Suppose you are an entrepreneur who is seeking start-up funding for a terrific idea you have. You do your homework and put together a solid business plan. Market research shows a lot of upside. Then you pitch your idea to a group of investors and hear the following observations, “I’m concerned that it would be very easy for a competitor to take this idea and run with it faster than you will.” Or, “you are projecting revenues to grow at a 25% rate per quarter for the first three years. Do you seriously believe this can be accomplished?” And finally, “your burn rate seems pretty low – in my experience a rate double what you suggest would seem more appropriate.” What do these statements and questions represent? If you said “skepticism,” you are correct.
Skepticism can be a healthy thing for entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs alike. In 1987, Ronald Reagan made his famous “trust but verify” statement about a treaty with the then-Soviet Union. This is a great guidepost for us where skepticism is kept in a positive perspective. Part of advancing new ideas is to have them challenged. A lot of questions are to be expected, many of which may be doubting in nature. This is good – if our ideas can survive rigorous scrutiny and we can provide evidence that is sufficient to prove our case, everyone wins.
There’s a very fine line between the kind of skepticism that is all about looking for answers or proof, and that which questions veracity or integrity. When others become suspicious of our motives, we’ve entered dangerous territory for now we’re on the border of “cynicism.” Cynics suspect that others are motivated by self-interest and at times exhibit varying degrees of paranoia. When cynicism exists in an organization it’s like a cancer. The attitude of a cynic is negative. I believe that cynics are related to Murphy – you know, the Murphy of Murphy’s Law . . . anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Cynics are often denigrating, disapproving, apprehensive, sarcastic, and like to run other people down. You can see why cynics and their cynicism are so unproductive for any organization or institution.
Let’s juxtapose the skeptic and the cynic in our previous example of the start-up seeking funding. I already provided statements and questions that might have been made from a skeptical point of view. Now, here is what the cynic might say. “This idea is unoriginal and doesn’t stand a chance to succeed. Why are you pitching this to us? I’ll bet you’re going to take our money; buy a few computers; have a big party; shut down your company, and leave us holding the bag!” Not one positive thing was said there. And all of the various cynical tendencies were on full display – sarcasm, suspicion, bitterness, paranoia, and disapproval. Sure this may be a bit over-dramatized. But the illustration shows the stark contrast that is important to understand.
We need to maintain a certain dose of skepticism lest we suffer too large a degree of naïveté. Skepticism can be difficult for some entrepreneurs. We are optimists and have powerfully positive mindsets. There may be times when we aren’t interested in looking at the downside of our ideas. That’s why it’s critical that we have people on our team who exhibit a higher level of skepticism. And we must give them permission to prod and probe while expressing their skepticism in a constructive manner. Skeptics serve the entrepreneur well as a counterbalance to wild, pie-in-the-sky unrealistic notions. On the other hand, we must constantly be on the lookout for cynics and eliminate them when they surface.
Embracing healthy skepticism helps to build a better and more sustainable organization. Denying cynicism before it takes root is equally important to the long-term success of whatever it is that we are pursuing.
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This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.