The Harvard Business Review has a valuable article on managing pessimists in your team. Among the tips:
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.