ATD Blog

A Pessimist Could Save Your Next Project

Thursday, April 28, 2016

I recently attended the Leading to Well-Being: Cultivating Resilience conference organized by George Mason University. While it would be easy to write a longer post about the conference, given the quality of content, I have chosen one key takeaway I believe all organizations will benefit from: keep some pessimism in the workplace.

In an age in which there are dozens of business books promoting optimism and positive workplace cultures, I’m going to make the case for having the occasional pessimist in a sea of positive-thinking employees.

Overall, being optimistic leads to improved well-being at work and creates a more sustainable environment. So what use do we have for the employees who constantly point out all the things that could go wrong with a project and sound the alarm when something doesn’t seem right?

These pessimists often provide us with useful information because they ask:

  • What’s wrong with the plan we have for our new project?
  • What challenges do we need to plan for in the foreseeable future?
  • How could this implementation plan fail?
  • Things aren't going as we had imagined. How is this going to affect us in the long run?

More often than not, the questions that keep pessimists up at night are the ones that optimists need to hear. They convince optimists to look at the challenges they might face and:

  • Think about how to avoid the problems the pessimist has identified and develop strategies to prevent those problems from happening.
  • Make sure everything is truly accounted for in their original project plan, including a reasonable budget, timeline, and implementation plan.
  • Consider what they would do if their plan fails and how the failure would affect the organization.
  • Examine issues with the project as they occur, rather than brushing them off because you think the issues aren’t very big.

I recommend that you take a minute to consider how the perpetually pessimist employees are treated in your organization. Are they constantly being shut down for their negative attitudes, or are their opinions truly valued the same as everybody else’s? If your organization more frequently does the former, think about the vital information these employees bring to the team and what you may be losing by ignoring their worrisome ways.
Have you had an experience in which working with a pessimist proved to be particularly vital to the completion of a project? If so, please share your experiences in the comments section below.

About the Author

Clara Von Ins is the Human Capital Specialist at the Association for Talent Development (ATD). Prior to working for ATD, Clara worked for the American Red Cross as the disaster program coordinator in Santa Barbara, California.

Clara received an bachelor’s degree from the Ohio State University in psychology and education. She is currently attending the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill remotely to obtain a master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis on nonprofit management and community and economic development. 

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