Friend or Foe? Decoding the Role of Workplace Pessimism

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Harnessing the Power of Pessimism in Leadership and Team Success


Most of us know that pessimists can be a challenge to deal with in the workplace. As a leader, you need to manage pessimists by coaching them to see other options and helping them to reflect on the impact they have on those around them.


Challenges and Benefits of Pessimism in Teams


While pessimists can be a challenge to teams and leaders, there are benefits of having them on your team. The book, “Step Up – Lead in Six Moments That Matter,” provides leadership insights about pessimists that hadn’t occurred to me. Teams can benefit from having a pessimist.


Leadership Insights: The Unseen Value of Pessimists


And, the recent death of Bob Ebeling, a NASA engineer in the 1980s, is a good reminder of the power of pessimistic views. He and his team of engineers could not convince others on the Challenger team that the O-rings were at risk of failure. In the end, the Challenger exploded and killed seven astronauts shortly after launch.


Case Study: The Pessimistic View That Could Have Saved the Challenger


So what can those pesky naysayers provide that is helpful to your team? They can decrease future risks. If your team is filled only with highly optimistic team members, you could be exposing yourself to three risks.


Decreasing Risks with Pessimistic Perspectives


Making unsound decisions. Many optimistic teams find themselves not addressing critical issues in a timely manner because they avoid difficult conversations. Pessimists inherently look for the problems more than the solutions. They are the ones who will see a problem and won’t hesitate to share it with you and your team.


Hearing only agreement. Pessimists are good role models for those who are “yes men”. As a leader, if you only have team members who agree with you, you are being set up for failure. You can’t possibly know all the solutions, nor should you. Pessimists can provide others on the team with the permission to question you as a leader when you manage a pessimist effectively and value their input.


Being unprepared for the downside. Optimism often equates to the belief that everything will result in a positive outcome. Yet that isn’t always the case. Pessimists, if heard and valued, can alert a team to risks that will require a Plan B. Optimists often fail to have a Plan B because they believe they can control all the elements within Plan A.


Optimism vs. Pessimism: Finding the Balance for Team Success


Now that I’ve convinced you that a pessimist can be a valuable part of your team, you need to remember that they should be managed differently than your optimists. As a leader, you need to ensure that pessimists be heard and their opinions valued, yet an opinion or concern should only be stated once. Rehashing the same concerns over and over is a waste of time and energy for everyone and decreases productivity.


Effective Management of Pessimists in the Workplace


Remember the story of Bob Ebeling. When a pessimist voices his concern, don’t be dismissive but facilitate a discussion about his concerns with your team. Gain insight from other team members about what they think of the pessimist’s issue. If the team believes that the concern is manageable, then the concern should not be discussed again.


Thank your pessimist for sharing his/her perspective and then get them to agree that it does not need to be brought up again. Should it be brought up again, remind them of their earlier commitment to the team. On the flip side, if the team believes the issue requires further attention, your pessimist has decreased your risk moving forward.


Managed properly, pessimists can be a benefit to your team by decreasing risks and increasing the rate of success. They deserve more credit than they are probably receiving.

By Beth Miller


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