They’re cynics. They’re gloomy. They’re sarcastic and grumpy. They focus on the worst possible outcomes. Everyone knows at least one. Heck, maybe you are one. What I’m talking about, of course, are pessimists.
When trying to differentiate between optimism and pessimism, we often hear that one sees the glass as half full and the other sees it as half empty. Let’s let the philosophers ponder that analogy along with their navel lint. I’d like to offer a more practical differentiation:
Optimists see the opportunity in every difficulty.
Pessimists see the difficulty in every opportunity.
And here’s another handy piece of information: There’s value in both viewpoints. (Hear me out.) We need to value the optimists or we’ll never move beyond the muck. But we need to value the pessimists or we might overlook potentially dangerous obstacles.
Here’s an example to illustrate: A number of years ago, while serving on the board of directors for a non-profit organization, I was consistently shaking my head at another board member who was totally negative. It didn’t matter what topic we were on, this guy would offer his morose, depressing opinion on why the idea was bad and how it was probably impossible to do.
A couple months later I approached the executive director of the non-profit. “Why do you have this guy on the board?” I asked. “Everything we talk about he shoots full of holes – he’s so negative!”
His response taught me a valuable lesson. “Every time he points out potential problems I know exactly what needs to be fixed so a project will succeed.”
Great insights. And I’ve adopted that philosophy many times since then. It’s not always easy, but it’s certainly possible—and even necessary.
Why? Because pessimistic people are a permanent part of the human race. Those familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and DISC assessments will know that some people are naturally wired to see potential flaws. That might be seen as a negative, but as co-workers, we have a choice: We can choose to criticize that tendency or we can choose to value it.
Having said that, let me also state that some people who are negative are not pessimists by nature. I believe that some people have chosen negativity—and have become addicted to it—because of significant people in their lives who are pessimistic. In other words, since our human drive is to “belong,” some people choose a downbeat attitude just to be accepted by other negative people and get a sense of belonging.
Regardless of whether pessimism is natural or chosen, negative people in the workplace often form their own groups. Such factions can be dangerous if a pessimist near the top of the organization becomes the lead naysayer among a horde of others. A de facto “department of negativity” is created that can not only prevent progress, it can even be damaging to people’s careers.
But Gary Topchik, author of Managing Workplace Negativity (great book, by the way), says that “knowing what people are negative about is the first step in solving the problem.”
Topchik believes negativity is often the result of a loss of confidence, control, or community. Fair enough, And I say those three things can be addressed by giving value to a pessimist’s viewpoint.
So how is it done? How can optimists benefit from the perspectives of pessimists? There are three important things to remember: A bit of patience, a methodical approach, and most importantly, a desire to do so.
First and foremost is the desire to do so. If we don’t want to learn from someone else, we won’t. Therefore, we need to actively look for the value in an alternative perspective.
Second, we need a methodical approach. We need to listen and understand intently. Body language is important. Shaking our head ‘no’ sends a message that we’re discounting their viewpoint.
When a pessimist is pointing out negatives, we can set the stage to move forward if we’re asking ourselves questions like “How can we use this information?” “How much time/money/effort is involved?” “How should I paraphrase his viewpoint so he knows I’ve truly understood?”
The last question is key, because people hesitate moving on until they’ve felt truly understood.
Finally, we need the patience to stay with our method of listening and paraphrasing. Again, people often resist moving forward until they’ve covered all their talking points, so rushing the process often just slows things down.
Bottom line, it may feel like a Gloomy Gus has nothing to offer but wet blankets, but if we stop and look under the blankets, we can often find out how to prevent stumbling in the future.