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The Productivity Boosting Power of Pessimism

Imagining the worst can actually help you get stuff done, so stop trying to force yourself (or your employees) to be optimists.
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The contemporary business world can be pretty hostile to pessimists.

Not only do the more anxious and negative among us start out with a gloomier outlook, but they also have to endure bouncy optimists endlessly advising them that they would get more done if they just had a positive outlook.

But is optimism really the key to success?

Research shows that happiness has positive effects on our brains, and it's certainly a pleasant turn of luck to be born with a sunny disposition, but according to science if you weren’t so fortunate and naturally tend towards pessimism, trying to remake yourself into more of an optimist is probably doing more harm than good.

That’s the message of a recent post by Wharton professor Adam Grant on LinkedIn anyway. It argues that the motivational strategies that work for optimists (who expect positive outcomes) are very different from those that are effective for defensive pessimists (who fret about negative ones) -- and you often gain nothing from trying to nudge an anxious employee (or yourself) into a happier mindset. So how should you handle pessimists?

Don't tell them to relax. Grant references a study where participants were asked to throw darts. Before they actually took aim, half the study subjects were asked to listen to relaxing music and half were told to visualize missing the target. What were the results? "When they actually threw their darts, the strategic optimists were about 30 percent more accurate when they relaxed rather than imagining negative outcomes. But the opposite was true for the defensive pessimists: they were about 30 percent more accurate when they thought about negative outcomes." The conclusion: telling you anxious employee to just relax is likely to worsen their performance.

Go light on the encouragement. What could possibly be wrong with saying kind words about someone’s abilities? For pessimists, simple encouragement can backfire. In one experiment involving a drawing task, "words of encouragement slightly boosted the performance of strategic optimists, who did 14 percent better. In contrast, the defensive pessimists did significantly worse when they were encouraged, scoring 29 percent lower."

Distraction doesn't pay. If your office pessimist is fretting, don’t try to take their mind off their anxiety with unrelated happy thoughts. It’s counter-intuitive, but Grant says a study involving a math test has confirmed the finding: "When the defensive pessimists distracted themselves with another task right before the math test, their scores were about 25 percent lower than when they listed the most extreme outcomes that could happen in the test, and how they might feel. Taking time to worry helped them generate the anxiety necessary to motivate themselves."

Want many more details on the differing mental styles of optimists and pessimists and the what science reveals about maximizing productivity either way you lean? Check out Grant’s interesting, in depth post. 

Last updated: Oct 17, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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