Pessimism: The key to a better career?

Why cup-half-empty types should embrace their nature

Stressed-out businessman
(Image credit: (Thinkstock))

In the workplace, pessimists get a bad rap. Those who expect failure are often seen as drags, debbie downers, and cup-half-empty fun-killers, making office life even more dreary.

But studies have shown that defensive pessimists — as these anxious types are called by psychologists — tend to perform just as well as optimists. The difference lies in their motivations.

The late humorist David Rakoff once described defensive pessimism like this for a Bullseye podcast:

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[D]efensive pessimists are cousins to dispositional pessimists. They see the world as being a little more negative than it actually is like most pessimists, but what defensive pessimists do is they then take that presentiment of disaster, like "this is going to suck" kind of premonition, and they take arms against it, and they envision their worst case scenario coming true.

This is going to suck because of A, B, C, and D, and they go through each aspect of suckhood and they come up with a contingency plan as to what they are going to do to combat that. It's a means of claiming agency and getting over your anxiety about the world. [Bullseye, via Psych Central]

While optimists are driven to win accomplishments and accolades, defensive pessimists are motivated by a deep desire to avoid all manner of "suckhood."

If that sounds like you, there are at least three important things to know. First, the sooner you embrace this part of your character, the better you'll do at work. "It is stressful enough to try to juggle as many projects and goals as we do," Heidi Grant Halvorson, a professor at Columbia University Business School, says in the Harvard Business Review, "but we add a layer of stress without realizing it when we try to reach them using strategies that don't feel right — that don't mesh with our own motivational style."

In other words, just do you, even if you're kind of a Daria.

Second, despite the fact that positive people are more often rewarded in our society, defensive pessimism isn't a handicap. "Most people assume that strategic optimists outperform defensive pessimists, because they benefit from confidence and high expectations," says Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant at LinkedIn, citing two psychologists who have studied defensive pessimists. They "found that defensive pessimists were more anxious and set lower expectations for themselves in analytical, verbal, and creative tasks. Yet they didn't perform any worse."

[W]e need pessimists to anticipate the worst and prepare us all for it. On average, research indicates that people who never worry have lower job performance than those who worry from time to time. Studies also show that when entrepreneurs are highly optimistic, their new ventures bring in less revenue and grow more slowly, and when CEOs are highly optimistic, they take on more risky debt and swing for the fences more often, putting their companies in jeopardy. [LinkedIn]

Finally, you'll want to figure out how to get the most out of your bad attitude, which often means doing the opposite of what works for optimists. For example, positive visualization can make defensive pessimists complacent, while negative visualization can help their performance.

Grant pointed out a study by psychologists Julie Norem and Stacie Spencer in which a group of subjects — some optimists, some pessimists — were asked to throw darts under different conditions. Before playing, some listened to relaxing nature tapes, while others imagined themselves throwing the darts and missing. Optimists and pessimists responded in completely different ways: The optimists performed 30 percent better when they were primed with relaxation tapes, while pessimists did 30 percent better when they were first fed negative thoughts.

So pessimists, before that big presentation, do what you do best: Work yourself up into an anxious state by picturing how badly you'll screw up. It may be your best shot at success.

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