On The Wrong Side of the Conference Table

Pessimism over OptimismIf 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?

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7 responses »

  1. Pingback: On The Wrong Side of the Conference Table | backpackingshoes.com

  2. I’m 25 and frankly, I’ve spent the first 23 or so years of my life being a pessimist. I tried covering it up by claiming I’m a realist, but looking back I realized I was just deluding myself. Life is so much better when you look at the bright side and when you think that every good thing that happens is meant to happen and that every bad thing that happens is just something to be dealt with. Call them a roadblock on your way to happiness, if you will.

    There is most certainly a difference between looking at all aspects of something and just focussing on the bad things. Granted, being optimistic can also be taken to extremes, and the example you cited from the WSJ is vomit-inducing. But I promise you, change your perspective like I did and your life will look a lot brighter.

  3. I am totally on your side. I worked as a proposal writer for a while, and I was trained to take up only projects that would be well worth the time and effort of writing a proposal because…it’s a lot of time and effort. Going for projects we couldn’t possibly win was obviously a waste of time. I changed jobs and worked for a boss who told me I was ridiculously negative because I tried to eliminate any options for contracts that were out of our range for one reason or another. He wanted us to be grabbing for any projects at all, even outlandish ones – a shotgun approach rather than laser precision. I have seen this happen in other fields too, and I ALWAYS think the shotgun approach is a waste of time. Negativity? I agree with you, it’s more like being realistic in most situations, and bosses who can’t see that are setting themselves up for failure.

  4. I’m an admitted cockeyed optimist, but even I agree that in the workplace, a healthy dose of prudent realism is an asset. When money or reputation is at stake, it’s every employee’s responsibility to think through all scenarios and point out an possible pitfalls. That’s just smart thinking. I recall a meeting in which a marketing campaign was presented to my team, and I was asked what I thought. I asnwered the question directly: it was ugly, it was awful, it fit neither our mission nor our brand, and how ’bout we try x, y and z instead. From the looks around the table, you’d think I just slaughtered a small child. My colleagues later told me they secretly agreed with me, but no one wanted to be impolite or stick their neck out and acknowledge the elephant in the room. In this case, it was more about p.c. politeness than negativity. Sometimes “negativity,” also known sometimes as truth, is necessary. Only if it is a habitual response unaccompanied by well thought-out rationale should it be disciplined. Critical thinking should be valued in the business world. I love the WSJ, but they sounds way off base on this one.

  5. Nothing makes me feel more negative than someone blindly insisting that their way of looking at things is better. I’m plenty happy with my life. I can see the silver lining in a bad situation, when one exists. I don’t see anything wrong with maintaining (or suggesting that others maintain) a healthy dose of caution or giving honest constructive criticism. If someone’s mood is going to be brought down so easily, I have to ask “who’s the real Negative Nelly?”

    As someone who has worked in a company where any answer other than “yes” gets you an angry response, I sympathize.

  6. Why have pick one or the other? Why not try to see things without judging them? After all the world is what it is, our judgements are only thoughts. Who is correct all the time? None of us has a crystal ball.

    I think it’s silly when people try to put us into this tiny cookie cutter world where things are either black or white. The real world is more interesting and everyone has good feelings and bad feelings. All of us are subject to change. The most optimistic person in the world is going to have to face old age, loss, and death someday.

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