Management Tip: Do You Have A Skeptic on your Team?

by Ben McWhorter

Is this person vocal and challenging to manage? And more importantly, does this employee have an uncanny ability to accurately predict the outcome of events before they occur?

This is the person that you pray is kind enough not to utter those dreaded words: “I told you so”– because he or she is usually right when predicting the outcome of a bad management decision.

If you have a person like this on your team, chances are that you have a valuable asset on your staff. If someone on your team fits the description mentioned above, instead of branding the person as a “whiner” or “pain in the ass” you could use this person’s talents to your advantage. (Yes, this type of skepticism is a talent!)  

For instance, if your company is fortunate enough to have the flexibility to make changes (without going through a congressional delegation or corporate bureaucracy) about personnel and marketing policies, this employee could be instrumental in helping you prevent future blunders. Many managers can be very good at specific tasks, however not all managers have the ability to anticipate the fallout from a management decisions. If a manager has a blindspot for this talent (which a skeptic possesses), it can put the manager in very bad situations. Seeing situations through the eyes of others is critical. This “other orientation” is not a talent that all managers have.

A trusted employee with strong skeptical thinking talents can be a tremendous complement to a manager’s decision-making.

A “skeptic” on your staff can prove to be invaluable in many ways. By playing the devil’s advocate role, this person can be added as a sounding board to help you attack an idea that may need “fine-tuning” or re-thinking before you actually put the idea into action.

Regarding personnel decisions, this skeptic can be a very accurate barometer for the entire staff and can present the “worse case scenario” to management when sensitive policy changes affecting personnel are being considered. If your company is about to change compensation plans, vacation policy (or other policies that are super-sensitive) bringing the skeptic into the loop can brace you for the reaction to expect from the staff. An example of how to use a skeptic:

“Bill, I’m thinking about enacting (insert policy here)… could you look this over and think about it, and give me your reaction to the pros and cons and how the rest of the staff will receive this change? This is extremely confidential for now, but I would like your candid and frank opinions after you look it over.”

While some managers may think this suggestion is risky, it is my experience that the risk is much greater to execute a highly sensitive and potentially explosive policy change without hearing a skeptic’s opinion.

I have seen many horrible management decisions over the years that have blown up in a manager’s face, with the beleaguered manager exclaiming afterward, “I can’t believe they reacted that way. I never saw it coming down like this.”

Personnel decisions are the most important decisions a manager makes, and mistakes cannot be afforded becasue of the high cost of employee turnover.

Even if you (as a manager) feel that a specific policy change will benefit your staff in the long run, it’s important to check the pulse of those impacted by the change in policy. What are their initial reactions? (Yes, initial reactions to any change are usually negative. But what are the underlying fears that cause the negative reaction?) Perception is reality, and regardless of the real reasons for changes in employee-related policies, the perception among those affected by the change will always be that “the company is making these changes just to save money.”

Although “saving money for the company” is not always a mutually-exclusive decision vis-a-vis ameliorating an employee’s work environment, many employees will think that it is mutually exclusive. They will also surmise that all non-management personnel will be the ones to sacrifice.

Important marketing decisions are also good to discuss with your resident skeptic. Using a skeptic that occupies a sales or customer support role can be invaluable. They know the frame of reference and mindset of the customer base. Before your company comes out with new sales collateral, brochures, advertisements, promotions, etcetera, it would be wise to let the skeptic attack them first. A skeptic who consistently interacts with customers can see the proposed changes through the customers’ eyes as well as through the eyes of the company’s management.

Many marketing ploys have no credibility in the eyes of the customer, so ferreting out the ploys that assassinate your company’s credibility is critical. If your staff doesn’t buy into the marketing strategy, then the promotion that appears brilliant “on paper” will fall flat on its face in the field. The first selling job that should be done with a new marketing foray should be done with your internal staff. If the staff can’t be “sold” on the idea, then you should see a huge red flag pop up. If the staff doesn’t buy it, there will be serious storm-clouds on the horizon with your customers. Bank on it.

Many companies make key marketing changes based on good customer research (which is ideal). If your company is smart enough to do this type of research, then the highlights of the research findings should be revealed to the staff (or at least to the trusted skeptic) so the “why” behind the new marketing strategy is understood.

Of course it’s easier (short term) to make a decision and just to force your staff to do what you tell them to do—but doing this will just wear you out while you brow-beat them into doing what you wish. This isn’t very smart. It causes resentment and morale problems.

There are several ways to get a specific mission accomplished, and in many cases the best method isn’t always the most obvious method. If I wanted to leave a specific location in town and drive to another location twenty miles away, I may choose one particular route to drive. You may choose a totally different route though. What matters is that we both get to our destination—and to arrive there safely.

There’s always more than one way to get to your final destination. As George S. Patton said “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” Having input from the staff ensures that all views are being heard and that the best options are being executed.

While many managers discourage keeping a vocal skeptic on staff, the more savvy managers welcome scrutiny from a skeptic because it can help improve internal and external business decisions. The most talented people tend to be vocal and opinionated (because they care). Why not use their input into key decisions?

Of course you can’t choose just anyone on your staff as your skeptical soundboard, but there are some key traits you may want to look for in a vocal and opinionated employee. Most important, you must be able to trust the person with sensitive information. (Just because a person may frequently disagree with you doesn’t mean that the person isn’t trustworthy.) If the person is objective (likes to use facts to back up his or her opinions) and has proven to have strong judgment history, you may have a candidate. This person may also stand out since he or she isn’t easily duped (when others on the staff are). For example, a good skeptical salesperson can tell if a client is duping them, while the more gullible sellers go for the fakes during every misdirection play that a client runs. Your skeptical soundboard candidate must also have a good history of predicting events before they unfold.

A good manager maximizes an employee’s strength. A skeptic with the right traits has a talent that can be used to your benefit—and can save you from making costly mistakes. That is— is if you recognize the person’s talent and to view it as a strength, and not a weakness.