How Pessimists Keep Optimists in the Black
Here is a surprising insight: Optimists and Pessimists make very good business partners. Their apparently conflicting styles actually complement each other, and keep the team moving productively towards their goals.
We know this in part because we have seen the dynamic working within our own Bovo-Tighe group, but we also recently found great support for this contention through a post on LinkedIn by Wharton professor Adam Grant, which connected us to research done that identifies the underlying motivations of optimists and pessimists and how they can indeed complement each other profitably.*
It is important to note that the research focused on successful people who seemed to achieve at a high level even when exhibiting pessimistic traits. The researchers focused on two “personas” in their work:
The Strategic Optimist: Sets an admirable goal, and strives to get there, tackling issues as they arise. If you’re a strategic optimist, you envision the best possible outcome and then eagerly plan to make it happen.
The Defensive Pessimist: Sets an admirable goal, then sets about anticipating all the potential pitfalls ahead of time, not to discourage the project, but (in his mind) to make the project move forward more smoothly. If you’re a defensive pessimist, even if you’ve been successful in the past, you know this time could be different. You start imaging all the things that could go wrong.
The personas share a desire for achievement. Within that agreement, the optimist provides a driving energy, the pessimist provides a “stop, think, act” counterbalance that keeps the energy of the optimist focused and more productive.
Optimists vs Pessimists: Inherently Opposed to Each Other?
The reputations for optimists are “wild-eyed” and “out of control,” and for pessimists it could be “wet blankets” or “naysayers.” Both stereotypes arise from the superficial observations of their behavior. You can probably recount a number of instances where a dynamic conflict between optimist and pessimist played out in your workplace. But once you get beneath the skin and understand the motivations that are driving that behavior, you can validate and respond positively to each person’s motivations. This awareness removes the impediments to fruitful working relationships, and opens that door to complementary collaboration.
Optimists get excited about a new idea, and start laying plans to achieve it. They appreciate that there are risks that hurdles could arise to stop progress, but they are comfortable living with that risk, and do not consider risk a deterrent. The Optimist anticipates that a solution to each hurdle will be found, and gets started. Stress arises from a lack of progress, rather than a concern for potential pitfalls.
Pessimists are also energized by achievement, but exhibit a stronger aversion to risk, and their thoughtful, cautious approach is a manifestation of their desire to curb risk by anticipating and planning for problems that could arise. Stress rises for pessimists when they are forced to proceed without a well-laid out plan.
- It drives the pessimist nuts when the optimist forges ahead with initiatives without proper analysis of potential pitfalls.
- The optimist abhors the “analysis paralysis” that hinders action, and is comfortable dealing with all the pessimist’s potential issues “down the road.” And, if that issue never arises, time and energy have been saved!
“You never get anywhere if you don’t start,” says the Optimist.
“What happens if you get started down the wrong road? What a waste of time that would be,” counters the Pessimist.
- It drives the optimist nuts when the pessimist sees a failed initiative as says “I told you so,” with a long list of specific reasons for the failure “that the optimist should have seen coming.”
As Grant notes in his LinkedIn post: Pessimists perform at about the same level if they believe in the goal. They simply manage the process differently. It is this clash in styles that most frustrates optimists and pessimists who work together.
Once again, the solution is in awareness of what is motivating your co-worker, and a willingness to accommodate your own style to raise your mutual productivity. In other words, forge a better working relationship by meeting each other in the middle.
How does all this work in practice? Quite well, if the two principals involved come to understand each other’s motivations.
Consider a management consultancy with a powerful “rainmaker” who brings in a lot of clients. He or she is terrible, however, at actually launching the client engagement because the details of the commitment have not been thought through. The rainmaker’s “consigliore,” however, turns out to be a defensive pessimist who may not excel at luring in new prospects but is quite adept at anticipating all the issues that may arise between “yes” and “go,” and keeps the relationship-building on track.
Here are the critical mindsets to adopt to make such a profitable collaboration work:
- The optimist needs to understand that the behavior of the pessimist is not a condemnation of the optimist’s ideas or creativity. In fact, the pessimist is signaling his or her interest in the idea by energetically exploring the pros and cons.
- The pessimist needs to understand the optimist’s enthusiasm is an asset to the organization, and will keep the team engaged and action-oriented.
Each agrees to live with more stress than they would otherwise:
- The optimist accepts a slower pace that is still action-oriented.
- The pessimist accepts that every contingency cannot be anticipated, and lives with a little more stress about possible hurdles in the interest of faster progress.
Does this ring a bell with you? Can optimists and pessimists forge productive working relationships? Have you experienced this positive interaction with someone who seemingly doesn’t share your enthusiasm, but proves to be a tireless worker and advocate for your project?
* Defensive pessimism: Harnessing anxiety as motivation. Norem, Julie K.; Cantor, Nancy; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 51(6), Dec 1986, 1208-1217.