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?
- Pessimists are predictably negative.
- They often fail to appreciate others, and they rarely feel grateful or say "thank you."
- Pessimists regularly feel that others have wronged them.
- They can find fault in most situations or interactions, and things are rarely good enough.
- Pessimists often hold grudges, and they have difficulty letting things go.
- Pessimists tend to fear change, perceiving it as "too risky."
At first, pessimism might seem like depression, but the two are distinctly different. People who are depressed often feel discouraged or defeated, and can't explain their feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Pessimists, on the other hand, often have arguments to explain and justify their negative points of view.
The Drawbacks and Benefits of Pessimism
As a manager, it can be frustrating to have a pessimist on your team for several reasons.
Pessimists can be an enormous drag on team morale, and their negativity can quickly spread through an entire group.
They often shoot down initiatives, predict doom for new projects and sap energy from their team. They can also cause conflict, especially with team members who get defensive when their idea or project is "attacked."
Pessimists often have an external Locus of Control, meaning that they see themselves as victims of events. They believe that things happen to them, beyond their control, rather than as a result of their own behavior, hard work or skills. Because of this belief, pessimists often lack self-confidence and self-efficacy, and they might not be willing to take initiative on new projects.
That said, pessimism can offer a number of benefits. People who are pessimistic excel at anticipating problems, and they are often the first to prepare contingency plans to manage and control risks. As such, they can offer perspectives that the optimists on your team may miss or avoid.
Another benefit is that some pessimists' negative outlooks can actually help them perform better. This is called "defensive pessimism."
Defensive pessimists use negative thoughts to help themselves adapt to new situations, especially when they face stress and anxiety. They often set conservative goals, and look at a situation or project from all angles, listing the risks and possible setbacks. Defensive pessimists' low expectations and detailed planning give them a sense of control, strength and motivation that they need to perform better. This can make them resilient in difficult situations.
Research shows that when defensive pessimists are given time to analyze risks beforehand, they can channel their negative energy in a useful way to achieve positive results. Other studies conclude that defensive pessimists experience just as much subjective well-being as optimists.
Pessimists, especially defensive pessimists, can be just as effective and successful as the optimists in your team. If your pessimists are constructive and do not negatively affect the rest of your team, then it might be best to take a "hands-off" approach and simply appreciate the benefits that they can bring to the group.
Handling Pessimists on Your Team
Pessimists can drain their colleagues' energy, cause conflict and slow your team's progress, if their behavior is not handled appropriately. Use the strategies below to harness the strengths of your pessimists and limit their negative impact.
Acknowledge Their Point of View
Despite their negative or critical outlook, pessimists often have a valid point of view. Remember, they might spot risks or obstacles that the rest of the group misses in their excitement to move a project forward. Pessimists' analysis can save your team time, money and resources.
Use active listening skills, and give your pessimists time to explain their thoughts. Keep an open mind, and try to be objective about what they say.
If you think that a negative comment lacks foundation, ask your pessimists to explain why they think this way. For example, a negative statement like "this project will never be approved by the board" might be correct, but it's only useful if they explain why. You can also ask them what you or the team can do to avoid this problem. For example, you could ask "What can we do to make sure that the board approves this project?"
Another approach is to validate the pessimists' perspectives and then ask them for some positive suggestions. For example, you might say, "You've given us some good reasons why the board might not approve this project. What are some reasons they might say 'yes'"?
Say "thank you" to your pessimists for their input and analysis, so that they feel appreciated.
Bring the Impact of Pessimism to Their Attention
Some people may not realize that they're persistently pessimistic, and they may have no idea of how their attitude and behavior affects the rest of the team.
Sit down with your pessimists one-on-one, and explain how their negative attitude influences others. Cite specific examples, so that they understand the effect of their behavior. As part of this, you may want to use Role Playing to act out scenarios that show more positive and productive outcomes. These exercises can encourage your pessimists to develop more constructive ways of contributing to the group.
Reframe the Conversation
Many pessimists lack self-confidence, so they're quick to say "I can't…"
Work to shift your pessimists' attitudes by pushing them to look at how they could do something. For example, what resources or assistance do they need to accomplish a task? How can you help them?
These questions force your pessimists to look for a way forward, instead of simply making blanket, negative statements that hold them back.
Find ways to reduce the "fear factor" for your pessimists. For instance, ask them to explain why they believe a project won't work. Plot the risks they highlight on a Risk Impact/Probability Chart, and work with them to create contingency plans for the most likely factors. Your support will reduce their feelings of fear or hesitation, and the work that you do together will benefit the team.
Increase Their Confidence
Many pessimists fear failure. They shoot down ideas and initiatives because they're afraid that if they get involved, they won't succeed.
If you suspect that this is the case, focus on building their self-confidence. For example, work with your pessimists to achieve some quick wins with a new project, or set them up with opportunities that build their skills for an upcoming initiative. Express your confidence in their ability to meet this goal or objective.
When your pessimists achieve their goal, congratulate them and, if appropriate, share the good news with the rest of your team.
Next, work with your pessimists to beat self-sabotage. Ask them to write down their negative thoughts throughout the day. When they identify thoughts like "I can't do this" or "this will never work out," they can start to replace those negative thoughts with more positive ones.
Last, coach them to counter these thoughts with positive affirmations, such as "I can do this!" or "I know I have the abilities and skills to make this project work." You can also suggest that they use the ABC Technique to overcome pessimistic thinking.
Pessimism is the belief that undesirable outcomes are inevitable, and that the hardships and setbacks in life outweigh the positive events. While pessimists can drain the energy and excitement from your team, they can also provide important perspectives.
To manage your pessimists effectively, listen and acknowledge their points of view. Remember, they can provide a valuable perspective for your team, so thank them for their thoughts and ideas.
When they shoot down a suggestion, ask them to come up with ways that could help it succeed. This shifts their thinking and forces them to find a creative way forward.