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pessimism in the workplace
A staircase of wooden blocks with words on each step from bottom to top: "I Won't Do It, I Can't Do It, I Want to Do It, How do I do It?, I'll Try To Do It, I Can Do It, I Will Do It, Yes, I Did It!" Used with permission.

Always borrow from a pessimist—they never expect to get it back!

Optimism and resilience are key leadership characteristics. I read somewhere that you won’t see any statues erected to honour pessimists because, as Helen Keller said, “No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” Why, according to The Optimist’s Guide to History, optimists even led the way in coining the word optimist to distinguish those who see the sunny side of life from those who always carry an umbrella. As usual, pessimists waited until an optimist showed that it could be done, and it only took 80 years after the word optimist entered our lexicon for pessimists to create the word pessimist. Or more likely, an optimist did it for them!

People become leaders precisely because they are optimists and think that something can be done.

It is our duty as human beings to proceed as though the limits of our capabilities did not exist.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Pessimists can do well enough what has already been done, doing more of it, but to create opportunity and move forward takes an optimist. Why is this so? It is because optimists have high levels of self-efficacy, the belief that they have the capability to exercise influence over events that affect their lives. (Note I did not say control.) Without this, there is no reason to try anything new.  Winston Churchill was a man of great self-efficacy who explained his success saying, “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” You only keep going like Churchill did because you believe you have the capability to shape the results. Pessimists, however, have very low levels of self-efficacy and believe that events are beyond their ability to influence.

The reason for writing about this is that every group of people will have both optimists and pessimists in it and the leader is almost guaranteed to be an optimist. It would be nice to have people of high self-efficacy at every level in the organization because that enables you to empower staff and substantially reduce if not eliminate your supervision of those people. But the reality is that just as there will always be the poor among us this side of heaven, so there will always be pessimists among us this side of heaven.

That last line sounds like the set-up for a joke!

  • Will there be pessimists in heaven?
  • What’s the first thing a pessimist says at the Pearly Gates?

Who’s got a punch line for one of these openings?  Use the comment form below!

This reality creates a natural clash of views between optimists and pessimists over what the ministry can accomplish. You, as the optimistic leader, have to learn how to deal with pessimism and, as we shall see in my upcoming post on truth-telling at work, there is a bright side to having pessimists in your midst because they have much to contribute to the success of your ministry. Now that is written by a true optimist!

I must admit that I find pessimism very depressing because I believe so much that everyone can become much stronger than they currently are and it really saddens me when people don’t believe in their own abilities or the group’s abilities as much as I believe in their actual and potential abilities. My outlook on life is one of blessing, gifting and equipping. That doesn’t make life easy, I have my difficulties, but it does mean that I truly believe we are all capable of shaping the future and the environment around us.

I sincerely believe that every person could have high levels of self-efficacy if they merely started to test what their limits truly are. Sure, if you try right away to lift 200 pounds you might not have the muscles to do it. But if you start with 25 pounds, you will likely be successful and you will be building your muscles. Over time, you can build your muscles up so that you will some day be able to lift the 200 pounds. What was once impossible became possible. So when people have a pessimistic outlook, I feel quite bad that they have already given up. What kept those three boys alive for 50 days on the open ocean? Why didn’t they just drown themselves to end their suffering? Why didn’t Job follow his wife’s advice to “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9)? Because they were optimists and had hope. Job declared, “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives…even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26).

Pessimists, let me help you out a bit. If all you can do is believe for a little, then believe for a little and let the result build your faith to believe for more. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” is a pretty good truism. I also like Mark 9:24 where the father wants a miraculous healing for his son, but has doubts. He said to Jesus, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” What a great attitude! We must also remember Jesus’ promise in Matthew 17:20 that, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” That promise has to be responsibly interpreted of course, but the basic idea is pretty clear. Start with whatever faith you have and do something, anything, to use it.

As leaders, we can help staff increase their feeling of self-efficacy by:

  • setting people up to win frequently by setting short term goals or projects, so they have a series of small, but encouraging, wins. There is nothing as good as a successful experience to foster self-efficacy.
  • celebrating successes by people on your team with the whole team. Don’t just congratulate the person who did it, but tell everyone else too. Self-efficacy will build as pessimists say to themselves, “If that person could do it, then I can do it!”
  • expressing your confidence in the pessimist’s ability to do the work. Positive reinforcement from others is helpful (but research shows this is not anywhere nearly as helpful as the first two bullet points – be sure to do those first).
  • framing plans as trials to reduce fear. The goal from a pessimist’s perspective would be to test something out, not be successful at it. That might be as much as they can handle, and anyone can do that! Reduce the fear factor so they will try and who knows, they may be pleasantly surprised.
  • involving them in testing their assumptions and observations. The idea is to replace subjective fears with objective facts. “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened” Michel de Montaigne.
  • measuring their performance on activity, not results, coupled with regular coaching. Results will be the consequence of doing the activity well.

If you are a pessimist, you can help yourself by doing something you find a stretch every day. If you have doubt about how something will work out, give it your best. And know this, optimists can be just as harmful to an organization as a pessimist. Taken to extreme, they can ignore all the danger signs. You see those signs, so make a plan to minimize the danger and go ahead and try.

In a since deleted post, a self-confessed pessimistic blogger made a good point about managing pessimists like himself. Leaders must understand that a pessimist’s fear that bad things will happen is not the same as the pessimist wanting bad things to happen. And just to show that pessimists can really surprise us, he had a bucket list!

Thoughts on Pessimism in the Workplace

  1. Jessica

    Will there be pessimists in heaven?

    Well, I sure hope not, but since I’LL be there, I’m sure a few are bound to make it through just to drag me down out of my state of perfect bliss… but, what can you do? Such is life… or in this case, such is the afterlife…

    1. John PelloweJohn Pellowe Post author

      Hi Muhammad, what kind of data would you like? I wrote this more than five years ago and don’t have prep notes for the post. I did read up on pessimism both online and some books. You may be able to find what you want online. Blessings, John.


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