In a recent Possibilities post called “Nobody Remembers the Naysayers,” my colleague Karen Strauss calls pessimism the kryptonite of innovation, and for good reason. Anyone aiming to invent the future gets nowhere by focusing on what can’t be done. Dream killers are easy targets. At some point we’ve all experienced the sting of their rejection — the coach who told us we weren’t fast enough, the teacher who said we’d never get it right, the boss who seemed to relish in our shortcomings. Our disdain for naysayers is real, and overcoming their rebuffs is a lifelong challenge. But there’s another powerful creation suppressant that’s less obvious but equally damaging to innovation and performance: the yeasayer.
Before we talk about how the yeasayer cripples the creative process and hinders achievement, let’s take a moment to define the term. Guaranteed, you’ve met yeasayers (aka “yes men/women”) before as they’re a common presence in most organizations. Picture the colleague who absolutely loves every single one of your ideas. All your cockamamie product development plans, your far-flung marketing strategies — they’re all “game changers.” Every single doodle or document you draw up is the best work you’ve done . . . well . . . since the last time you shared something with the yeasayer. Unfortunately, these performance sappers come in many forms, so it’s impossible to spot a yeasayer through visual cues alone. Title is an equally ineffective litmus test. Yeasayers often climb to the highest levels, despite their deceptively negative impact.
The yeasayer’s charm is undeniable. Who doesn’t like an ego stroke from time to time? There’s nothing like a passionate endorsement from a respected colleague to build your confidence. Win the enthusiastic praise of a whole team of yeasayers and you’re unstoppable. You’re on top of the world! At least that’s what you believe until you share your idea with an authentic, independent thinker. Then you find yourself at a crossroads. If you’re not totally entranced by the yeasayer’s pandering, you could wake up and realize your big idea’s a dud. Or, you could stumble deeper down the rabbit hole and dismiss the voice of reason as just another naysayer! Oh, irony.
Who cares anyway? Isn’t innovation all about perception? One person’s revolutionary is another’s banal. What if we called yeasayers “idea cheerleaders” instead? Would that make them less malignant (if not slightly more effeminate)? Here’s their essential danger no matter what name you choose: When everything’s “outstanding,” nothing stands out. The innovative stuff gets mixed up with the fluff, and you never know which ideas to run with and which to let lie. While yeasayers might be more pleasant passengers to have along for the ride, their potential to derail progress is just as high, or higher, than our old foes the naysayers.
Karen effectively bashed naysayers in her post; I’m hanging yeasayers out to dry. Who’s left? If you’re truly seeking to create something new and with value, surround yourself with a cast of passionate and opinionated characters who are as willing to get on board with a great idea as they are to identify its shortcomings. They’re not the easiest to work with, and conflict among them is inevitable. But if you’re effective, you’ll cultivate the chaos and together make something truly great.
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