Approximately a million years ago I was called as an Activities Chairman. And a very wise bishop said, “Just remember; the peas are always cold for somebody at the ward dinner.” We laughed, and then laughed again when it turned out to be exactly true: There will always be complainers and negative thinkers.

We find them in our committees, too, often shooting down our best ideas and spreading a damp blanket over the enthusiasm we tried to drum up. “People won’t come to that.” “This sounds like a lot of work.” “They did that in my uncle’s ward and it was a disaster.” “Sounds boring.” “Sounds expensive.” And we sigh. Why do these people even come to our meetings, if all they’re going to do is poke holes in our hopes?

I remember once, in a Primary Presidency, when I turned the rolling chalkboard on its side so I could draw a long, vertical pathway on it to help with a Sharing Time message. How creative and cool, I thought-those kids will never forget the time the chalkboard went from floor to ceiling. What an attention grabber! But one sister walked in and hit me with a barrage of negative comments. I don’t think we’re allowed to do that. I think the rowdy boys will try to run right up that pathway. Now the kids will think we can turn over the chairs, too!

I’ll be honest. I wanted to say, “I think your mom is calling,” and get her to leave the room. I felt the same way 35 years ago, when I told some women that chocolate-dipped strawberries would be the next craze, and they all gasped and wrinkled their noses simply because they’d never heard of such an idea.

And we’ve all been there. I’ve watched bishops present wonderful suggestions only to have various advisors point out one reason after another why the idea won’t work. We sigh, we almost hear the whoosh as the excitement gets sucked from the room. And we wish these folks would get on board and stop being such pessimists.

But I came across a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek that has given me a whole new perspective on these critics. Columnist Megan McArdle makes the point that naysayers are vital to our plans, and maybe we shouldn’t shout them down so quickly.

From the folks who raised alarm about space shuttle Challenger’s O-rings, to a consulting firm that warned of disaster in an Oregon health care program, to staffers warning CBS about forged documents Dan Rather used to claim George W. Bush had gone AWOL, she points out that these Voices of Doom often get ignored, or even ostracized for going against what she calls “Groupidity” – the groupthink we engage in, which makes us take crazy risks simply because everyone else in the room agrees.

And yet, if we would only listen to the detractors, we might learn something. We certainly don’t want them to kill every project, but they can be highly useful in telling us everything that could go wrong. Like the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park, a little Chaos Theory can avert a Scout Camp calamity, a Choir catastrophe, or a Dance Festival disaster. These folks could even have the assigned role to look for potential trouble spots, and keep us informed. Sometimes we need the pushback crowd as much as we need creative innovators, to maintain balance and keep us from galloping off the cliff. We can weigh their concerns and still choose whether to go forward or not, but at least we’ll be making informed decisions instead of emotional and social ones that may or may not succeed.  

And often, it isn’t that the naysayers are simply negative personalities; maybe they have legitimate experience that we should heed. They’ve often learned the hard way that most people really are afraid of public speaking, or that most class members don’t read the material in between Sunday School lessons, and they’re trying to save us disappointment.  

I’m certainly going to see these folks in a whole new light, next time we’re on the same committee. I’m going to listen and consider their views as possibly the most valuable ones in the room, instead of begrudging their gloomy outlooks. Just as wise presidents have surrounded themselves with advisors who will typically disagree with them, it’s a smart move that can steady the ship and ensure clear sailing.

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