Pessimism might be misunderstood in the workplace


In the workplace, pessimism is often seen as the antithesis of corporate culture. Pessimists are typically considered to be difficult to work with, and constantly need to fit-out from the crowds of populists. Other times, they are highly regarded as being more analytical and realistic in their visions and guidelines. This alludes inevitably into the fixed versus growth mindset discussion stirred, more recently, by Stanford University, as well as the significant research conducted by Dr Carol Dweck.

Image: Shutterstock

In a paper titled The Examined Life, researcher Stephen Grosz spends considerable time focusing on the reasons behind why we feel pessimistic about our approach, our future, and our companies. He quite rightly points out that it is the presence of the community and not the absence that provides vital insight to the pessimistic individual or company, to enhance his or her growth.

Roderick Kramer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, adds to the research by Stephen Grosz and mentions, “Some people are dispositional pessimists whose knee-jerk reaction is to see the negative in everything, while others may be expressing a pessimistic point of view based upon informed logic.” (As stated by HBR)

Essentially the aim is to look at pessimism as a symptom rather than a problem.

There is even on-going research in the field of employee health in terms of pessimists and optimists, but that research is being debunked due to the poor standard definitions of the state of being pessimistic itself. There is a flexible nature to being pessimistic that only engulfs a larger sense of being when there is a long duration of pessimism in the workplace, inevitably leading to attrition and poor growth.

In my personal experience, I’ve coached and worked with pessimists from many varying levels of seniority. There have been times when I’ve noticed that pessimists have a sense of being ‘lost’ in terms of the current objectives of the company, and expect more compensation in exchange for lesser work. I analysed the level of intelligence of those employees compared to their peers’, and realised that their social IQ as well as their domain knowledge far exceeded the rest. I realised that I had to do something different.

Shifting my time and focus towards my employees worked well, as I realised that patience was the key. Building a strong company culture is paramount. The more patient I was, even with my pessimistic clients and vendors, the more I noticed that pessimists approach the very idea of ‘work’ from a transactional perspective rather than a relationship based one. Building that relationship with them is essential.

Autonomy, or freedom, also is important to pessimists, as well as a sense of well-being and integration into the company. Fundamental ‘goodness’ in the employee is important as well, as hiring weak-willed people can lead to weak-willed companies and ‘hide-and-seek games’ (as one CMO jokingly told me). Finally, making everyone feel like a part of the company is the number one action-point that slowly creates a shift in the mindset of the pessimist. A leader must also always be mindful of the mental health and well-being of the employee and be polite and respectful in the workplace at all times.

Pessimists are, in many respects, looked down upon and not considered to be fully-awake employees because of the yes-man approach of most large organisations. Pessimists have a power to unlock hidden insights derived from common sense or a feeling of disenfranchisement of the corporate hierarchy. Author and entrepreneur Adam Grant put it well while explaining the Sarick Effect – “When I led with the factors that could kill my company, the response from the board was the exact opposite: oh, these things aren’t so bad. Newton’s third law can be true in human dynamics as well: every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” Adam’s inherent pessimism lead him to accomplish greater things with his frank attitude.


Updates from around the world