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Is Pessimism Good for Business?


Wanted: a hard worker, experienced in his or her field, must see the glass as half empty.

Sound crazy? Maybe it shouldn't. In a recent post in The MIT Sloan Management Review, Leslie Brokaw suggests that a little pessimism — just a little — can actually be beneficial in business.

"It's gotten to the point where people really feel pressure to think and talk in an optimistic way," says B. Cade Massey, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. Massey's research shows that study subjects tend to make overly optimistic predictions on the outcomes of events like financial investments and surgical procedures. Perhaps more frighteningly, "They also say they wish to be even more optimistic than they already are."

It's not hard to see a relationship between this relentless optimism and recent financial crises like the collapse of the housing market. If you expect the best all the time, can you really be prepared for the worst?

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However, it's important to note that neither of these experts is proposing that we transform ourselves into corporate versions of Chicken Little, constantly expecting the worst and focusing entirely on the most negative possible outcome.

Edward Chang, who runs the awesomely named Perfectionism and Optimism-Pessimism Lab at the University of Michigan, said, "The field is starting to recognize that many of us use these mind-sets in a flexible way and that this flexibility has a lot of advantages." So a balanced attitude, more than rose-colored glasses or a doom-and-gloom approach, is the best bet.

Besides, research still shows the optimists get jobs and promotions more easily.

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(Photo Credit: flickr/

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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