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How to Handle the Pessimist on Your Team

Turning Negativity into Productivity
Dealing with a pessimist on your team can be a frustrating and time-consuming experience. Attempts to ignore or counter frequent negative comments may simply incite further negativity. Good news: by being proactive you can help the pessimist change his behavior and enable your team to achieve greater productivity.

What the Experts Say
The first step is to figure out what is causing your team member’s negativity. Roderick Kramer, William R. Kimball Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, says that it is the role of the leader to understand the underlying cause of the pessimism before acting. “Some people are dispositional pessimists whose knee-jerk reaction is to see the negative in everything, while others may be expressing a pessimistic point of view based upon informed logic,” Kramer says. Some common sources of pessimism include resentment at not having been promoted, a need for attention, or a need to cover for a lack of knowledge or skill.

Whatever the source of the pessimism, the key to responding constructively is to focus on the impact of the individual’s behavior, according to Marshall Goldsmith, executive educator and the author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Changing behavior is much easier than trying to reform a person’s long-held beliefs and values.
Here are three approaches to managing negative behavior:
1. Create awareness. This is best done by pulling the team member aside and explaining how his comments are received. The rule when giving this type of feedback, says Jon Katzenbach, author of Wisdom of Teams and founder of the Katzenbach Center at Booz & Co., is to “be at least as positive as you are negative.” Explain why the person is valued on the team and make clear the impact of his behavior. For example, you can say, “When you make negative comments, the team gets stuck and we aren’t able to move forward.” Kramer points out, “This kind of conversation can be useful from a diagnostic perspective.” Once you understand the underlying reason for the pessimism, you can provide additional support or information if it’s needed.
2. Reposition negative statements. Negativity can fester and eventually kill a team’s momentum and motivation. Don’t let negative comments linger. Ask for clarification or more information about what the speaker means. For example, if a team member says, “This project is never going to make it past Finance,” ask the speaker to explain why she thinks that. Better yet, you can ask for alternative solutions: “What can we do to make sure the project does make it past Finance?” You can also ask team members to use “but statements.” Ask them to follow skeptical or critical sentences with “but.” For example, your team member could say “This project is never going to make it past Finance, BUT it’s worth laying the groundwork now because next year, Finance is apt to approve more tech projects.” It’s helpful to model this type of behavior for the entire team. Offer your own constructive criticism while providing an alternative solution.
3. Involve the whole team. It can be damaging to single out a team member in front of the entire team. Peer pressure is a far more effective tactic. According to Kramer, “Sometimes social sanctions work better than leader sanctions.” Set team norms and ask everyone to observe them. Goldsmith suggests that individuals ask themselves before they speak, “Will this comment help our customers? Will this help our company? Will this help the person or team we’re talking about? Will this help the person we’re talking to?” As Goldsmith points out, “Honesty may be the best policy except when it’s destructive and unhelpful.” Once you’ve agreed on norms, ask the team to hold each other to them. This approach can be used when you’re not the team leader as well. If a fellow team member is regularly negative, you can appeal to what Kramer calls “the collective wisdom” of the team by modeling positive behavior and using peer pressure to show the pessimist a more productive way of contributing. Of course as a peer, your influence is limited and you may need to talk with the team leader if your attempts to redirect the pessimist don’t work.
When All Else Fails
All of the experts agree that if a team member is continually disruptive and does not respond to coaching or feedback, you may ultimately need to remove her from the team. Sometimes people are not a good fit for a team or a project and it’s your job as leader to make that distinction.

Negativity Can be Useful
It’s important to remember that the goal here is not to rid the team of any skeptical sentiment. Not all negativity is bad, despite how it sounds or feels. According to Kramer, habitual pessimists’ concerns may in some cases be well informed and rational and “based on an intuition or insight that could be extremely helpful to the group.” For example, there were pessimists at NASA who didn’t feel the Space Shuttle Columbia was ready, especially after the Challenger disaster seven years earlier. We need dissenting voices to check our assumptions and push our ideas. Katzenbach says, “An irritating member adds a dimension to teaming. As long as he or she is not strong enough to derail progress, he or she may offer thoughts that otherwise wouldn’t come in.”

Principles to Remember

  • Find the source of the pessimism
  • Differentiate between the person and the behavior
  • Involve the whole team in setting norms for team behavior
  • Single someone out in front of the whole group
  • Allow negative comments to go unaddressed
  • Assume all pessimism is unproductive
Case Study #1: Turning Negative Comments into Constructive Ones
Lisa Schneider, a sales director at an online media company, was leading a team to organize the company’s sales inventory and identify operational efficiencies in the way they leveraged the inventory in new sales. Many of the team members were not Lisa’s direct reports but people from other departments. Fred worked for Operations and from the beginning of the team’s work together was skeptical of the project. He said over and over, “This isn’t going to work.” Lisa could see that Fred’s attitude was having an effect on the other team members and was concerned he would ultimately impede the team’s progress. She pulled Fred aside and explained that whenever he made negative comments, the team looked deflated and the conversation stopped. Fred was receptive to what she had to say, but he believed that Operations would not be able to execute on the ideas they were putting forth. Lisa told Fred that his boss, the head of Operations, believed in this project and had asked him to join the team for a reason. She asked him to offer alternatives to the ideas being proposed in addition to raising concerns. “I explained to Fred that what he was doing felt like continually putting up roadblocks, without providing a detour sign. I asked that he propose additional solutions to overcome the obstacles he was raising,” Lisa said. He took Lisa’s advice to heart and began engaging with the team on new solutions. Team members were relieved to see Fred contributing in a positive way and openly debated the merits of the solutions he proposed.

Ultimately, the team’s recommendations were implemented with many of Fred’s alternative solutions incorporated. Lisa believes the end results were more rigorous because of Fred’s contributions. The project was considered a success and the new system has saved Operations 100 hours of work each quarter.
Case Study #2: Pessimism as Cover
Rutger von Post, a Principal at Booz & Company, recently led a team with a difficult team member. Joe was a junior consultant reporting into Rutger on this particular client project. Joe continually expressed skepticism about how the team was sizing the market for a new healthcare product. The team met several times to go over the project, clearly divide up the work, and set goals and milestones. Joe did not productively contribute to any of these discussions. In fact, he would cross his arms and say things such as, “I don’t see how this is useful for the client.” Rutger pulled him aside in an attempt to understand what was causing Joe’s negativity. Only after Rutger gave him direct and stark feedback about his behavior and the impact on his performance, did Joe make clear that he was acting skeptical because he didn’t know how to do what was asked of him. Rutger spent a half day with Joe going over what he needed to do and practicing the work with him. Together they sized 5 of 30 sub-segments of the market so Joe would then be comfortable doing the rest of the work on his own. Rutger said, “Once he was shown how to do it his skepticism evaporated.” Joe eventually became a productive member of the team once Rutger understood and addressed the real source of his pessimism.
- Amy Gallo


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