enjoy the prospect of a little conflict, but if you don’t, things won’t change. Idea-trashers can’t differentiate between critical thinking and just being critical.