Pessimists are Almost Right

Pessimistic leaders are almost right. They say, “I’m not a pessimist. I’m a realist.”

Research shows that those who tip slightly toward pessimism have the clearest view of reality.* Optimists overestimate a bright future. Pessimists overestimate darkness.


Pessimists use a dark future as reason to do nothing. When nothing happens they say, “See, I told you so.” But there’s more to the story.

A little pessimism:

Small doses of pessimism take optimists further than buoyant overconfidence. Avoid leaders who habitually say, “Things will work out,” but don’t plan for success.

  1. Inspires teams to plan. Improvisation works within a plan, not as an excuse for lack of planning. Overconfident leaders – who don’t plan – are surrounded by frustrated people who are taking up the slack.
  2. Drives leaders to run from failure. That’s useful if you’re also running toward success.
  3. Encourages leaders to monitor progress. A little paranoia helps.
  4. Motivates leaders to protect gains.
  5. Convinces followers that you appreciate future challenges.

Ask pessimists:

Encourage pessimists by discussing what might go wrong. Just don’t camp in the darkness.

  1. How might we make reasonable preparation for your top concerns?
  2. What are the key factors of success for this project?
  3. When might things go wrong? How will we prepare?
  4. Who is essential for success?
  5. How will we monitor progress?
  6. How might we protect gains and move forward at the same time?
  7. What might we do to pursue our desired future? Pessimists talk too much about “don’t do” and not enough about what can be done.

Optimists should ask themselves:

  1. How could we prepare for what might go wrong?
  2. What are the key success factors?  
  3. When are the tipping points for success?

Pessimists don’t move forward enough. Optimists jump off the cliff believing they’ll figure out how to land safely on the way down.

How might leaders leverage the advantage of small doses of pessimism?

*Research on optimism bias.