Embracing sceptical people

I was talking to some people once about enabling change, and one of them asked a very important question: How do you manage the sceptics?

Whenever we embark on some programme or mission of change there will always be some sceptics. And although that is superficially annoying (“Why can’t everyone just do what I say?!”) they are actually very important people. If they are very small in number, and if they are not very influential, then perhaps sceptics can just be ignored or circumvented. But in every significant change programme I’ve been involved with that is not the case. These people are real, they’re significant, and they cannot be avoided.

This actually reminds me of a talk I saw some time ago by Chris Young and Kate Gray about learning lessons from political campaigning. They spoke about the need to segment your audience, identify the “soft opposition”, and work hardest to convert them. They are the people who both can change and can make the crucial difference.

For those of us working for change in organisations the sceptics are the people who test us the hardest, and force us to improve our approach. They ask hard questions based on real experience, real concern, and they test the weakest elements of our plans. By engaging with them and responding we are forced to listen carefully, rethink our language, our tone, and our promises, and (most likely) adjust our plans and proposals. The result is that our plans and proposals are stronger, more achievable, and better supported. Our chances of success increase significantly.

On some occasions I’ve found myself on a change board or in a coordinating group with those very sceptics. They are “inside the tent”. In all those cases the result has been much better. They are asking harder questions all the time, but we find ourselves on the same side—they want the same success—and they typically know (and are trusted by) a whole new group of people who might otherwise not have been reached. So by working together we have more success, faster.

In short, sceptics are important and valuable people, and need to be embraced.

Photo by Michael Coghlan

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