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How to Handle the Pessimist on Your Team

| July 6, 2010

by Jim Bruce

Today’s reading comes from an Amy Gallo posting How to Handle the Pessimist on Your Team to the Harvard Business Review BLOG.  Gallo is a writer, editor, and business consultant.  Her writing on management issues regularly appears in the HRB BLOG.  Earlier she was a consultant at Katztenbach Partners, a strategy and organization consulting firm where she was involved in the firm’s research and thinking on the “informal organization.”

The article begins by noting that dealing with a pessimist can be a frustrating and time-consuming experience.  Bad news:  Either ignoring or engaging negative comments may incite further negativity.  Good news:  By being proactive you can help the pessimist change his behavior and enable the team to achieve greater productivity.

Gallo suggests that there are three approaches that you might take:

1.  Create awareness.  Privately tell the offending team member how his comments are received.  In doing this, you need to be “at least as positive as you are negative,” according to Jon Katzenbach author of Wisdom of Teams.

2.  Reposition negative statements.  Don’t let negative comments linger.  Too easily they fester and kill the teams motivation.  Ask the individual making the negative statements for clarification, for more information, to explain why he thinks the way he does.  Use your best coaching voice and ask open-ended questions.  You might ask them to follow their skeptical statements with “but” statements leading to alternatives.

3.  Involve the entire team.  Early on, set team norms and ask everyone to observe them and hold each other to the norms.

Gallo makes two closing points:  Sometimes, it will not be possible to turn the continually disruptive individual around.  It this is the case, for the team to function effectively, the individual must go.  And, secondly, sometimes negative points of view can be well informed and based on solid reasoning.  We need these dissenting voices to check our assumptions as they provide an added dimension to the team’s work.

I hope that you don’t have a habitual nay-sayer on your team.  However, if you do, you might want to give this approach a try.


.  .  .  .  .   jim