Every Team Needs A Pessimist — Learn Their Skills And Harness Them
Pessimism doesn’t just mean negativity; they have qualities others don’t
Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute. — George Bernard Shaw
I’m a pessimist. I’ve been told countless times. What can I say, I’m a Programme Manager, it’s what I do best.
Hearing it at the start of my career was tough, though. All I thought was that people were telling me that I was negative. It knocked my confidence.
A few years into my career, after being bashed about, I started to feel disillusioned with my job. My co-workers were seeing me as a naysayer and quite rightly so. I was saying no often — with good reason; no one else was saying it when it needed to be said. So, one day I thought, “what would happen if I stopped being the person who says no? What would happen if I adopted the mindset of my co-workers?” There was only one way to find out. I decided for the next couple of weeks to ignore my inner voice and go with the crowd.
Do you know what happened when I did this? Programmes that were once successful started to fail. What was the problem? Well, before I took a backseat, I was the only pessimist in a team of optimists. I used to be the weight to stop the helium balloons from flying off in every which direction. Now, I was detached, just watching on as they floated off.
The lesson is pessimism can be just as good as optimism. Every team needs to have a pessimist. You just need to know how to get the best out of them.
Embrace The Pessimist
Pessimists plan for every eventuality. They allow for the hiccups and the bumps in the road. As a result, pessimists under-promise and over-deliver. If you ask a pessimist to create a plan, they’ll build in contingency and make sure no rock is left unturned.
Make use of their ability to plan.
Finding risks comes naturally to a pessimist — they’re continually considering what could go wrong. They pick everything apart and look at it from every angle; then they make an assessment and decide what to do with it. This can be frustrating for non-pessimists, but it’s important, every piece of work hinges on its risks.
They mitigate, and when things go wrong, they limit the damage.
Getting stuff done
A pessimist won’t look around them and think, “I can leave this, someone else will pick it up”. They see the worst in a situation, and often in people, too. There’s only one person they can trust — themselves. So, they just get on with it.
You can always rely on a pessimist to deliver — they’re the one team member you don’t have to worry.
No such thing as spontaneity
Have you ever worked in a group where you’ve all come to a joint decision and then one person decides to something completely different? Yeah, that’ll never be a pessimist. They’ve already got enough doubt in their mind to start being spontaneous.
They will always stay to plan; what’s more, they’ll keep everyone else to plan, too.
What To Watch Out For
Working with a pessimist isn’t all pros, though; there are cons, too.
Too much negativity
I’m sure there are times when every pessimist should see things more positively, but not all the time. You can’t always find positives in situations when there’s none to be found. But, if there are positives, they need to be acknowledged.
Too much negativity will prevent a team from moving forwards — keep pessimistic views in check.
Most pessimists think of themselves as realists. And, they’ll often tell you that they’re a realist — I know I have done so in the past. But, as long as you know what they are, there’s no need to argue semantics. After all, pessimism usually means negativity and no one wants to be called negative.
Ultimately, you’ve identified the pessimist, and you know what their skill-set is so why bother upsetting someone with a label?
Too many pessimists
Have you heard the phrase, “too many cooks spoil the broth”? Well, I can assure you that too many pessimists are sure to ruin any party! You don’t want a dominant personality trait in a team as your decisions will likely be biased.
Too many pessimists will have you bogged down in what could go wrong — so much so that you’ll never get going.
Just like optimists find pessimists exhausting, the same works the other way. Positivity doesn’t come naturally to them, that’s what they find so tiring. Exercises like the “Six Thinking Hats” will help to keep a balance in discussions.
If you want to bring the best out of a pessimist, tone down the optimism and appreciate them for who they are.
Optimists always look on the bright side; they often get carried away in their success. If you work in an industry where there’s risk involved — pretty much every sector — this is dangerous. It will likely lead to failure at some point.
Pessimists can pull the brakes on the getaway train of optimism. They slow the group down, allow them to catch their breath and ask, “but what if?” They stress test the scenarios, identify the shortcomings and get into the detail.
If you’re ever in doubt about something, give it to a pessimist, they’ll find every possible way it may go wrong. But, make sure you find the balance.