If a terrible catastrophe were ever to befall the earth, I believe that the world would be separated into two groups: the optimists, who think we will prevail in the face of adversity, and the pessimists, who start running for the hills because we are all doomed. I would fit squarely in the pessimists group with a backpack full of bottled water and running shoes on.
A Life Half Full
Negativity has always weighed predominantly on my personality, beliefs and actions (although I really prefer to see myself as a realist). I’m practical. I’m a downer. I always plan for the worst-case scenario. I carry napkins in my purse in case of spills. I keep energy bars in my glove compartment in case I get stuck in a snowstorm. I like to be prepared.
Having spent most of my life being told to look on the Brightside (I bring my sunglasses), it was no wonder that I took great offense to advice offered in a Wall Street Journal career column advising a Negative Nelly to “suck it up” and learn to play the game.
Here’s the situation:
My husband is a 41-year-old finance manager who was told by his new boss that he needed to stop making negative comments. Specifically, he was told not to say that the company has tried something but that it didn’t work before. He was told if he didn’t stop making these comments, he would be put on a performance action plan. Since then he has worked hard at being positive and was told by his boss that he was doing a good job. But recently, his boss got a call from human resources about my husband’s behavior in a meeting — he was perceived as being negative because he recommended that the group look at X before they do Y. He was told he would be fired the next time he said something inappropriate…Can he repair the situation?
Unsticking From Negativity
Having read through this a few times in an attempt to leave any “negative” bias behind me, I still fail to see how the man in question was anything other than realistic and offering meaningful advice that would probably keep the company from pursuing failed projects. However, the advice columnist saw things differently.
“If you’re used to a certain factual, structured world, and the boss is asking you to use the common cliché and think outside the box, if you don’t do it, you’re going to fail,” Dr. Tobais says. “Try to open yourself up.” But, he says, it won’t be easy. “Negativity is a thinking style we tend to get stuck in.”
In addition to meeting the boss’ expectations, not shutting yourself off from others’ bright ideas will make your co-workers more amenable to considering your suggestions. Giving them positive feedback and contributing something besides verbal roadblocks at meetings will make them return the favor and listen to you too — instead of daydreaming about what they’re going to pick up for lunch.
Negativity is “a thinking style” we get stuck in?! And blissful ignorance isn’t? I get that a lot of the tension in this situation stems from a clash in personalities and group mentality. Apparently this man’s co-workers are generally an optimistic bunch and this Eeyore isn’t meshing with their collective think. I agree that in order to help his relationships at work he may need to work on fitting in better with his team, whether that be cutting down on his “negative” comments or increasing his praise. However, I don’t understand why the realistic or “negative” folks are always ostracized.
Pessimism Can Be A Good Thing
Having worked for a boss who took on any project floated without question and encouraged me to do the same, I can attest that it is just as bad to be a negative person working in a sea full of optimists as it is for a room of optimists to have to deal with one negative person. Sometimes I feel like I am crazy because I see all of these problems that no one else seems to care about, much like the Greek myth of Cassandra who was blessed with the gift of knowing the future but cursed with the inability to be believed by others when she told them what she saw.
The subprime mortgage crisis a great model of how unencumbered opportunism can run afoul when there aren’t enough naysayers to keep everyone from going around the bend. The lending industry saw a great opportunity in financing subprime mortgages. They won, the banks won, shareholders won, homeowners won—at least for a while anyway. But what would have happened if some pessimist predicted the housing bust and stepped in to stop it? Why did no one have the courage to call the industry out? Why are we so hostile toward whistleblowers?
Shouldn’t a successful company employ a balance of creative dreamers and practical executors?