Crabby, Grumpy, Cranky, and the Naysayer

June 17, 2024
Inside HR
Performance Management
Read time: 2 mins

We’ve all met them, and perhaps some days we are them. Nothing is good, never has been, never will be. It’s sunny today, but tomorrow it’s supposed to storm. The glass is not half-full, but half empty (and, as a friend adds—half full of sour milk). They’ve never heard an idea they liked and are the first to point out the numerous reasons why a new idea won’t work. You learned never to ask them how they are, lest you hear a litany of complaints. Yes, we’ve met them everywhere, but it can be a challenge when they are your workmates. But they play a significant role in teams.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) discusses both excessive positivity (referred to as toxic positivity) and pessimism in the workplace. Toxic positivity can be just as damaging to a workplace as pessimism when its practice ignores the reality of a situation and doesn’t foresee potential pitfalls.

The HRB article points to research conducted by Heidi Grant and E. Tory Higgins that discusses "motivational focus." They categorize individuals into two basic groups described as prevention-focused (pessimistic) individuals and promotion-focused (optimistic) individuals. Prevention-focused people are described as being more risk-averse, but their work is generally more thorough, accurate, and considered. Promotion-focused (optimistic) individuals are described as generating many ideas—good and bad.

This leads to the conclusion that including these extremes in teams can contribute to a workplace more able to generate new and innovative ideas (the optimist) while acknowledging inherent challenges and risks (the pessimist).

So how do you bring out the best in both and find a working balance?

A MindTools article discusses managing pessimists:

  • Acknowledge their point of few. Their viewpoint is often helpful in spotting risks or obstacles.
  • Meet with the pessimists one-on-one to advise them of their impact on the rest of the team. Provide specific examples of the behavior that has impacted the team’s morale. Be prepared to validate their point of view and offer suggestions of how a comment or conversation could have been handled differently.
  • Say "thank you" for their input and analysis.
  • Challenge the pessimists to how they contribute ideas to overcome some of the challenges/obstacles they have identified. Offer help as needed.

Helping your naysayers modify their behavior and view themselves as valuable partners (instead of the constant obstacle) can create a powerful team dynamic that can identify potential downstream issues and create solutions before they become problems.