Harnessing Negative Thinking... Positively
Jimena's team just sat down for an important brainstorming session. One team member, Amie, pitches an idea for a new product. Most of the team is quick to support her proposal, but Ian, the team pessimist, instantly criticizes it.
"That's never going to work," he says. "We don't have time to invest in product research, and the finance department won't approve the request anyway. We need to focus on something more conservative that has a chance of being funded."
Within seconds, Jimena can feel the energy and excitement in the room sink. In the rest of the session, the group fails to regain the momentum it had at the onset, simply because of Ian's comments.
This scenario may sound familiar if you have a pessimist in your team. Persistent pessimism can lower team morale, undermine promising new ideas, and slow a team's progress. However, in some circumstances, pessimists can bring unique perspectives and benefits to your team.
In this article, we'll look at how you can manage pessimists effectively, and we'll explore what you can do to harness the sometimes-unappreciated benefits of this personality type.
What Is Pessimism?
The word "pessimism" derives from the Latin "pessimus," which means "the worst."
Pessimism is the often-subconscious belief that undesirable outcomes are inevitable, and that hardships and setbacks outweigh the positive events in life. Pessimists can believe that unhappiness, disappointment and failure are normal, and that good events and positive feelings are the result of luck, chance or events outside their control.
Martin Seligman, a past president of the American Psychological Association, says in his Learned Optimism book that pessimists have a certain way of explaining adversity to themselves that affects their mindset. Seligman calls this their "explanatory style," and he says that this influences their entire outlook on life.
There are three dimensions to a person's explanatory style, according to Seligman. The first is "permanence." Pessimistic people unconsciously assume that the causes of bad events are permanent, while optimists believe that bad events are temporary.
For instance, imagine you had a bad day and had no time to help a colleague who needed your expertise. A pessimist might think, "I should never be friends with anyone at work because I'm a terrible friend." An optimist might think, "I was a terrible friend today." The difference is subtle, but it really matters for your outlook!
The second dimension is "pervasiveness." Pessimists make universal statements about their lives when something goes badly, while optimists make specific statements.
A pessimist might think, "All of the reports I've written are useless." An optimist might think, "That report was useless." Again, the difference is subtle. Pessimists take one negative event and allow it to turn their entire life into a catastrophe. Optimists recognize that they might have failed in one area, but they don't allow that failure to overwhelm other parts of their lives.
The third of Seligman's dimensions is "personalization." When we experience a negative event, we can think about it in one of two ways. We can blame ourselves for the event (internalizing it). Or, we can blame something outside ourselves (externalizing it).
Pessimists often internalize blame. They think, "This is all my fault," or "I'm too dumb to do this job." Optimists have higher self-esteem because they tend to externalize blame, thinking, "This is all John's fault," or "I haven't learnt enough about this skill yet; that's why I'm not doing well at this task."
Spotting a Pessimist
With this in mind, how do you spot a pessimist on your team?...