Management by Coaching
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
THE BAD HABIT: ALWAYS ASSUMING THE WORST
Overcoming the destructive behavior that can end a promising career
It was the weekly Zoom check-in for the project team, and Addison was already on her third coffee. Fifteen minutes into the agenda, it was obvious things weren’t going well and the project delivery date wasn’t going to be met. This was no surprise to Addison; she’d said from the beginning that the project was destined for disaster.
Eager to get the project back on track, teammates started brainstorming potential strategies. But, being a realist, Addison didn’t see any way that the IT team could execute the ideas her colleagues were suggesting. Determined to protect her reputation and the integrity of her IT team, Addison raised serious concerns about every option put on the table. Her co-workers were used to her cold, hard doses of reality and “the glass is half empty” view of the world, but that didn’t stop her negativity from becoming contagious. The group’s mood quickly shifted from hopeful to defeated.
Addison has a negative behavior pattern known as “pessimist-worrier.” According to James Waldroop, Ph.D., and Timothy Butler, Ph.D., directors of MBA Career Development at Harvard Business School, “pessimist-worrier” is one of 12 discrete behavior patterns that consistently derail careers or get people fired. (For three other patterns, see previous “Management by Coaching” columns in the April 2021, June 2021, and August 2021 issues of Rough Notes.)
Characteristics of the behavior
The pessimist-worrier pattern involves two separate but inextricably linked dynamics. First, people who exhibit this behavior pattern have a pessimistic view of the world and everything in it they encounter. They look at the glass and perceive it as half-empty, but they don’t stop there. They see the level decreasing through evaporation and the potential contaminants that might be in the water. While this may have some basis in reality, it’s not how most people think. One of the predominant characteristics of a pessimist-worrier like Addison is that they imagine every possible negative outcome of every action.
Telling a pessimist-worrier they need to stop being so negative and focus on the bright side is like telling a chronically depressed person to cheer up. If they could, they would.
The second is that the pessimist-worrier doesn’t stop to evaluate the potential consequences of not changing. As a result, the balance is almost always stacked in favor of the status quo and against change.
The worrier part of the pattern comes from the fundamental belief that something bad is likely to happen. Optimists foresee success, which fuels excitement; pessimist-worriers anticipate failure, which in turn triggers anxiety. Interestingly, research shows that worrying actually makes the pessimist-worrier feel better, more active and empowered, even if it has no effect on the outcome.
Addison’s behavior pattern has two psychological drivers:
- Seeing almost nothing but the negative
- Worrying about it to excess
Unlike the patterns we’ve talked about in previous columns, this one is easy to spot. Typically, they voice their concerns freely and they seldom hesitate to speak up. When colleagues suggest new ideas, they are quick to present the downside. Pessimist-worriers tend to be apprehensive about making a mistake or doing anything that would fall short of expectations.
Every organization needs fearless people who are willing to speak the truth to power and challenge groupthink when a reality check is needed. These people play an invaluable role in the organization. However, when the person can see only the draw-backs and can’t offer any constructive alternatives, their value is overshadowed by the damage they do.
Pessimist-worriers play a vital role in professions like risk analysis, quality control, engineering and accounting, but even in these fields when their behavior goes unchecked, it can be extremely damaging to the organization.
Impact to the organization
Pessimist-worriers like Addison take their jobs very seriously. In their eyes, they are protectors of the organization and are driven by their noble intentions to keep the group out of trouble.
While their motives may be pure, their behavior has significant downsides, including:
- Spreading fear and anxiety. When one person starts to worry excessively and publicly—for a good reason or bad—people begin to pick up that signal and start worrying themselves. Anxiety, like other emotions, has a “contagious” element. Experts have come to understand that just like a virus, emotions go viral within groups, influencing people’s thoughts and actions without their even being aware. That is because our brains are hardwired to automatically mimic other people’s facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. Then, through a variety of physiological and neurological processes, we feel the emotions we mimicked—and then act on them. In the case of Addison, her negativity about the project’s chance of success quickly spread to her colleagues on the project team.
- Avoiding decisions. Pessimist-worriers are especially dangerous when elevated to leadership positions. Leaders need to be willing to take a risk and suffer the consequences if they’re wrong. The pessimist-worrier avoids risk at all costs. Rather than make a decision that could end up being wrong, they procrastinate and opt to maintain the status quo.
- Squelching innovation. Innovation requires a willingness to see beyond problems to the opportunities they present. In addition, innovators have an underlying belief that problems can be solved and have the confidence to take a leap of faith and move forward. These are qualities pessimist-worriers lack.
- Demoralizing teams. No one likes being around a manager or teammate who is a “downer.” People are protective of their ideas and will avoid having them shot down at all costs. Managers who see only the downsides of an idea will find that their team quickly becomes disengaged and stops offering suggestions. Their colleagues will leave them out of discussions whenever possible.
- Perpetuating naysayer behavior. When pessimist-worriers have hiring responsibilities, they can negatively impact the process. First, they tend to set the threshold so high that it can be difficult for any applicant to meet expectations. Second, they tend to hire people like themselves. So instead of a team of “yes men,” they end with a team whose usual response is “no.”
- Procrastinating. Pessimist-worriers have a nagging and often irrational fear that their work will not be good enough. They believe that if their work product is viewed as inadequate, they will be seen as not good enough. Rather than risk that judgment, they unconsciously seek to avoid or delay the work. Often, these are higher-stakes projects that have organizational impact.
- Micromanaging. This is common among worrier-pessimists. Overly concerned that work may not measure up and could reflect badly on them, managers like Addison tend to exert tight control over direct reports. This stifles employee growth and contributes to above-average department turnover.
Coaching a pessimist-worrier
When coaching a pessimist-worrier, keep six essential things in mind:
- Focus on the person’s behavior not their underlying beliefs. Pessimist-worriers are driven by fear, which is a powerful emotion you are unlikely to change. However, you can help the person address specific behaviors that are hurting their career.
- Don’t try to change the person’s negativity. Telling a pessimist-worrier to look at the bright side is like telling a chronically depressed person to cheer up. If they could, they would. Instead, agree with the person that the world is a dangerous place and that we need to stay alert. Explain that their ability to see potential downsides and willingness to challenge assumptions can be a value to the team, but only when used judiciously.
- Show them the impact of their behavior. Pessimist-worriers tend to think that others view the world as they do and they are seldom aware of their behavior’s impact on co-workers. Help them see how their behavior is getting in the way. For example, “Addison, when you throw up roadblocks to every suggestion your team makes, people become defeated and shut down.”
- Teach them to pick their opportunities. The key for pessimist-worriers is to be selective about when they sound the alarm. This means being mindful of their default tendency to be the naysayer and pausing before they speak. Is the issue important enough to challenge? Will someone else in the group speak up if given the chance? Can a simple question help the group challenge their own thinking?
- Explore alternative perspectives. What’s important is to help the pessimist-worrier get beyond their default reaction of focusing on the downside. One way to do this is to have them find a reason to support the idea. Other ways include thinking about what could be done differently to make the idea work or offering an alternative solution.
- Help them consider the upsides of change and the consequences of not changing. The pessimist-worrier by nature will choose the comfort of the status quo over the uncertainty of change. Left to their own devices, they seldom stop to evaluate the potential upside of change or the risks of not changing.
The dynamic and highly competitive environment in which we work today has little tolerance for “pessimist-worriers”—even in traditional fields like insurance, healthcare and education. So unless the pessimist-worrier can keep their default negativity in check and build the skills they need to see the opportunity beyond the status quo, they will be left behind.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property/casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds