Where do you sit on the optimist-pessimist scale and why does this matter?
If you read enough self help and positive psychology material, you could be forgiven for thinking that we could all be super optimists if we only put our minds to it. Whilst I share the sentiment, lets not forget that Pessimism is not an affliction and without it the world would be a less ironic, funny, diverse and interesting place.
Your personality is shaped and formed in childhood and adolescence and it is difficult to fundamentally change it. Since optimism and pessimism are core features of your personality, the traditional argument goes that you are either an optimist or a pessimist, see the glass as half full or half empty and that’s just the way it is.
Now we understand that personality traits exist along a continuum and are a question of degree, rather than either/or. As resourceful human beings we are quite capable of adjusting our outlook, overriding our habitual responses and even (if the neuroscientists are to be believed) modifying the wiring of our brains over time. In other words far from being fixed personality types, optimism and pessimism maybe more ‘plastic’ than we have hitherto believed and what’s more, we may be able to do something about it.
Whilst you may not be able to shift from extreme pessimism to extreme optimism (the hard wiring may defy the best efforts of neuroscience and coaching), you certainly can modify your explanatory style for the better. What do I mean by explanatory style?
‘Your habitual way of explaining bad events ... a habit of thought learned in childhood and adolescence, which stems directly from your view of your place in the world – whether you think you are valuable and deserving, or worthless and hopeless. It is the hallmark of whether you are an optimist or a pessimist’
To many people Seligman is the father of Positive Psychology. His seminal work ‘Learned Optimism’ does exactly what it says on the tin and the title says it all. With the right attitude and support, you can learn to be more optimistic and forward looking. But, to ask a slightly different question do optimism and pessimism always equate to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ personality types?
The answer to this question is highly contextual I believe. You may prefer to go to the pub or socialise with a pessimist who has a well developed sense of humor and irony, rather than an extreme optimist for whom life is a series of challenges to be overcome for example. However, if you are looking for a leader and someone to make a real difference, the decision is likely to be reversed.
Having worked with leaders of all kinds over many years, I also recognise that it is beneficial or even necessary to have optimistic leaders, particularly in certain business situations. A CEO of a high growth business or headmaster of an under-performing school are two obvious examples. People generally respond better to optimists and are more likely to follow them. In these situations optimism, along with vision, energy and resilience will be necessary, if not sufficient qualities for success. Furthermore optimism and pessimism can be more than a little self-fulfilling. In the words of Henry Ford;
‘if you believe that you can, or believe that you can’t, then you are right’
So if optimists tend to be high achievers and make better leaders, what is the case in favor of pessimism and can it ever be a positive attribute? I believe it can, and here's why.
Firstly, there are professions which lend themselves better to a more cautious or even pessimistic personality types. For example Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ points out that it is generally preferable that Airline Pilots are pessimists who are more likely to mitigate risks, rather than optimists who may miss them altogether.
My instinct tells me that I would rather fly with a mildly pessimistic rather than extremely optimistic pilot and therefore I buy Kahneman’s view. That he describes himself as ‘somewhat pessimistic’ AND is the winner of a Nobel Prize for Economics underscores the point. Pessimists are able to excel and separately, Pessimism may lend itself to better performance in certain situations and contexts.
If we follow Kahneman’s logic then certain business roles maybe performed as well or better by mild pessimists than extreme optimists. For example Doctors, nurses, Legal, IT and any positions for which a core responsibility is to manage risk may benefit from someone who is capable of taking a ‘worst case scenario’ view. I am not saying that optimists are not capable of doing this, rather that they are less likely to do so as a matter of course. Extreme optimists may not do it at all and these people in leadership positions may require more cautious individuals as foils, to mitigate their wilder excesses. This is typical of many CEO/FD relationships for example.
Effective leadership is contextual and there may be certain times and certain business situations in which an extreme optimist is the worst profile of all. A CEO client once said to me, to justify his bullishness, that ‘ it is better to go off a cliff at 100mph rather than to crawl over it’ and I took his point. It is the live fast- die young kind of philosophy. Thankfully his judgement was generally sound but history proves that extreme optimists often do fly off a cliff at 100 mph, precisely because they are risk averse and in some cases oblivious to risk.
These people do not always apply the right business strategy or make the right decisions because at best, their cognitive biases limit their vision and at worst their judgement may be clouded by greed. Quite often both forces are at play. Perhaps the banking crisis may have been averted, if we there had been more pessimists on the boards of the banks and financial institutions, rather than within the largely toothless regulators?
It is crucial to know where you sit on the pessimist/optimist scale so that you can understand your own risk appetite and potential blind spots and how you view others. Leaders today need to be increasingly self-aware and If you can modify your approach on a situational basis, all the better. Having the humility to listen to the advice of others will help to mitigate your own cognitive biases.
To optimists, know when to reign yourselves in and to accept that the worst may actually happen, as history so often proves. To pessimists, know when to be more positive and forward looking or you may fail to exploit opportunities, or (worse) you might miss them altogether. In business today you need to be optimistic enough to hope for the best, realistic enough to prepare for the worst and flexible enough to move between both positions according to the reality on the ground.
David Head is a coach and mentor with Accelerating Experience. firstname.lastname@example.org