Lucy Kellaway: Why pessimism is good for business

Woody Allen in 1971 Woody Allen: Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem

What role does negative thinking have to play in the corporate world? A crucial one, says Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times.

In business, optimism is good and pessimism bad. Optimists have a monopoly on success, on happiness and even on longevity.

Pessimists, with their long faces and dark thoughts are pariahs, thought fit for nothing in the gung-ho corporate world except possibly careers in journalism (where bad news is good news).

But now pessimism may be coming back to the mainstream. The turn came recently when management guru Tom Peters tweeted enthusiastically about a book that extols negative thinking.

This is an extraordinary turnaround for a man whose logo is a colourful exclamation mark and who for decades has been relentlessly, exhaustingly upbeat.

Unlike Mr Peters, I was born pessimistic. I expect a sudden downpour to spoil every summer party; I am confident that every initiative will end in failure; at least half the dresses in my wardrobe are grey.

Prepared for the worst

Start Quote

Lucy Kellaway

The trouble with optimists is that they don't do well in a pear-shaped world”

End Quote Lucy Kellaway

So I've dashed to look up the book Mr Peters recommends, which turns out to have a brainlessly upbeat title, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Use Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety & Perform at Your Peak.

Still, Rome wasn't destroyed in a day, and perhaps this book has softened up the market for negativity sufficiently to prepare it for the book I'd like to write myself (if Mr Peters doesn't get there first).

I might call it, Pear-shaped: Why Things Always Go Wrong at Work, and How Not to Cope When They Do.

The trouble with optimists is that they don't do well in a pear-shaped world.

In prisoner of war camps in Vietnam, the people who died first were the positive thinkers - they fully expected to be back home by Christmas and fell to pieces when they weren't.

Admittedly, the world of business isn't exactly like a prisoner of war camp, in that you can nip out for a latte and you can sleep in your own comfy bed at night.

But it can be grim and relentless and one bad thing can happen after another and being always prepared for the worst seems to me the only wise course of action.

Woody Allen put it best: "Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem."

Prisoners of positivity

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Despite the pessimism revival it is stupid to argue about which view of the world is best, when both views are clearly needed all of the time.

Every organisation and every partnership should be carefully balanced to include both optimists and pessimists.

A marriage also needs both - my own experience has taught me that it's good to have an optimist to come up with endless wild schemes for picnics and outings and a pessimist to swash the maddest ones and temper the rest with paracetamol and umbrellas.

Businesses need both even more to have just the right mix of daring and caution.

Diversity of optimists and pessimists is the most important sort of diversity there is and should be actively sought at board level and every level below.

Corporate pessimists should be de-stigmatised and beckoned out of the closet. Above all, they should stop having to pretend to see the glass half full just to suit the fashion.

They should be proud to declare that for them, it has been half empty all along.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I have recently completed a final evaluation of a multi-million dollar project. All parties reported risk, but I am convinced that everyone realized that the project was EXTREMELY risky, but they understated the risk in order to be optimistic. In the event, the risk elements materialized, and the result was great wastage. Professionalism requires dispassionate and objective assessment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I work in IT, and pessimism is often needed, unfortunately it's not seen as a positive trait.

    You get absolutely hammered if you say, this project isn't going to work, because of X,Y & Z. The only way you are really allowed to highlight problems is if you have a solution or alternative already. Sometimes, if you see an issue, you need to be raise it, even if you don't know how to deal with it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    volume of water in glass exactly half the total amount glass can hold.

    As with the vast majority of theories and "-ism"s - the very best way to look at things is with a mixture of both.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    The overall tenet of the argument is correct. As an entrepreneur I am always operating with a necessary optimism tempered with a need to run scared. Optimistic CEOs are best teamed with a pessimistic FD who have the personal strength to scrutinies the wilder adventures and keep the business on the asphalt. Entrepreneurs in smaller businesses have to internalize this process in their thinking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Read 'The Good to Great' by Jim Collins. The Stockdale Paradox outlines why optimists will fail. It takes a bit of thinking about but actually it makes sense. Admiral Stockdale was the most senior POW in the Vietnam war and survied internment and torture. When questioned why he survived and other didn't he replied 'They were all optimists'. An apparent paradox but it isn't.



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