When All They See is the Glass Half Empty

half full or half emptyLittle is more maddening in a work environment than the perpetual pessimists, those who can never see the glass as half full.  You know the type.  They’re the ones who:

  • Use absolutes. “That has never worked around here.”  “We always run into problems with that.”  “Everyone is struggling with the new system.”
  • Use the exception to define the rule. “We tried that once five years ago, so we know it doesn’t work.”
  • Can never finish a sentence on a positive note. “That sounds like a really good idea, but….”
  • Weight bad experience more heavily than good experience. “Yes, that process worked most of the time, but when it didn’t work, it created gigantic problems.”
  • Always contribute to the ‘cons’ column; never to the ‘pros’.

These perpetual pessimists (some would call them ‘professional pessimists’) are a major drain on the morale of a work group.  Colleagues and bosses express exasperation and wasted energy in dealing with their negative energy, and even damage control in preventing that energy from infecting others, especially during stressful times.  The Perpetual Pessimist in a work group is more than an annoyance to be ignored; this personality type needs to be re-trained to offer a more productive contribution to the team’s work.

Let’s look at the typical responses to the Perpetual Pessimist.  Responses tend to be either:

  • Logic and Lecture – We try to use logic to refute Mr. Pessimist’s one-sided arguments, not recognizing that they are emotionally-based fears that logic will not likely penetrate. As Logic fails, we begin to Lecture to drive home an opposite viewpoint – and guess what?  Pessimist digs in.
  • Or –
  • Ignore and Marginalize – We let Ms. Pessimist say her toxic things and then move on to the next topic without acknowledgement or response, sending a clear signal that we don’t value the input – any part of it. We give subtle permission to the team to marginalize Ms. Pessimist.  And in so doing, we set a precedent for treatment of others.

How can you deal more productively with the family of Perpetual Pessimists in your team?

Work with the pessimists in private.  Be careful not to embarrass pessimists in a public setting.  They want to be taken seriously, and are frequently not confident of their skills, other than the skill to dissent.  Treat them with respect, as you would any other employee, accepting their input, but helping them to develop alternative ways to express opinions and experience.

Deal from underlying emotion.  Perpetual Pessimists are risk-averse.  They often have experience that has caused them to fear changes.  Rather than countering their fears with logic, try to help them surface what’s driving their fear.  “You’ve expressed a lot of concern that this type of change has never worked around here.  What do you fear will happen if we go ahead with this change?  What experience have you had that makes you offer us this caution with such vigor?”

Help them to offer constructive alternatives.  When Mr. Glass Half Empty proclaims that something was tried before but didn’t work, ask him what he thinks would need to be put into place to assure the outcome would be solidly positive this time around.  When he’s talking about something that went wrong in an otherwise decent idea, ask what safeguards he thinks could mitigate the risk of similar bad results.  When only the cons come out, ask what might be one good reason to move forward with the idea, even in the face of the cons.  Help the pessimist to think more critically on both sides of the equation.

Offer help on languaging.  Perpetual Pessimists may wish to close down conversation with their absolutist language, but they don’t really like being seen as negative.  Help them to be aware that language matters in how their input is received.  Instead of the ‘always’ and ‘never’, encourage them to use phrases like, “I can remember times when…”  or “I can’t remember a time when…”.  Those invite further dialogue.  Instead of the ubiquitous ‘but’, encourage them to use ‘and’: “That sounds like a really good idea, and I’d like to offer a minor caution so that we don’t trip up.”

Invite their input, and set the expectations.  Instead of waiting till Ms. Pessimist bursts out with her negative proclamations, invite her in with a clear statement of the tone you want: “Ms. Pessimist, you’ve just heard the proposal.  What do you think is the single best thing about this proposal?  What one thing do you think we should explore further to be sure that ‘best thing’ is not compromised as we move forward to implementation?”

Ask them to identify the people they admire and why.  Chances are good that the pessimist will identify some positive people in their most-admired list.  Have a conversation about what makes those people appealing, and how they could emulate some of their characteristics.

With pessimists, the switch to an exuberant, glass-full-to-the-brim personality is unlikely to be the outcome you’ll see, even in the long term.  But what you can expect is a more balanced expression of personality, one that does not inflict misery on the entire team.  It’s wise to not treat pessimism as a performance problem, but rather as a developmental opportunity to become as effective as possible, which these people genuinely desire.  If you get the glass to half full, you will have done well on their behalf – and on your team’s.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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