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The positive power of pessimism


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Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 1/2022 vom 15.12.2021

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Pessimism: often a good strategy

Pessimism is more logical and positive than it might seem

It is not often that you will read an article suggesting that pessimism is a positive leadership quality. Since the 1990s, when transformational leadership became fashionable, the norm has been for leaders to operate with lots of positive energy, charisma and inspiration. The idea of an executive being congratulated on their gloomy demeanour seems bizarre.

Yet, less positive outlooks on life have a long tradition. Philosophers such as Socrates and Descartes based their thinking and communication models on doubt — assuming ignorance rather than expertise.

The agile approach to project management was also founded on the idea that human beings constantly get things wrong. It is therefore better to plan and deliver in shorter cycles to minimize variances between desire and outcome.

So, pessimism is more logical and positive than it might ...

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... seem.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Pessimistic and negative thinking has its risks. Indeed, I’ve spent a whole career encouraging generous optimism when it comes to forming relationships with international colleagues. Too often, discontent and blame arise when things become problematic. But pessimism, when applied carefully and in a controlled and conscious manner, can deliver extremely valuable, even life-saving advantages in your professional life.

Dealing with uncertainty

Imagine this scenario. You’re an engineer on an oil rig. You’re due to finish a 12-hour shift and feel dogtired, and need to eat and sleep. But as you reach the final minute of your shift, you think you catch a very faint smell of gas — so faint that you could almost convince yourself that you just imagined it.

Now, the more optimistic among us might trust in the strict safety protocols of the organization, which has had an exemplary health and safety record over the past 20 years. A pessimist, on the other hand, might take the view that something can always go wrong, in the most unexpected ways and at the worst possible moments. They would therefore raise an alarm, which not only delays their going to bed, but also wakes around 50 colleagues who are already asleep.

Which is the better course of action when faced with such risk and uncertainty — one based on optimism or one based on pessimism?

This article will help you to...

• reflect on the role of pessimism in leadership

• gain insights into how pessimism can deliver benefits

• identify strategies to integrate pessimistic thinking into your everyday leadership

In fact, professionals are not free to make such a choice here. Pessimism is mandated. They have to raise the alarm because it’s the better option when it comes to preventing accidents and saving lives.

Indeed, pessimism is now a trained competence. It is called “chronic unease”, a learned and permanent feeling of anxiety and uncertainty, of double-checking everything, of looking attentively to see if any problems can be detected.

This also makes sense for professionals in complex, uncertain corporate contexts, where assumptions and misunderstandings can cost customer loyalty and hard dollars when things don’t go as expected. Pessimism can ensure profitability.

Ask yourself: Where could greater attention to uncertainty bring benefits?

Making better decisions

Pessimism has a long history. In 1587, the Catholic Church created the role of devil’s advocate, whose job it was to argue against elevating a deceased person to the status of saint as a mechanism for checking that the proposed decision was sound.

Project management has pessimism embedded into its DNA. The careful creation of risk registers and worst-case scenarios is now viewed as best practice. The agile approach is also founded on pessimism. It assumes that human planning is flawed, that constantly changing environments will lead us to develop products in the wrong direction. Failure is inevitable. The motto is: plan short to fail fast.

Pessimism and “negative” thinking are also integral to the “pre-mortem” concept. This encourages teams to imagine themselves in the future facing a failed, even disastrous, project. They are then asked to imagine what went wrong and why.

The pre-mortem can enable groups to overcome the dangers of groupthink and project blind spots, which can lead to poor decision-making. Encouraging an open and vigorous discussion about future failure can generate new insights that lead to better decision-making. In other words, pessimism can support creative thinking. Ask yourself: Which forms of negative thinking could help me to make better decisions at work?

LEARN FROM THE EXPERTS

In The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (Basic Books), psychology professor Julie Norem explores the value of not looking on the bright side of life. She discusses how positive thinking is not only ineffectual but also counterproductive — and explores the alternative psychology of “defensive pessimism”.

