“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
I placed this quote in my email signature all through graduate school. It reflects my optimistic, “let’s do this!” attitude, especially critical for the challenges of a Ph.D. program. Emerging research, however, across business and psychology suggests we take a second look at the value of pessimism, and how employees with a less positive outlook can outperform their optimistic peers.
In fact, our hiring research discovered corporate employees who strongly endorsed items reflecting an optimistic mindset such as, “people would describe me as optimistic” and “there is something good even in the most difficult situations,” received lower supervisory evaluations of performance. Specifically, strongly optimistic employees scored lower in maintaining continuous improvement and maintaining quality over time.
Both Optimism and Pessimism Can Derail Performance
People who thoroughly think through and appreciate all the obstacles and difficulty involved in taking on a new project may make better decisions. Unbridled optimists may eagerly tackle stretch assignments leading to growth, but not fully consider all possibilities for failure.
- Consider the worst case scenarios. Thinking through the worst case allows them to develop strategies to make sure it doesn’t happen.
- Shielded from disappointment with realistic goal-setting. Strong optimists are vulnerable to setting unrealistic goals that can lead to crushing disappointment. Pessimism leads to considering all possible outcomes and more realistic goals.
- Are more likely to invest in precautionary measures. In addition to considering the worst case scenarios, pessimists are likely to think proactively and embrace best-practices for future success. Pessimism can lead to healthy behaviors, like exercise, healthy eating and preventative health check-ups, with some evidence supporting a relationship to greater longevity.
It’s important to note, like with all personality traits, you are not either an optimist or a pessimist, and where we fall at any time is largely determined by the situation. Managerial leadership style and company culture can have a significant impact on how you view the future.
This doesn’t mean optimism is a negative trait. Our hiring research found self-described optimism was linked to a positive attitude on the job, and better customer service. Indeed, there’s growing evidence that we can use optimism and pessimism strategically, and can train ourselves to use the best of both to boost our performance.
The nuances of pessimism and optimism highlight the importance of using hiring practices grounded in research and customized to your company’s needs. It would be understandable to say, “I’m only hiring optimists,” and not understand why your hiring solution is not leading to the quality hires you expected. Using a hiring system based on research for your company and industry will ensure you are hiring for performance.