The ‘Pessimist’ and the ‘Rebel’ – Managing Away Bad Habits
As mentioned in our article ‘Managing Away Bad Habits’ on April 8th, we all know star performers who seem to be held back by what appears to be a fundamental flaw in their ‘personality at work’. As we discussed, there are 6 main patterns of behaviour (or habits) that lead to these career troubles. In this article, we’re outlining proven tactics that managers can use to help the ‘Pessimist’ and the ‘Rebel’ overcome theirs.
‘Pessimists’ have nothing but the best intentions. Their goal is to preserve the organisation from the harm that could be caused by ill-advised change. The problem is, Pessimists think every change is ill advised and like a lot of actuaries – predominantly look at the negative risks, rather than the risk of things being successful! (To borrow a stereotype)
Pessimists’ worries are sometimes justified – they are based on the knowledge of mistakes others have made in the past. More frequently though, Pessimists simply stifle creativity and block fruitful opportunities. They also tend to micro-manage, looking over everyone’s shoulders to prevent mistakes being made.
Pessimists are motivated primarily by a fear of shame of being wrong or inadequate. The avoidance of shame can spread insidiously throughout an organisation’s culture, becoming an unconscious modus operandi that has disastrous results for the company’s capacity to innovate and take risks.
Fortunately, there are tactics that managers can use to change the Pessimist’s negative approach: We can start by telling the Pessimist: “I agree that we should be looking at proposals for change with appropriate caution.” This positioning lets us avoid a pointless wrangle over the pros and cons of any particular initiative – then point out that due to their ongoing ‘finding fault’, the impact of the ‘alarms they raise’ is diminishing which may result in a change being implemented that is wrong! (A bit like the ‘Boy That Cried Wolf) Moreover, Pessimists in the team are giving the other team members a free ride: “They do not have to worry, and they certainly do not have to express their reservations. They have delegated that to them!” The message is, it is okay to be concerned and worry, but it is important that your fears do more than safeguard the status quo; they should have constructive edge – helping us to make the right changes happen.
One way to turn the Pessimists’ worry into a more effective tool is to teach them how to evaluate risk better. Pessimists not only ignore the potential upside of change, they also usually fail to consider the downside of doing nothing. Tell your Pessimist: “In the future, when a change initiative is proposed, you should draw a two-by-two matrix that looks at the pros and cons of making the change as well as the pros and cons of doing nothing”. By making this systematic consideration of initiatives into a routine, the Pessimist will be encouraged into more objective risk analysis.
As a final step, you could offer to protect the Pessimist from every kind of risk except one. You can help the person think about risk in a new way by telling the person “If you try something new and fail, I will take the blame. If you try something new and succeed, you will get the credit. But if I find that you are refusing to take risks or getting in the way of others who have good ideas, you will be held accountable.” The Pessimist will hopefully get the message and will learn to look at risk with more clarity. In Chess, fighting every game to a draw in not the objective. The goal is to checkmate your opponent. The Pessimist must understand that you are playing to win, not to stay even.
There are no draws in today’s economy!
Teenagers imagine that they are rebelling by dressing differently, changing their hairstyles and language, and adopting new music trends. In reality, most are simply conforming to the look of their peers.
Workplace ‘Rebels’ can also be quite conventional in their knee-jerk reactions against ‘the way things are’. Although they fancy themselves as revolutionaries, most of their protests against “the system” do not go beyond simple complaining – they rarely take action to change the things that bother them. Rebels are easy to recognise. They are the one who always ask the inappropriate questions in meetings, regularly make jokes about the company’s management, and publicly question the motives behind any major change. Their work spaces are prepared with Dilbert cartoons, and their adherence to company rules is always just to the letter, never to the spirit.
What Rebels enjoy most is a game of ‘tug of war’. So your first tactic is to refuse to play. Do not lose your temper; do not respond to provocation. You can then use two approaches to help the Rebel break out of the negative behaviour pattern. The first is to co-opt the Rebels by making them responsible for a relatively high-profile task that requires them to win the cooperation of others. In essence, you pull them out of the heckling audience and push them on stage, into the spotlight. The chance to take on an interesting and important project is essentially an incentive. Some Rebels will see it as such but will take it anyway. Others will stubbornly refuse, in which case, on to the second approach.
Begin by asking the Rebels, in a neutral tone and without warning, if they are thinking about leaving the company. When they – in a state of shock – say no, tell them that you were wondering because they always seem to be arguing against the rules and pushing the limits, venting their frustration, and putting the organisation down. If they responds with “No, that is just my way of talking, I am only kidding around,” come back forcefully; “I do not accept that, the things you say can upset people, and the morale and performance of the team. It needs to stop.”
Then shift into a different gear: “But more to the point, you seem to think that a lot of things around here should be changed. True?” The Rebel is likely to give some kind of affirmative response. At that point, throw down a challenge.
“If you are going to battle the counterproductive aspects of a ‘regime’, do you want to do it effectively and guerrilla style? Or, do you just want to be the one who makes an impassioned speech before he gets dragged off to the firing squad?”
The latter is an unappealing option, so now you have a chance to help your Rebel become a real leader of change. His first assignment should be to spend a week or two as a cultural anthropologist, noting all the subtle elements of your organisation’s culture: the way people dress and speak to one another; how much they reveal about their personal lives’, how they align in groups; how decisions are made officially and how they are really made; who has informal power and influence, and so on. You should require the Rebel to report back to you at the end of this period.
Once the Rebel has gathered that information, ask: “If you were a revolutionary fighting somewhere against a dictatorship, would it be better to stand out or to blend in?” The answer is clear, so push the Rebel to the logical conclusion. “You have a choice. You can work to change things here or you can continue as you were, and just be an irritant. If you choose the latter, your career will stall and your influence in the organisation will never amount to much. I hope you make the other choice, because you are right – this place isn’t perfect, and we need people like you, who can objectively see the things we need to change, to help us improve it.”
Rebels who genuinely care about the company (and their career) will see the light. Instead of being negative for its own sake, they will turn their energies towards constructive criticism and the building of a better company. They will not change overnight, and for some time you will have to keep a close eye on the situation through frequent meetings. The payoff over time, will make it worthwhile.