Managing Pessimists

There are pessimist people and there are pessimistic cultures as an article on France in the Economist points out.

Management techniques wrongly suggest that pessimism is something to be “turned around”; pessimistic attitudes are “”a “challenge” for managers, who are well equipped with a whole set of tools to create and foster optimism: vision, mission, wow-wowing, pep talking, motivational techniques, AI, and what have you.

Pessimistic culture are pessimist for a reason. The first thing we need to do is accept the pessimism.

No one (well almost no one) comes to Japan and tries to re engineer the national psyche to create individualists. No one goes to Asia and tells people to “put face aside” and be more “open”. Similarly, attempts to re-engineer the pessimist genetic code are doomed to fail.

Pessimist people have a very strong defence mechanism that has formed that attitude. People do not give up defence mechanisms easily, especially when the alternative is exactly what they are protecting themselves from, that is a rosy boy-scout yes we can attitude that sounds greats in a Tweet or coaching session with a gung-ho coach, but makes no sense.

I will propose 5 key points which may assist managing in pessimistic cultures and when dealing with pessimistic people.

1) Accept the pessimism;  do not try and change it.

2) Give low key messages, rich in facts,  analysis and critique and go easy/avoid hope, belief and wow wowism.

3) Identify the pessimistic statement that irritate you, and ignore them as much as you can.

4) Humour may work well to make a point if the pessimism is excessive.

5) Examine why pessimism rubs you the wrong way. When you really come to terms with this key question, managing pessimistic people and managing in pessimistic cultures will be far more intuitive.

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13 thoughts on “Managing Pessimists

  1. Allon, this goes way beyond the Gestalt ‘Paradoxical Theory of Change’ which says the first step in creating change is to accept what is asking to be changed exactly as it is. You are pointing out that even the intention to change something like ‘pessimism’ is based on a belief that pessimism is ‘bad’ or deserves to be changed. This tells us more about the person judging the pessimism than it does about the ‘pessimist’.
    This is The Three Words again–in spades. What is ‘pessimism’ in one person’s world (or one culture’s world) could be ‘reality-based’ in another.
    Thanks for this, Allon.
    Brother John

  2. Allon, I wonder whether some people misinterpret pragmatism as pessimism. At the Y, I was told that my approach was often negative when in fact it wasn’t at all.

    My process tends to be to try to ID possible pitfalls not as roadblocks but in order to try to solve them BEFORE they become problems. I find that approach often gets misinterpreted.

    Personally, I see it as very positive, since I’m trying to anticipate & prevent potential issues.

    • Saw this question the second time around and will give it a shot:

      Hewlett of HP fame was known for openly announcing that now he was wearing his Open-hat or his Judgmental-hat or whatever he found appropriate.
      At Lions I have been told, they have the official position of tail-twister where a person is designated to do exactly what you are doing, finding stumbling blocks to a plan.

      The six hat method advocates for taking these roles on as well: Why is this a good idea, which road blocks do we see. (see
      There is no problem with either role except if the other people around the table don’t get which hat you are wearing or if you only ever wear one hat.

      Allon is pointing to why the Hoopla hat doesn’t work in pragmatic cultures – your experience had been the flip side of his observation – that showing pragmatism can be hard in a Hoopla culture.

  3. I agree with John and love The Gestalt ‘Paradoxical Theory of Change’ that says “the first step in creating change is to accept what is asking to be changed exactly as it is. As a person who is completing a psychoanalysis, I have come to a realization that “acceptance” is not about enduring without protest. Acceptance also goes beyond the act of receiving with consent. I now experience it as contemplating the already perfection of life in what is so in my life. It makes “accepting” an active receiving of what is with an attitude of curiosity and love. Now that I have come to that place in my life; it allows me to rest easy with pessimists….especially French ones..


  4. Good article. I would like to add as a recommendation: react on each “pessimistic” behavior, with the opposite, an “optimistic” expression. Do this in a subtle way. My experience is that this will trigger the ‘pessimist” to make his/her behavior a point of discussion.

  5. I feel that “pessimism” is already a judgmental label.
    In my opinion, listening to a different perspective with an open mind and enquiring as to the intention, might be the way to avoid the “block” of wanting to change the other. I find the comment about “understanding what irritates you” to be a very wise point: when we feel irritated by a more realistic perspective, especially when we are used to “looking at the positive side at all costs”, may put us into the classic defensive/judgmental box and we may forget to evoke our genuine curiosity, an essential component of cross-cultural respectful communication.

  6. again so interesting! just to add that what is considered pessimist in on place may not be considered so in another. Other “cultures” also have to be considered such as company culture as to the prevailing “tone” in a place. I believe pessimism can be “channeled” however. It is okay to look at “bottom line worst case scenarios but what is not ok, IMO, in a business setting, it to leave it at that. So the next question should often be “So what are we going to do about it?”

  7. What you’re describing (and some of your commenters are defending) is probably better labeled “risk aversion” and that happy-go-lucky boyscout is “reward seeking”. Most of us see the world primarily from one or the other of these viewpoints. Each has immense value if one can learn to respect the other and learn to utilize it. There are survivalist values for both behaviors depending upon the circumstances. If the subject interests you, read “Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence” by Halvorson/Higgins

  8. Pessimism, like many things, is in the eye of the beholder, and this is being reflected in the comments that are coming through in this discussion. A more useful approach when the person’s behaviour seems excessively negative may be to ask the question, “What are you seeing that concerns you?” and exploring the person’s intention in their communication. I find it easy to assume that I know why a person is reacting the way they are and I am usually wrong in my assumptions… ;0)
    I appreciate Laura Lozza’s comment about pessimism becoming a limiting label in interactions with the other. Understanding my reaction to the other person’s so-called pessimism is useful, and taking the opportunity to explore what is behind the behaviour helps to build a relationship of understanding rather than of antagonism (direct or indirect). Not always easy to do, however, especially if a person’s behaviour tends to dampen the mood on a consistent basis!
    Thanks for the reminder of De Bono’s Six-Hat Thinking strategy, Charlotte… I love the way De Bono validates and makes space for different ways of looking at the same issue.

  9. Pingback: The value of hiring pessimist consultants | Allon Shevat-אלון שבט

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