Most leadership development classes omit a critical component of leadership training: How do you help team members transform cognitive distortions (faulty beliefs) into productive beliefs? Doing this can dramatically elevate trust, creativity, teamwork, morale and productivity. When leaders fail to identify and counter cognitive distortions, the leader’s best efforts can be obstructed by pessimists who peer out office windows, expecting to see large blue chunks of the atmosphere plummet onto the sidewalk at warp speed.
If the default belief system of any of your team members or direct reports is, “The sky is falling and we’re powerless to stop it,” you need to learn how to reframe the cognitive distortions located under the hood of your team’s operational system.
WHY NOT JUST FIRE PESSIMISTS AND REPLACE THEM WITH OPTIMISTS?
Passionate leaders with a sunny disposition and a crystal-clear vision often complain, “I wish I could exterminate every smidgeon of pessimistic energy in my organization.” Although you won’t want to hire a person who is chronically gloomy, grumpy and guaranteed to smother every creative idea with a heavy, wet blanket (an uber-pessimist), wise leaders choose to learn from pessimistic people.
Leaders who know how to work with pessimists protect their own energy from unproductive cynical energy while they consciously gain value from the hidden gifts possessed by many pessimists. It may surprise you to learn that some employees are hired specifically to use their doubtful, questioning perspective. A so-called doomster can prevent problems that people who constantly sing in a rainstorm never anticipate.
Savvy leaders know how to work with pessimists in highly productive ways, capitalizing on their unique world view. Although successful leaders thoughtfully introduce reframing options to pessimists, which may slightly alter the worrywart’s gloomy view, smart leaders are careful not to have an emotional investment in changing a person who has no desire to change their outlook on life.
Successful leaders also practice healthy self-protection. They are self-aware enough to comprehend that leaders tend to be creative optimists and can be negatively affected by chronically negative individuals. In fact, positive people often feel like they’re drowning when they’re exposed to ongoing doses of pessimism. This has been true for many optimistic, visionary women leaders I’ve coached who were culturally conditioned to think women’s roles include grabbing Mary Poppins’ umbrella and magically turning every frown into a smile.
CAN A PESSIMIST CHANGE?
Maybe. If you’re really interested in understanding the balance of nature vs. nurture regarding pessimism, you can read scholarly works and recent research. Nature vs. nurture has been investigated as long ago as ancient Greek literature. Even though the nature component hasn’t yet been resolved, some people appear to be hardwired like Eeyore in Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh.” Other people seem to have emerged from the womb wearing a smile, even when a doctor smacked them on their bottom.
Regarding the nurture component, many pessimists have been socially conditioned by a series of negative experiences or a family history of pessimism. Our families often prefer that we don’t change because modifying our way of experiencing the world can disrupt family rules and roles. In fact, some pessimistic clients who made the choice to stop wearing cynicism as a protective coat of armor told me it’s more difficult to be around their pessimistic families when they display a sunny disposition. The pressure is even more intense if you’re working with a pessimist in a family-owned business and their inappropriate behavior is supported by other family members.
APPROACHES THAT BACKFIRE WITH PESSIMISTS
Most of us are very attached to our world view and our beliefs, even when they’re unconscious, irrational and unexamined. Although our beliefs often limit our potential by mis-defining our possibilities, we seldom change them just because someone else disagrees with us (especially when they’re argumentative). Most adults resist change like a puppy leashed for the first time when someone else says, “You’re wrong” and attempts to alter their behavior.
Arguing with someone with pessimistic behavior is about as effective as trying to convince a newly-married couple that it was a positive omen when an unexpected flood descended on their outdoor wedding reception and every guest hustled away in their finest, sopping wet clothes.
Instead, just as you would do with the devastated newlyweds, address the pessimist’s concerns as valid, “You’re right! This sucks!” Only after the newlyweds feel reassured that their pain has been compassionately understood and acknowledged would you attempt to place their worries in perspective. “Let’s start planning Reception #2.”
Anger and impatience are your worst enemies when you work with a pessimist. Frustration and a hurry-up mentality will fuel the fire of the naysayer. They’ll reach the conclusion, “I’m right, I’m isolated and I must protect myself. Other people get frustrated with me because they can’t perceive the truth that I see so clearly.”
