Negative Thinking Can Be Good For You

This article from Fortune magazine requires registration to read beyond the first page. It is about a book called The Positive Power of Negative Thinking by Julie Norem. Dr. Norem has studied pessimism, and thinks it can be useful in the workplace. The basic idea is that "defensive pessimists" are always ready for the worst.

But if Norem is right, the sunny scientists have missed something: Putting on a happy face is a poor strategy for many people. Norem calls them defensive pessimists. Temperamentally given to angst, they typically begin a project by assuming things will go badly. Then they work through their anxiety—and often lay the groundwork for success—by carefully preparing to fend off the expected botches and bad luck. Norem's studies show that when such people are cajoled into don't-worry-be-happy mode, their performance actually goes downhill.

In her book Norem describes how a defensive pessimist she knows, a sociology professor, plans a retirement dinner for a colleague by anxiously quizzing herself about possible disasters: Will old professor Smith be able to hear if he's seated at the middle table? Can raffish professor Jones be trusted not to tell off-color jokes if allowed to give a toast? Will quarrelsome students be able to sit near each other without a blowup?

In contrast, says Norem, "strategic optimists" regard such obsessive worrying as weird. An upbeat architect she describes, for example, likes to gear up for major presentations to clients by shooting Nerf-ball hoops in his office. When he goes into the meeting, his jovial, self-confident demeanor usually carries the day.

Very interesting stuff. As usual, it is useful to some people and not to others. Yet more proof that the key to being a good manager is to read people. You have to understand how different people think, what their strenghts and weaknesses are, and how to approach them about certain hot-button issues. That is why I still think by next decade we will see neuroscience classes in standard management curriculum. To find out your own level of defensive pessimism, go here and take the quiz.