Mistaking Negativity for Expertise
"There is a sophism built into our culture that the negative opinion is the more informed opinion."
These are wise words from my friend and colleague, Dr. Tim Sassen, who coordinates leadership seminars and research initiatives for the nationwide Jesuit Schools Network.
I think he's right. I see it in professional settings: class discussions with students, conferences, seminars, and staff meetings. But it's true in life outside of work, too. Dinner conversations. Happy hour. Standing in line at the DMV.
In every crowd, there is at least one person who seems to thrive on being negative--and in the process, being perceived as more knowledgeable. If he or she can be the lone voice of dissent, cynicism, or skepticism, even better. The contrarian stance seems all the more expert. There's more punch to the potential "told ya so." To be fair, I have to admit I've occasionally realized that I'm being that guy, and I've been grateful to the people who aren't afraid to tell me, in a loving but direct way, to shut up.
Of course, obviously, sometimes a contrarian is correct. Maybe he or she is more appropriately cautious. More informed. More experienced, qualified, and credentialed. Certainly, critical thinking is a valuable skill, and a willingness to question assumptions or predominant opinions is a vital leadership quality.
But just as often, this isn't the case at all. Rather, this negative person only seems to have the real story, or seems to be an expert. Because we often default to the assumption that the negative or contrary opinion must be more informed. It's important to remember that this isn't always--or even usually--the case.
In the worst cases, this behavior has little to do with substance and far more to do with bolstering a fragile ego. It's the manifestation of one's need to be the smartest person in the room, and to ensure that everyone else not only knows it, but also acknowledges it.
The good news is, it becomes apparent quickly as a pattern, which makes it easy to predict. That makes it manageable, or at least tolerable, with the right degree of patience among people of good will.
The real trouble starts when the professional contrarian achieves a post of power, whether formal or informal, and combines actual expertise with pathological negativity. Then, the impact on any type of community can be truly insidious.