Optimism vs. Pessimism: How Emotional Attitudes Can Affect Productivity

By Louisa Rochford


A leader has an immeasurable impact on those they oversee. Their emotional output, in a professional setting, will affect their employees psychologically and by extension, their productivity as well. If you were to ask anyone, they would undoubtedly tell you: an optimistic leader is far better than a pessimistic one.

But is this true?

Optimism has a fair number of upsides. Optimism is the truest outlook of a risk-taker, which is essential when becoming an entrepreneur: if you’re pessimistic about the risk, you’re less likely to take what can be a career-making move. By demonstrating this outlook, you’re inspiring those around you to do the same—take risks, get results.

On top of this, you’re showing that failures are a means to learn. A pessimist may infer that mistakes are the end-all of the company and their job, which can demotivate them severely. By showing that a failure is an opportunity, it’s possible to boost productivity substantially with this positive outlook. By keeping them enthused rather than demotivated, you’re able to push them to meet their potential and inspire them to improve at the same time.

Believe it or not, there is a downside to this strategy. Too much optimism, especially when handling employees and others, can lead to a confliction of expectations and a misunderstanding of where things truly stand. Giving the wrong impression in the hopes that it will inspire can be detrimental, for example if an employee doesn’t properly understand the problems to work on. It can also cloud the mind of logic needed to perceive and judge a given situation and handle it accordingly.  As detailed in Briteadvice’s list of pros and cons, other downsides to unrealistic optimism includes unrealistic targets, breaking deadlines due to overpromising and underachieving, unforeseen problems and decreased productivity.

Additionally, a bit of realism can help to maintain humbleness in the situation and keep things on track. Maintaining unrealistically optimistic in a situation that clearly calls for a more down-to-earth approach can harm the professional image that employees run by. Practicality is also vital when allocating resources and budgets, proving disadvantageous when too much enthusiasm is pushed in the wrong direction.

In a study conducted by Prof Shyamalendu Niyogi called Optimism on Leadership Effectiveness: A Review of Literature, published in the International Journal of Management, he explains: “Leadership style impacts the performance culture which influences the people and people perform accordingly, thus leadership style is crucial for the effective performance in an organization.”

The study found that reasonable optimism improves effectiveness by helping to develop trust among leader and follower, to develop team spirit, and can also help with developing strong self-efficacy among subordinates as it will help them to think positively, with subsequent increase in their performance and the performance of the organization. It also suggests that there can be advantages to pessimism, which may have short-term benefits as opposed to optimism’s long-term ones.

Pessimism itself has a plethora of downsides: a negative leader will lead to negative workers, worse business practices, and can also affect physical and mental health. A pessimist can feel distracted, unfocused, and potentially unwilling to work, especially if they feel hopeless about the outcome. It can also affect communication skills, leading to more misunderstandings and harms the company far more than it helps.

However, there are ways in which a bit of pessimism—in moderation—can be beneficial. With a pessimistic outlook, it’s possible to evaluate the potential for negative outcomes and avoid them, referred to as strategic pessimism. Another form is defensive pessimism, which denotes lowering expectations in order to prepare for the worst, which has been shown to help people in various situations and especially those with anxiety. With this in mind, it could be worth establishing pessimism where it’s suitable.

While an optimistic outlook and a demonstration of this to others is important, it’s also vital to mix in a bit of realism to keep everyone grounded and reasonable. Some risks will be too risky to take, and overconfidence can have the opposite desired effect. Conversely, too much pessimism in the workplace is particularly damaging, and should be avoided as much as possible, save a small amount to remain grounded.

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