Is being a pessimist at work bad for your career?

pessimist1Is the office coffee maker half empty or half full? Does simply ‘thinking positively’ help to achieve the desired outcome, or does being too upbeat remove your ability to critically analyze and learn from business and life situations? Does pessimism allow you to spot the obstacles lurking ahead in the distance?

In an article for The Atlantic by Olga Khazan ironically entitled ‘The Upside of Pessimism,’ she writes about the perks of being a ‘defensive pessimist,’ stating, “They come up with strategies to avoid having all of those bad things happen, thus ending up better-prepared and less anxious in the long-run.”

Defensive pessimists tend to strategize by managing expectations, along with thinking about what could possibly go wrong. This helps to not only avoid unwanted outcomes, but prepares them in case disaster does happen to strike.

Khazan also brings up an excellent point about trying to ‘force positivity’ on people. When employees feel pressured to act a certain way, they most likely either rebel or turn to pessimism by default. So if optimism doesn’t necessarily come naturally to someone, and they’ve managed to become a reasonably successful professional, they have likely managed to find another way to not only cope, but thrive.

In a piece by Richard Feloni for Business Insider, he discusses the age-old Stoic philosophy, as well as what he calls ‘practical pessimism.’

“To practice it, he says, “consider in full detail the worst-case scenarios in any given situation. Feloni goes on to cite Roman philosopher Seneca, who “taught his students to remind themselves that their loved ones would one day die. The thoughts may be dark, but they can allow you to appreciate all that you have without taking it for granted.”

Sounds like a certain level of pessimism leads us towards finding present happiness, rather than future happiness, which is more of an optimist’s game.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, psychologist Gabriele Oettingen believes that thinking positive is a bad idea. Psychologically, it “relaxes us and drains us of motivation,” according to Oettingen. For example, in one of Dr. Oettingen’s studies obese participants who thought positively lost 24 pounds less than those who refrained, and business students with positive fantasies missed more class and had lower grade averages by the end.

The positive psychology movement itself has a lot of fans and detractors. There are some real flaws with it as best outlined by Barbara Held in her paper “Back to Reality: A Critique of Postmodern Theory in Psychotherapy as she comments on the The tyranny of one size fits all and we must be happy no matter what our circumstances are.

Some optimism is necessary to lead yourself and lead others

As a leader you need to be aware of how your emotions can affect others on your team. Emotions can not only force coworkers and subordinates to view you in a different light, but can affect the overall decision making process.

Brent Gleeson, co-founder and CMO of Internet Marketing, Inc. learned all he needed about being an effective leader by his training to be a Navy SEAL. In, he writes that as business leaders, “when you are confronted with a potentially damaging change, take a few minutes alone, get the problem in perspective.” Gleeson continues with four important steps he’s learned in grasping hold of potentially difficult emotions: don’t panic, display unity, stay focused, and prepare now.

EQ: Positive or negative- you need to tap in

However, Forbes contributor Meghan M. Biro disagrees that emotions should be swept aside in order to be a great leader. Biro writes on tapping into your own emotional intelligence, and being able to read others.

“Great leaders understand empathy, she writes, “and have the ability to read people’s (sometimes unconscious, often unstated) needs and desires. This allows them to speak to these needs and, when at all possible, to fulfill them.” In addition to understanding your team’s emotions, exhibiting kindness, honesty and fairness to those who work for you all take a pinch of emotion.

As business leaders, we fall victim to growing stressed and feeling overwhelmed with the level of responsibility that falls on our shoulders. In order to avoid exerting unfavorable emotions to your workers, simply ‘letting go’ of certain tasks and trusting others can benefit overall office moral. Biro writes that, “too many people think leadership is about control.” “Look for ways to do your job and then get out of the way so that people can do theirs.”

Ultimately, we must rely on others to an extent, and have faith that their talents and abilities are the reason they are there. The opposite effect in displaying stress or negative emotions can cause employees to shut down, not perform to the best of their ability, and lose respect for management, thus lowering office moral.

How can you avoid displaying the wrong emotions? One way is to recognize what triggers you. Emotional triggers are nothing to be ashamed of, as we all have them. One important trick to remember is to not react immediately to a problem.
Wait until your brain can catch up with your emotions. Check out a list of the most common emotional triggers in this chart and note if any look familiar to you.

Sure, strategy could use a healthy dose of ‘deploy pessimism’ to guard you and your team from possible potholes, but Forbes claims that “effective long-term planning and investment requires an optimistic approach, with contingency planning by pessimists.” Hire both for your team! Be happy and have perspective as there are benefits.

But keep it real!

By Gina Scanlon