Call them anything you like: Debbie Downer. Negative Nancy. Pessimistic Patty. You can even go old-school with Eeyore or more creative with something like an Energy Vampire. Every workplace has people who skew more towards the negative.
Today’s business world is not only obsessed with creating optimistic employees, but also with practices such as mindfulness to help improve mental health and creativity. It’s almost as if someone who tends towards the pessimistic side has a handicap at work…a handicap that can stall your career progression. After all, no one likes dealing with someone who is negative all of the time.
But as Clara Von Ins from the Association for Talent Development wrote in a recent blog post, business should not make it a mission to eradicate all of the Eeyores from your workplace. Sure, if you have someone who is a constant complainer, someone who can’t keep their pessimism under control, it can create a situation that needs to be addressed. But an Eeyore in the group can be very valuable because they ask some good questions like:
- What is wrong with a plan for a project?
- What challenges do we need to plan for in the future?
- How could the implementation of the project fail?
- If things do fall apart, how will this affect us in the long run?
As Clara points out in her article, these are the types of questions that optimists need to hear.
I am a pragmatist, which is right in the center of the spectrum between optimists and pessimists. I do not have a problem with optimism, and in healthy environments you need optimism to allow you to take risks and think outside the box; it’s a near perfect antidote to the danger of falling into the We’ve Always Done It This Way trap which dooms any project or organization to failure in the long term. But too much optimism is not a good thing. Seeing the world through rainbow colored glasses constantly blinds you to the realities and risks any venture faces; things which can sink your ship when they come up, but which could have been avoided had you given some thought to the downsides. This is where you need the pessimists to bring up the risks and potential downsides, so that you can anticipate them and be proactive in dealing with them.
So organizations take heed: You need the optimists. You need them to inspire and think outside the box. You need them to stay innovative. You need them to compete in a VUCA environment. But you cannot let their optimism have free reign.
You need the pessimists. You need them to help you evaluate risk. You need them in project planning. You need them to help keep your optimists grounded in reality. So don’t try to replace all of the Eeyores; you need their perspective.
And to balance out these two ends of the spectrum, you need the Pragmatists.