Can Optimists and Pessimists Ever Get Along?

How many arguments have broken out in your team just because someone was handing out suggestions on the fly without giving it much thought? How about someone who keeps shooting down ideas just because they found the concepts to be too unusual?

If you’ve seen these two issues come up repeatedly, it’s highly likely that you and your team are plagued by two common cognitive biases, the optimism bias, and the pessimism bias. The optimism bias involves many people who make very positive forecasts of future risks and rewards. On the other hand, the pessimism bias describes those who give out extremely negative assessments.

Cognitive biases are mental blindspots and judgment errors that result from how our brains are wired. The optimism bias and pessimism bias, which are prevalent in many businesses and organizations, are just two of over one hundred of these dangerous judgment errors.

Let’s talk about a quickly-growing healthcare startup in the Northeast who previously asked for my help. This startup had to keep navigating through the constant stalemates between optimists and pessimists in the team, which often caused a great deal of internal chaos.

The optimists in the team would often generate a lot of great new ideas without assessing what kinds of problems might come with it. For instance, they’d suggest an innovative marketing strategy to promote their new product without much regard for anything else.

On the other hand, the pessimists would not generate new ideas as frequently as the optimists because they can keep dreading the possible issues well in advance. Sometimes they would even see problems that weren’t there.

Given these characteristics, naturally, the pessimists would tear the optimistic marketing strategy and other ideas to pieces. They would also highlight the risks that came with every innovative suggestion, such as penalties by regulators for overhyping medical claims.

The defensive and negative relationships between the two opposing groups took a toll on teamwork. Often, major decisions got gridlocked because the two sides couldn’t reach a middle ground.

The optimistic team members often called out the pessimists for derailing innovation and being too hard to please. On the other hand, the pessimistic team members criticized the pessimists for being too hopeful and not being careful in their planning.

Being Different Isn’t a Bad Thing

Given that their characteristics represent opposite sides of the same coin (at least as it concerns the startup’s growth), can you imagine how much more productive these two opposing sides can be if they decided to collaborate and play to their strengths?

For instance, optimists should be allowed and encouraged to give ideas while admitting that these new ideas still have room for improvement. Pessimists, in turn, can then pore over these ideas and refine them further, instead of just discounting or disregarding them.

That’s the core principle that I immediately shared with the healthcare startup when I was brought in to help repair team engagement and boost collaboration. I especially highlighted why it’s important to have at least two devil’s advocates on a team. While most people would think that pessimism is bad, research shows it’s good to have opposing positions on a team to make sound decisions.

While the experience of collaborating with devil’s advocates can be quite off-putting at first to optimistic team members, the former are actually good at steering the team into a more thorough examination of new ideas, as they find loopholes and address potential issues in advance. Devil’s advocates are also good at preventing groupthink, the tendency for a group to coalesce around the opinion of the most powerful person in the room.

This rather simple change drastically improved meetings and employee engagement. The startup’s optimists generated ideas and turned them over to the pessimists, who fine-tuned the innovative concepts and transformed them into well-thought-out project plans.

Strike a Balance

The important thing to remember here is that a mixed group of optimists and pessimists would work better than having a team composed of just optimists or just pessimists.

If a team only has optimists, everyone will be stuck in a loop of thinking their ideas are brilliant - end of the story. They would constantly just support each other without double-checking if their plans have any flaws at all. Unfortunately, this could result in ideas running in 20 different directions at once.

On the other hand, if a team only has pessimists, there will be a lack of new ideas for the needs of our increasingly disrupted world because the pessimists would find issues with everything. While this was acceptable a generation ago, it certainly isn’t now.

You get the best of both worlds when you have a mixed group. When optimists and pessimists collaborate efficiently, their efforts result in innovative processes that are thoroughly planned out. This, in turn, secures an organization’s success for the long term.

Power in Diversity

Given that a good mix of optimists and pessimists in your team can boost employee engagement and enhance innovation, it just makes sense to be mindful when recruiting people, especially leaders, for your business.

Remember that it’s difficult to go against your gut and hire somebody different from you. This means that if you are an optimist, you’re probably going to be uncomfortable hiring a pessimist, and vice versa. The same issue also comes up when people get promoted to higher positions because of the halo and horns effect. The halo effect refers to the fact that if we feel a significant positive emotion toward one characteristic of someone, then we will have an overly positive evaluation of that person as a whole. The horns effect is the opposite: if we don’t like a characteristic that is significant to us, we will tend to have a worse evaluation of that person as a whole.

If you want to ensure the success of your business, be aware of and learn to defend yourself against these cognitive biases. This is the only way you will be able to make wise decisions in hiring and collaboration, whether you are dealing with issues regarding optimists and pessimists, or need to improve other areas of your business.

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