WHAT ELSE WORKS MOST OFTEN
Please understand the basic limiting beliefs of most pessimists. That’s why I’m asking you to peer deep under the hood of their operating system. Don’t stop after simply noticing a ding on the exterior of the hood. That’s the surface façade. In this situation, it includes coat-of-armor statements like, “That approach will never work!” Under the hood, once you’re smart enough to avoid arguing with the pessimist, you’ll discover cognitive distortions (erroneous beliefs and world views). They’re the foundation for the pessimist’s conclusions about how to survive in a world they expect to be unfriendly or difficult.
Common patterns include:
You can see why it’s essential that you acknowledge the pessimist’s initial statements and feelings associated with a cognitive distortion before you suggest (even subtly or by serving as a role model) that the pessimist could possibly consider reframing his interpretation. An example follows.
“The product launch was a disaster! It will never work! Now we have to start over from zero.”
Wise Leader’s Response:
“You’re right. The launch failed in some important ways. We clearly have a problem. There’s a chance that a new approach could work. You have a knack for anticipating possible problems. I think you could help us make things work better this time.”
Why this works:
This is only one example of how to peacefully and productively work with a person who is mired in the quicksand of gloom and doom. I’ve also shared proven emotion regulation tools with chronic worriers and taught them to challenge their negative thoughts.
One of my favorite ways to break a dysfunctional cycle of super-pessimism is to help my clients resolve inner conflicts between Parts of themselves. This is especially valuable when a client has a strong inner critic. I use a proven process in which the client identifies and befriends Parts of them that are attached to a negative viewpoint. This occurs when we discover each Part’s positive intention. All of our Parts, even when they’re misguided, are trying to protect us in some way. I help my clients embrace the Parts that have been holding them back and causing relationship difficulties (usually both professionally and personally). Once those Parts of the client fee safe, the resistant Parts are ready to create new job descriptions.
PRACTICE EXTREME SELF-CARE
Physicists have proven that our emotions are sensed by most other people located as far away as seven feet. When you’re around a perpetual pessimist, your ideal offense is defense. Protect yourself by surrounding yourself with positive thoughts and positive people.
Notice your mood before you interact with a pessimist. If you notice gloomy feelings and worry creeping into the corners of your energy field as the two of you talk, breathe deeply and remind yourself, “Their stuff is their stuff. My feelings are my feelings. I’m always in control of my attitudes and my choices.”
Negativity can be as contagious as the common cold. Don’t volunteer to become infected with pessimism. Practice what you’ve read in this article about reframing and releasing cognitive distortions and pessimism. Remind yourself that you’re always in control of your beliefs and attitudes. Even if you’re sometimes caught off-guard (you forget to protect yourself) and your first thought is negative, you can always choose a different second thought.
DO YOU NEED ASSISTANCE WITH A DIFFICULT PERSON?
Over 20 years of coaching women leaders, plus research I’ve studied tells me that most women in leadership positions need assistance with chronic pessimists and other difficult people. Women are frequently conditioned by their families and society to caretake negative people instead of setting healthy boundaries. Because many women leaders, especially emerging women leaders with active inner critics often place the needs of other people before their own, they need practice with the tools in this article. Because of hardwiring, women also tend to be susceptible to the transference of the negative energy of worrywarts. In toxic workplaces, women are often exposed to a hyper-critical boss.
Most of us need a sounding board when we’re learning a new behavior that challenges our hard-wiring or personality type. Many women are conflict avoiders, people-pleasers or peacemakers. Just imagine the rewards that will ripple across all areas of your life when you learn to manage the behaviors of difficult people.
Contact me so I can contact you for a complimentary 20-minute consultation. If we decide we’re a good fit as client and coach, we’ll discuss a coaching agreement.
© 2019 Doris Helge, Ph.D. as interviewed on “The Today Show,” CNN and NPR. Certified Master Leadership and Executive Coach Doris Helge is author of bestselling books, including “Joy on the Job”, “Transforming Pain Into Power” and “Conquer Your Inner Critic.” Doris has helped thousands of people just like you meet every challenge you’re facing. Click here now to receive timely tips that all women leaders need.