Wednesday, May 25, 2011

When pessimism is your ally in performance

Originally uploaded by Because Studio.
In the spirit of full disclosure, this post should probably be titled "When TEMPORARY pessimism is your ally in performance."  When you constantly dwell on what can go wrong and expect a bad outcome, you may be more likely to become passive and not take the very action that will improve your situation.  Long-term pessimism can alter your view of your surroundings, causing the small blots on predominantly clean sheets of paper to distract you from the vast space that's there on which you can draw.

The Impact of Chronic Pessimism
Perpetual pessimism is a habit of thought that creates the conditions for exactly the poor results the pessimist expects.  Assuming the worst of other people's motives, for instance, leads to a lack of trust, which leads to enforcement and control behavior.  Then the other person responds in kind, or they follow through according to your expectations:  "If they already think that I'm cheating, why shouldn't I?"  They cheat, thinking that it doesn't matter because you already expect it...and when you find out about this recent cheating incident it reinforces your pessimistic view.  The downward spiral continues.

Some people think that optimists are blind to the real world, and that optimists whistle while walking in the dark places that hide vicious critters and trip hazards.  Some chronic pessimists think that optimists are oblivious, going on their merry way like the cartoon character that inadvertently steps off of a skyscraper roof and miraculously steps onto a steel girder that is being hoisted by a crane.  The character keeps walking (without looking) and just as he reaches the end of that somehow perfectly balanced girder it has reached its destination - the adjacent skyscraper roof - onto which he steps without incident or interruption of his tempo.  The character eludes injury and death without even being aware that his life was just in mortal danger.  It's evident to the chronic pessimist that, although it worked out fine this time, the optimist's blindness will eventually bite him in the a__.

Using Temporary Pessimism to Your Advantage
Temporary pessimism is different from chronic pessimism in that you invoke it intentionally, and for a limited period of time.  You really let yourself "go there," considering all the obstacles that are in your way and the contingencies that could crop up later.  Then once you think about everything that could possibly go wrong, you switch your focus to solutions and, better yet, prevention.  You plan the action steps that you will take to help to make sure that the worst won't happen.  And then you let it go.  You shift your attention back to what you WANT to happen.

Optimism has been documented to improve health and improve performance.  But optimism is not necessarily blind.  It's easier to believe in a positive outcome when you have been proactive about preventing the negative outcome.  And you can determine the appropriate actions to take to prevent the worst case scenario when you allow yourself to walk on the dark, pessimistic side just for a while.


Lynn Marie Caissie said...

Hope for the best; prepare for the worst!

Julie Poland, certified business coach said...

Yes, I agree. The potential trap in evaluating the worst case scenario is that most people are already inclined negatively. No judgment of that fact, but it's fact nonetheless. And if you go too far in the "what can go wrong" discussion, it can become tempting to say "Why bother?" and bail out before you begin.