Each one of us knows that one person—at work, or in our personal lives—who finds nothing we bring to them good enough. Their superpower is being critical. It’s not that they are always wrong in their criticism. Often, their discerning eye and high standards are valuable, even necessary, to get us to raise our game. However, a critic’s scrutiny and rejection can also be tiresome and annoying, especially in everyday work, when the scrutiny is not accompanied with suggestions for improvement. Or worse, when it comes without the optimism (and faith) in the potential for things to improve. People can also (mis)use their challenger status as a power trip to show how smart they are.

On the other side of the spectrum are “collaborators" who actively encourage and invite solutions, and are open to suggestions, but don’t probe and push you to think. In the pursuit of collaboration, or towards achieving a conflict-free work dynamic, they avoid the inherent tension that regular and charged debates bring.

Yet, for modern professionals, who work in jobs and industries ridden with ambiguity, chaos and change, these two seemingly opposing attitudes are fundamental to success and growth.

Let’s call this combination—the golden mean between no-debate and ceaseless criticism—a way towards becoming “constructive challengers".

Constructive challengers are people who are passionate, empowered and eager to engage in discussions, but do so with a spirt of optimism, camaraderie and a commitment to moving things along, and not becoming roadblocks.

First, is the ability to challenge. Critiques push group thinking “outside the box", identify gaps in data and logic, and force reflection. It’s necessary for problem-solving and decision-making—really, the two crucial things we do wherever we might work—in a way that an easy consensus never is.

But, when you challenge, question or dissent, it’s equally important to ensure your opposition isn’t driven by emotion. Worse, don’t fall into the trap of being the default devil’s advocate every time. It’s easy to lose credibility when you are always the one to say “doesn’t impress me" and “low-quality".

People truly appreciate your interventions when you also suggest smart alternatives and a way forward. Or, better still, try to come up with a solution or offer to work on the solution, at least. And, when you don’t have answers, acknowledge that you don’t really know of a better solution than the one being presented.

We’ve seen this in our careers, and especially in consulting assignments. Once a young professional learns the ropes of problem-solving, they almost become ninjas about it. They suddenly discover inquiry. Because it’s a newly-acquired skill, they are excited about asking a lot of questions—often, because they begin to believe that being critical is the only way to demonstrate intelligence.

Being constructive challengers isn’t a mandate for individuals alone. Smart organizations will actively foster it because it is the starting point for innovation and rejuvenation. A culture that creates an expectation to disagree and where individuals feel safe to speak up in front of superiors, without being judged or ignored, creates immense positive energy.

Yet, don’t just challenge to show how smart you are; help find answers if you want to be respected.

In the bright and driven project team we currently lead, pilots and prototypes are pulled apart routinely—often, mercilessly. This scrutiny is an asset for the goals we have set for ourselves. Yet, we consistently also have to drive the point and encourage our colleagues to visualize, imagine and anticipate opportunities and potential.

To throw out and reject developing and emerging ideas can be as dangerous as zero feedback. A first draft and first cut is never perfect. Pointing out that something isn’t perfect, or even good enough, might be useful, but isn’t helpful when it comes to getting things done.

Being constructive challengers then, is much the same balance that you need between rigorous analysis and an action bias; or, between scrappy jugaad and researched perfection. Or, for that matter, between getting started and utopian launches; between being a revolutionary thinker who balances the urge to disrupt and recreate with a pragmatic focus on finding solutions that are viable, doable and realistic.

Art of Work focuses on extreme choices in the workplace and offers suggestions on how to find the doable middle ground. Pramath Raj Sinha has founded several higher education institutions and Shreyasi Singh is an author who now works in higher education.

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