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 19.

    I'm an optimist: my business partner is a bit of a pessimist. Together we seem to get it just about right (we're still in business after 15 years, at least).

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    You can build on positivity, you remain inert with negativity. Positive thoughts bring your world expansion, potential, excitement, hope and growth. Negativity brings stagnation, pain, frustration, a general dissatisfaction with life. From someone who suffered with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for 15 years due to negative thinking, believe me, I know that negativity doesn't ever work in life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I've never understood the concept of the glass being half full or half empty. In both cases the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Now that stock markets and sovereign debt spreads are being driven at least as much by sentiment as anything else, this topic has become important.

    That is, perception has become important. Regardless of your outlook, the mere fact that any decision maker has an outlook and acts on it has some bearing on a large section of market behaviour.

    So, more (intentional) comedy, less drama.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Nothing new about this. For the last 40 years MBA students have analysed businesses using Michael Porter's model, which basically says that if a company is susceptible to product substitution, market forces, the clout of customers or suppliers, or new entrants to the industry, then eventually one or more of those things will happen. Strong businesses fix those weaknesses before they lose money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    In project management terms, this is called 'contingency planning'. Money for old rope, as usual.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Can this home-owner afford to repay their mortgage? I'm confident they can! My blue sky thinking outside the box has left me in a win-win situation.

  • 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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I base my decision on whether my glass is half empty or half full on whether I am filling it or emptying it. It has nothing to do with optimism. I once had presenter try to explain why I sat in certain seat at their presentation. After listening to all their reasoning I just said I sat where I sat so I could see the board.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    It all comes down to risk. Optimists take risks that pessimists don't. Optimists are therefore more likely to make big gains but are equally more likely to fail. Pessismists are more secure but will take longer to succeed. Neither are right or wrong, they are all down to the conditions of the market at a particular time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    There is much activity in the field of Risk Management in the commercial world nowadays and I think a pessimistic viewpoint would be an asset for a Risk Manager.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    In my experience realists are just closet pessimists ('You can't do that', 'Why not?', 'I'm just being realistic...'). Pessimists are no better than optimists. What we need are pragmatists - people who think and act objectively and practically. The adoption of either extreme benefits no-one, now or in the longer term.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Problem is that if you inject a measure of 'balloon tethering' to a programme and you're seen as negative.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    To an engineer the glass is neither half full, nor half empty. It's simply twice as big as it needs to be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    What a relief to find other people thinking like me! I personally think being prepared for the worst or 'problem finding' is a form of positivity, as it enables you to proactively 'problem solve', rather than reactively. I've often been criticised for 'always finding a problem in things' but to me it's crucial to success. Success is all about problem solving, not problem ignoring!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Life's a bitch. At the end of it you die.

    I'm confident about this, so do I understand the problem?

    As my glass is still half full, I guess not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Nice Woody Allen quote.

    But what about the realists? Optimism and pessimism are, in my eyes, about gut-feeling and behaviour. I would approach things as a realist, looking at facts and trends, and apply optimism or pessism as a something that I have qualified, rather than a random feeling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    There is a big perception filter at work here. I agree that some points of view can be genuinely pessimistic, but on many occasions pessimism is an optimist's perception of realism.

    Would a group of "pessimistic" bankers have bet the house on sub-prime mortgages? Remind me how that turned out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I never really understood which of glass half empty/full was meant to be optimistic or pessimistic.

    Glass half empty seems to me to represent opportunity, whereas galss half full could be merely a reason to avoid action.


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