Coach’s Corner Blog

Dealing with NoNos: Confronting Negativity That Destroys Productivity

June 26, 2015 by Leave a Comment


I was discussing change management with a client and I referred him to an excellent book on the topic, A Sense of Urgency, by John Kotter of Harvard. (Kotter, 2008)

An important idea that Prof. Kotter introduced was the difference between Skeptics versus NoNos, those folks in an organization whose resistance to change of almost any sort can reduce the needed sense of urgency to confront serious issues.

These can often be very bright and capable people who have had considerable success and have been admired, but they are locked in to ways of doing business that may be less relevant than in the past.

Here are key signs of NoNos:

  • NoNos are not concerned with the past except as ammunition to shoot down the need for nearly any change today;
  • Don’t really want data but hides this fact in public. Keeps demanding more and more proof that any new action is needed;
  • Very selectively chooses information to suggest no action is needed. Is never open-minded;
  • Usually is very active out in the open or behind the scenes. Can be highly disruptive. (Kotter, 2008)

In my discussion with my client, he mentioned that it would be very useful to have an effective method to limit the impact of NoNos.

This article will highlight suggestions from Prof. Kotter as well as others.

What NOT to Do

  1. Co-opting the NoNos: Co-opting means to cause or force someone to be part of your group movement or project. Regardless of what they say, they’re not just skeptical or still willing to examine the data objectively. They’re not inclined to listen with an open mind and they will not accept majority opinion. They have learned methods to delay action, make study groups not function well, and to aggressively use other disruptive tactics, often unconsciously. As a result, critical time is lost. (Kotter, 2008)
  2. Ignoring the NoNos: If we purposely leave them out of the group because of our fear of them being major distractions, they can create anxiety and undermine any new determination to exploit opportunities and avoid hazards. They can create an active resistance and diminish any urgency to deal with the current challenge. Instead, your energies are channeled into winning the war between you and the groundswell of negativity the NoNos have had the opportunity to foment. (Kotter, 2008)

3 Solutions for Dealing With NoNos

Prof. Kotter mentions three effective solutions for dealing with NoNos. The first two are often difficult to make happen, but the third is challenging but usually doable:

  1. Actively distract the distractors: Put them on an assignment away from the action. We are not talking “make work”, but an immediate challenge they are skilled at. Timing can make this tough to use.
  2. Push them out of the organization: If their behavior is unhealthy or counterproductive, consider this, but only as a last resort.
  3. Expose their behavior: In ways that allow natural social forces to reduce or stop it. You must call them out on their behavior, but resist a “public shaming” unless the behavior is egregious and in a group. This will be explored next. (Bourg Carter, 2014)

Establishing Ground Rules

If a team member is a NoNo or chronically negative, critical, and condescending, it’s natural for other team members to begin to feel unsafe about sharing ideas and frustrated by the lack of productivity that comes with constant derailments. (Bourg Carter, 2014)

The leader of the team must act to protect other team members and productivity of the team. To accomplish this, it is never too late to reinforce or just establish Ground Rules for the way teams operate productively and issues are debated and resolved. These are the rules of the road that will better illuminate NoNo behavior.

Here are some examples of Ground Rules I’ve used while coaching teams:

  • Showing respect for others’ opinions;
  • Offering constructive criticism of an idea or a plan, but not being critical of fellow team members;
  • Asking for clarification of a proposed idea or plan, especially before launching into any concerns about the idea or plan;
  • Acting, both individually and collectively, in a manner consistent with the guidelines or by-laws that govern the group (assuming they exist);
  • Offering a thoughtful rationale for their ideas or any concerns they may have about the ideas of others instead of just proposing or rejecting ideas;
  • Engaging in behavior that is courteous and cooperative. (Turcotte, 2012)

Once these ground rules are presented, you should get each team members’ commitment to work within these parameters. This way, when you call a NoNo out on their behavior, it is not usually going to be construed as a personal attack but more a reflection and reinforcement of group norms.

Unfortunately, NoNos are a very resilient sort. 

Having a private face-to-face meeting with the toxic NoNo may seem uncomfortable, but it needs to happen in order to get the person back on the right track.

Letting such disruptive and divisive behavior continue in group meetings will not only shake the confidence of the group and affect their productivity and momentum, it also will reinforce and enable the NoNo’s negative behavior.

The conversation should be polite, but direct, using examples of behavior as necessary to make your points.

Here’s what you should try to avoid in the meeting:

  • Avoid comments about the person’s character. Instead, focus on their behavior. “You” statements (e.g. “You have a problem…” or “You need to stop criticizing everyone…”) tend to put people on the defensive. Instead, use specific examples of behaviors that go against the established ground rules and how those behaviors affect the quality of members’ interactions.
  • Avoid telling the NoNo what he has to do (unless you have to). Once you present the basis for your concerns, ask the NoNo for help in solving the problem (e.g. “How can we work this out?”). If he comes up with reasonable solutions, get his commitment to use those solutions in future meetings. If he is unable to come up with any ideas, take this opportunity to remind him of your expectations for how team members should behave during meetings, then ask him to commit to following those guidelines in future interactions with team members.
  • Avoid emotion. Keep your voice at a normal level and your tone even. If you’re asking someone to behave respectfully toward others, it’s important that you behave respectfully toward him. (This may seem obvious, but toxic NoNos can push people’s buttons like nobody’s business, causing normally calm and controlled people to lose their tempers. Make sure you don’t fall into this trap.)
  • Avoid defensiveness. This is not about you, and any attempt to make it about you should be redirected to the point at hand. If you find yourself feeling or becoming defensive, this should serve as a cue to you that the naysayer has succeeded in making the conversation about you. Turn it back to where it needs to be—on his inappropriate group behavior.
  • Avoid engagement. If it’s gotten to the point where you need to have a face-to-face, it’s not a debate. It’s giving the person a chance to recognize that he’s not playing nicely with others and to correct that behavior.

If after all of this, you still can’t reach a common ground and the person is unwilling to comply with the ground rules you’ve set, you should strongly consider asking the person to remove himself from the team. If that doesn’t go well, escalate to the top dog.

In almost every organization, there is someone with higher authority. If the toxic NoNo in your group is not responding to any of these interventions and has become so divisive that you feel that you have to take drastic action to protect the integrity and emotional safety and well-being of your team members, then go to the top.

First, your boss may have ideas that you may not have thought of, and second, if you’re trying to move someone out, it’s best (and sometimes necessary) to have the support of your boss. (Bourg Carter, 2014)

There is nothing easy about dealing with NoNos, but it is a critical part of your role as a leader. So ask yourself:

  • Am I clearly aware of NoNos in my organization, as opposed to healthy skeptics or those who productively play the role of devil’s advocate from time to time?
  • Do we have team norms that can serve us well in differentiating the behavior of NoNos?
  • Am I willing and able to confront NoNos in a group or individually?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Bourg Carter PsyD., Sherry. 2014. “Taking on Toxic Naysayers: Team Leader Strategies for Dealing with Toxic Negativity” Psychology Today, May 16, 2014.

Kotter, John P.  2008. A Sense of Urgency. Boston, Massachusetts. Harvard Business Press.

Turcotte, Roger. 2012. “Managing Negative Naysayers on Your Team”. Leadership Insights Post: Empowering Leaders to Excel.


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