Operations manager Diane Alter once worked for such a committed optimist that despite a litany of daily workplace crises, he would say, “It’s all good.” It only made Alter want to protect her momentary miseries. “Let me enjoy my bad mood for a minute,” she felt like saying. “Let me wallow in it.”
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Faced with pressing problems, his involvement was limited to a phone call. All the while, she was huffing and puffing to resolve the problem herself. In the end, she says, “Everything ends up OK because responsibility to fix it falls on everyone else.”
As management literature often notes, optimists drive employees to exceptional levels of achievement. But, man, those Pollyannas can be annoying, exhausting and sometimes maddening because they can get away with so much.
In offices, where blind optimism is more forgivable than even mild pessimism, staffers wait for the time when their head hopers won’t know what hit them—but it usually ends up being a promotion.
Optimists think they delegate; their staffers think they deny work’s unpleasant realities. Optimists raise possibilities; staffers are told they’re raising obstacles. Optimists think more can be done with less; their staffers are pretty sure less gets done with less. “I can’t think of anything that I would call a true failure,” says Jeanne Schmidt, a corporate finance consultant and black-belt optimist. “I can’t stand it,” she adds, when the why-bother pessimists take charge.
Art Armstrong, a chief executive of a manufacturing company, sees her point. “If Henry V at Agincourt had spoken to his army about relative troop strengths, we might all be speaking French.”
“It may well be that they have been sent on a fool’s errand,” he says of employees. “But it may be that the errand is fine, the problem is that a fool was sent.”
Making matters worse (for the pessimists, naturally) is research favouring optimists. Optimists’ biological stress systems aren’t perpetually running at full steam, taxing immune systems and inviting chronic disease.
Pessimists like to think they’re setting themselves up for pleasant surprises while optimists face heartbreak.
Not always true. “Optimism has this way of forever sliding into the future that protects you from the disappointments of the past,” says Shelley E. Taylor, professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. In her research, cancer patients who suffered a recurrence would say: “I’ll beat this just like I did the last time.”
Michael Scheier, head of the psychology department at Carnegie Mellon University, says spouses of patients fare much better if their husbands or wives are optimistic about their future. “It’s absolutely amazing how uniformly adaptive this characteristic is in terms of health,” he says.
But pessimists aren’t given the benefit of their doubts. Research shows that relative pessimists are more accurate at gauging success and failure rates at a simple laboratory task than optimists, who undercounted failures and overcounted successes, says Edward Chang, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. Also, evidence shows that pessimism can be highly motivational, as what is called “defensive pessimism” drives people to achieve their goals.
Arguably, adds Chang, investment banks suffering from the subprime lending crisis were too optimistic while Goldman Sachs, which plotted out disaster scenarios, has thrived. “Optimism associated with inaction is useless,” he says. “But pessimism associated with movement, motivation and energy is exactly what people are talking about in terms of the best of optimism.”
To the blindest of optimists, even contingency planning looks like negativity. Robert McBurnett, a chief financial officer, once worked for a company where any business opportunity was circulated among department heads to weigh the upside against concerns. Then, an unbending optimist bought the company. Any concerns were met with, “Why are you being negative?” says McBurnett. So, they found themselves forced to fix things in mid-project and troubleshoot on the fly.
“They’re so confident they can make chicken salad out of chicken...” (well, you get the idea), says McBurnett. But “it’s extremely stressful on your mid-level managers. They don’t last long.”
“It’s a way of coping with situations where they have no answers and less knowledge,” adds Randy Johnson, a former hospital superintendent, who fielded many directives easier said than done. Because it’s so easy to be branded a naysayer, Johnson figured out a way to cope with optimists—by pinning concerns on others. Observe: “Bill Jones may bring up objections and I really want to see this project work. What do you suggest that I tell him?” she would say.
She also hoped her supervisor’s bubble would burst from its own structural weakness. With any luck, she says, “the optimists will generate more great ideas” and forget about their first ones.
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