No one likes a Debbie Downer as the saying goes. But could our dear friend Debbie provide some much-needed value in the workplace?

In it’s simplest terms, optimism is good and pessimism is bad. Conventional wisdom dictates you to stay positive and even Monty Python suggests you must always look on the bright side of life. There’s an overwhelming amount of research indicating that positive thinkers tend to
perform better in school, advance more easily in their career and have far superior lives. Doctors inform us that optimism improves our health and helps us live longer. Researchers publish studies showing that optimistic people are happier and have more friends. In every way, it seems, optimists bask in the sunshine of the world’s admiration, while pessimists sulk in the shadows. They are the cynics. They’re gloomy, sarcastic and always focus on the worst possible outcomes.

But is it possible that the can-do attitude that works so well for individuals actually becomes counteractive in the workplace? And is there a case to be made that sometimes pessimism is an under-appreciated asset?

Being gloomy in outlook can help us foresee future problems and head them off. Defensive pessimism in particular, is a strategy used in specific situations to manage anxiety, fear, and worry. By setting low expectations for themselves, defensive pessimists visualize the worst-case scenarios and thoroughly prepare for them, figuring out exactly how to handle them if they were to arise. This helps to create a sense of control. If these bad situations actually present themselves, of course pessimists still feel bad, but nowhere near as bad as if they had never saw it coming. Having prepared for the worst, they’ve had a chance to work through the emotional implications of this negative situation in advance.

Also, having a little dose of pessimism can be most helpful at moments where we feel no need to be negative at all. Having been successful in the past, creating a realistic expectation of being successful again, may present itself as overconfidence and we can even be lulled into laziness or apathy. Anticipating a poor outcome give us the little push we need to give our best efforts.
People with a gloomy outlook can also be better employees than their chirpier counterparts. New research published in the journal Social Psychology indicates that pessimists tend to spend a lot of time on fewer activities, meaning they successfully hone their skills in specific tasks. Those who are the life and soul of the office, by contrast, adopt a jack-of-all-trades approach, investing small amounts of time in a wide variety of things, thus possibly making them less productive employees.

Bottom line is that it may feel like a Gloomy Gus has nothing to offer but cynicism and wet blankets, but it seems this isn’t always the case. Although this isn’t to say that you should throw away your can-do hopefulness and sunny outlook.

Optimism has big advantages, from insulating us against failure when it occurs, to giving us the courage to try new things that are statistically unlikely to succeed. Plus, optimistic people generally do better with others, are hired more and are promoted more readily once they’re working. So no need to go all Eeyore about everything, but don’t hastily opt for extreme optimism all the time either.

There’s value in both viewpoints.

Researcher Adam Grant argues that both styles of thinking are deadly at their extremes. Pessimism becomes fatalistic and optimism becomes toxic. The key is to find the sweet spot that combines the benefits of both approaches and it is trivial to argue which mindset is best. Businesses need both to have just the right mix of daring and caution.

I think it’s safe to say that a modest dose of pessimism is entirely healthy. So if you’re the kind of person who’s always telling others to look on the bright side of life, you might want to reconsider.

Photo by Christopher Michel on Flickr