Dealing with Nay-Sayers


How do you deal effectively with nay-sayers? The executive branch manager of a large bank in California raised this question. One branch manager, who manages an office of 40 people, was unable to deal effectively with a couple of nay-sayers in her office. The executive branch manager told me: “Basically, whenever someone challenges her, she gets defensive and tries to explain herself. But it’s clear to everyone that she’s not confident about her message or what she’s communicating. I wish you could help her address it.”

I met with her a week later and told her what her boss had said. “Is this something you’re aware of?” I asked.

“Yes, and I know Bill wants me to stop doing it. But I think it’s important to address these negative people when they speak up so they don’t spread rumors around the office. Basically, they undermine everything I say.”

“Have you sat down with each of them one-on-one and told them directly and honestly how you see their behavior?”

“No, I try to do that in the meeting itself.”

“And how does that go?”

“It doesn’t go very well. I can see them tuning me out.”

“Have you considered deflecting it when it happens in the meeting – and then addressing it directly in person?”

“What do you mean by deflecting?”

“Not focusing any attention on them. After they say something negative, simply say: ‘Let’s move on to the next item on our agenda.’”

“Won’t people see that as a sign of weakness?”

“I doubt it. I think they’ll value the fact that you kept the meeting on track.”

“How do I squelch the rumors they spread?”

“On a case by case basis, you have to judge how best to do that. But I think your first task is to meet with them individually and give them feedback about their behavior. I would tell them that it is unproductive in staff meetings to be openly critical of anyone, especially their boss, and that their behavior has to change, starting now.”

“That sounds confrontational.”

“It’s what good managers do – they directly and honestly confront behavior that is unproductive and unprofessional. Until people know where they stand, you have no grounds on which to take disciplinary action. Which would obviously be the next step if this doesn’t work.”

“That sounds easy enough.”

“It is. Remember, you should deflect the nay-sayer in public and deal with them directly in private. Try that and see what happens.”

Post-script: A week later, I got a call from the branch manager. “I had the talk with both of them,” she told me. “They both said they weren’t aware that their behavior was so disruptive to the group. Regardless of whether that’s true, now they know where they stand with me. And I feel much more confident that I can deal with them in the future.”

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