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Engaging the Skeptics

Throughout life, we have all run into skeptics or naysayers about something we’re trying to do, whether it is at work or in our personal life. The natural tendency is to get annoyed and try to disassociate yourself from skeptics. Don’t do that in this case. When trying to implement sustainability, engage the skeptics early on. They are the ones who will identify the land mines on your path. And it’s better to find these out and figure out how you are going to address them before you get 80% of the way down the path.

Skeptics can be one of the greatest resources you can have with any implementation project or change initiative because they are the ones who have concerns, see potential hiccups, notice blind spots, and think they know what’s wrong with your idea. They might know the answers to the unspoken questions. And remember, not all naysayers or skeptics are ill-intentioned. As Terra Anderson is fond of saying, “The cynic is the one whose heart has already been broken.”18

Go to your skeptics and ask these questions:

  • What’s going to go wrong with this plan?
  • Can you think of something that would work better that will address your concerns? If not, who should be asked?
  • What has to happen for this to work? What would you do?

Then, repeat this process at every major stage of work flow.

As with all things, the key here is timing. You don’t want to engage skeptics fully and try to address all their concerns before you’ve even started, or else, in shipping terms, you might never leave port. The best time to engage them is when you are 20% in. This is where course corrections can be made easily before too much time and resources have been spent, and it allows for heightened engagement because they can help shape the effort. If you wait until you are 50% or 75% of the way there, it will require much more time and work to undo things, cost more, and be demoralizing to the people involved.

Find Common Ground

When you run into resistance, ask questions differently to find out what is behind their resistance, and try to seek common ground.

When we started working with one of our retailer clients, the sustainability director had cooperation from most of the people she worked with but not all. There were a few people who viewed sustainability as a distraction and therefore weren’t fully supportive. In a heart-to-heart discussion with these individuals, she realized that the sticking point wasn’t that they didn’t believe in the idea of enhanced sustainability across the company, but just that they were already stretched thin and were worried about how the costs were going to show up on their own department’s profit and loss (P & L) statements.

To alleviate this problem, she pulled money from her budget and used some of it to create an internal fund to support internal projects. Then she reached back out to one individual who had the greatest reservations about “this whole sustainability thing” and used that money to fund an energy-efficiency project for this individual’s line of business. It was a win-win for both of them and the skeptic was happy because it did not negatively impact his department’s P & L.

The result was that now they are working together and looking for other high-value projects where they can partner again in the future.

Group Discussion versus One-on-Ones

There are times when you are trying to get things worked out and you want all the decision makers and affected parties in the room so that there can be agreement. Realize that it is actually very rare when you need to have everyone in the room. Most of the time it’s best to have little side meetings offline, where you can work out the uncomfortable issues ahead of time and quietly rather than in front of everyone. If someone is showing true resistance, often it isn’t what they are saying in the big room that is the reason. There usually is something more fundamental that is bothering them—they might be afraid of being “on the hook” if things don’t work out right, and they don’t want to be the fall person. In these instances, rather than trying to convince them in front of everyone, try to meet up with them one-on-one and hash out the issues privately.

Sometimes an Outsider Works Best

If you cannot make any headway, sometimes a solution is to bring in an outside consultant or facilitator. They can do the research independently and provide a report to management or the skeptic. This can have a way of providing an opinion outside of the company that they haven’t heard from before. I’ve seen this be successful a number of times, because it changes the dynamic between you and the skeptic. It is no longer about you or your opinion; instead, the discussion can be about the report, what the expert said, and the information instead of the personalities involved.

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