A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
November 20th, 2013 by William

Half-Full or Half-Empty

I read somewhere once that a skeptic thinks the glass might be half full, a cynic is pretty sure the glass is only half full, and a pessimist knows that the glass, even if it is half full, contains poison anyway.

If you want to achieve a major goal, or to generally be a success in your career, conventional wisdom says that the best approach is to always think positive−be an optimist. Whether preparing for a critical presentation, a meeting with your boss, or facing a job interview we’re told the best defense is an upbeat offense. While this mindset might sound compelling, beware as it often backfires. Many of us are more successful when we focus on the reasons that we’re likely to fail. This is why I’m a firm believer that the best offense is having a good defense, i.e., focus on the things that are, or can, go wrong and then plan appropriately.

In a series of studies, the psychologists Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor compared optimists and pessimists. In their book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, they tell us “If you’re an optimist, you envision the best possible outcome and then eagerly plan to make it happen. If you’re a pessimist, even if you’ve been successful in the past, you know this time could be different. You start picturing all the things that could go wrong.”

I know what you’re thinking−a couple weeks ago (November 7th “If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail”) I preached how obsessing on past failures, as being the source of great lessons to be learned, is absurd. That’s still true. What I’m talking about in this post is the fact that a good skeptic will have looked at the past, learned from the past, and moved on. However there’s more to “moving on” than blind optimism. Part of the process of moving is doing your best to anticipate what might go wrong moving forward. That’s the essence of “planning for success.”

This post builds on that concept in that what really needs to be done when planning for the future is to add a healthy dose of cynicism when planning for the future.

As the quote above would suggest there’s a progression in thought process going from skeptic, to cynic, to pessimist. Despite whether you’re a skeptic, cynic or pessimist, my point is that as you plan for success; remember that Murphy’s Law will always find a way to derail “best laid plans” and trying to anticipate what might go wrong is the key to effective planning for the future. It’s much more than just “knowing what not to do.”

You’re probably thinking that my advice is the exact opposite of what’s been preached almost universally in today’s business environment. Most people would tell you that optimists outperform cynics, because they benefit from their confidence and high expectations. At first glance, Norem and Cantor found that pessimists were more anxious and thus set lower expectations for themselves in analytical, verbal, and creative tasks which sound like justification for always being an optimist, right? Yet from their studies they found that they (the pessimists) really didn’t perform any worse.

They tell us “At first, I asked how these people were able to do so well despite their pessimism. Before long, I began to realize that they were doing so well because of their pessimism. Negative thinking transformed anxiety into action. By imagining the worst-case scenario, pessimists motivate themselves to prepare more and try harder.”

In his article “The Power of Negative Thinking,” Adam Grant, (2013 the Huffington Post Business) tells us, “In the U.S., we favor optimists over pessimists. When economists surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. CEOs, they found that more than 80 percent scored as ‘very optimistic.’ At the same time, we 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.”

The fact is we need both optimists and pessimists (and skeptics and cynics) if an organization is to be a success. However, you must remember that both styles are deadly at their extremes. Pessimism can quickly become fatalistic, and optimism becomes toxic if not obnoxious (everyone would like to strangle the person who’s perpetually smiling). The key is to find a moderate range that combines the benefits of both approaches. Too much optimism is a dangerous thing. If you’re to be a successful leader you must learn to moderate between the optimists’ blue sky view of the world and pessimists’ more clear-eyed assessment of any given situation.

Psychologists Heidi Grant Halvorson and Tory Higgins write in their book FocusUse Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence, “It’s the fit that counts. If you’re the kind of person who’s always telling other people to look on the bright side, you might want to reconsider. Whether people succeed is not a matter of thinking positively or negatively, but rather whether they choose the strategies that match their thinking styles.”

The problem is that in today’s business environment pessimistic, skeptical people are usually labeled cynics, and cynicism is a behavior that is largely frowned upon in the modern business environment. Businesses today preach “team playing,” and “positive attitudes” as the only traits (they’re not really skills) that will allow you to get ahead. However, there are many positive contributions that can be made by the cynics of the world:

  • Cynics are giving us honest feedback: in today’s business environment sycophantic behavior permeates the management suite.  Cynics don’t usually play that game. Cynics communicate from the heart (contrary to popular belief they care more than the optimists), so you don’t have to question whether the person is being honest with their comments and observations.
  • Cynics are our reality check: when people question the probability of something happening–when they are playing the devil’s advocate–they remind us that things aren’t necessarily going to plan. This is especially important if the management teams tend toward hopeless optimism.
  • Cynics truly let us know how people perceive us:  these quick, “on the spot” quips (most often labeled “sarcasm”) are largely unedited thoughts and attitudes spoken out loud. Cynical, sarcastic, remarks give us a clue that we need to work on syncing our thoughts, words and actions.
  • Cynicism provides the opportunity to learn: if we take the time to listen to the cynic and not dismiss them immediately as “disrespectful” or “not a team player” or a “drama queen’ we actually learn something that we really need to know.

Also cynics can actually be organizational motivators. Since sarcasm is the preferred method of communication for the cynics, it can be the best motivator in the workplace, says Daniel Bates, who writes for the website The Daily Mail out of the UK. He tells us: “Employees who have to put up with a sarcastic colleague or boss are more creative than those who don’t, a study has found. An earful of snarky barbs every day makes you work harder and smarter than if your office was a more caring environment.” Researchers tell us that being exposed to sarcasm required more “cognitive complexity,” or the ability to see things from more than one angle.

While I’m not an advocate that any workplace dwell on cynicism, but it is an ingredient that shouldn’t be excluded from the mix as it adds a healthy dose of realism to any organization. We can truly learn positive lessons from the cynical, sometimes sarcastic, remarks we hear only if we pay attention and then try to address the root issues that help create the cynical mindset.



3 Responses to “Half-Full or Half-Empty”
  1. Anonymous says

    If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things….

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  3. Myrna Carmody says

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