Creating smart communication

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is credited with saying that “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place”. In some ways, this is a pessimistic view of human interaction. It assumes that we are condemned to live with misunderstandings that we don’t see as a result of assumptions, bias and miscomprehension.

The positive insight in Shaw’s comment is seldom recognized, however. If misunderstanding is often invisibly present, our response should be to assume it is there, even when we don’t sense it.

We should therefore “overcommunicate”. This takes two forms. As a speaker, it means being more explicit: articulating the motivation behind your messages, giving background information and repeating ideas to ensure they are understood. And as a listener, the Holy Trinity is clarifying, summarizing and paraphrasing, none of which are complex but all of which are used too infrequently. In short, pessimistic communicators, who know that communication is often an illusion, are often the smartest communicators.

Ask yourself: What can I do to help my team to apply the two key aspects of smart communication?

Embracing doubt

Today’s corporate life affirms a cult of confident expertise rather than embracing doubt. Our attention is focused on attaining knowledge, acting on that knowledge and confirming, via KPIs, that this knowledge was correctly applied.

The approach brings many advantages in the areas of focus, personal development and achievement. But there is also a dark side. On the one hand, it fosters a false picture of positive rationalism. The fact is that human beings are motivated by many irrational drivers: fear, anxiety, selfdoubt, etc. If we don’t acknowledge these natural emotions, we run the risk of feeling inner shame and living with damaged self-esteem.

If we took a healthier, more realistic view of human nature — and acknowledged the darker side of our motivations — not only would we feel better, but we might be able to see that, paradoxically, the darker side has positives. Fear, anxiety and doubt can all be powerful drivers for learning and high performance.

More fundamentally, if we acknowledge ourselves as flawed creatures, prone to irrationalism, envy, ego and bad habits that work against our better intentions, then our ego defences begin to crumble. We stop pretending that we are something we are not. We stop defending our fragment of reality (our opinion) in the face of opposition. We become interested again in what we don’t know rather than building only on the things that we think we know.

In other words, we become more open, humble and curious. These are qualities that we see in children at play. Unfortunately, these qualities are squeezed dry in the corporate identities we feel forced to adopt. Pessimism can reshape who we are.

Ask yourself: How could allowing myself to doubt more bring increased happiness to me and those around me?

A happy future at work?

As we have seen, pessimism has many advantages, and optimism and positivity carry hidden risks. Of course, as with most things in life, finding a balance is central to success and happiness.

The new hybrid reality raises significant questions about the roles of both optimism and pessimism. “Fungineering” — the use of happiness engineering — is on the rise. Witness the current intensive construction of “happy offices”. The aim is to lure people back to co-located collaborative workplaces, where the alienation and isolation of working from home can be overcome.

If I conducted a pre-mortem on this exercise, I would probably forecast that, six months into the future, there will be a sense of cynicism among employees about these brightly decorated collaborative office spaces. Particularly when employees are still being asked to perform unclear roles with too few resources. Where’s the fun in that?

A more credible and effective way to increase employee engagement might be to re-engineer people’s roles rather than repainting and redesigning their offices.

But no doubt, to some people, that all sounds too pessimistic.

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DEVELOPING YOUR INFLUENCE

Here are phrases that you can use to implement pessimism positively in your professional context.

Dealing with uncertainty

• Is that gas I can smell?

• How sure are you/we that… ?

• If that’s the case, it could cause…

• Let’s double-check so we can be sure that…

Making better decisions

• Let’s just imagine this hasn’t worked.

• What could have caused the failure?

• It could have led to… / resulted in…

• What should we do / have done differently?

Creating smart communication

• I’m saying his because…

• In other words, what I’m saying is…

• So, what you’re saying is…

• Does what you say mean that… ?

Embracing doubt

• What we don’t know is whether…

•I don’t have the expertise to know whether…

• What do you think?

• How can we get more insight into… ?