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Written by Lisa M. Walker Johnson
Published: 06 August 2017
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Pessimism can be a valuable tool for getting things done.

The next time you say to a colleague, “Stop being so negative!” it might be helpful to make sure the benefit of their pessimistic thinking has been fully appreciated and used.

If it has, the better question is then, "How can we bring some balance to this discussion by using both pessimistic and optimistic thinking skills and behaviors?"

Each of us has a choice about how we respond to people and situations in our lives, in order to achieve the goals that we set, as individuals and groups. Some lawyers are more comfortable being optimistic when dealing with challenging situations. However, lawyers can learn to apply both optimism and pessimism skillfully to make decisions, avoid procrastination, and implement their goals.

Behavioral science research increasingly confirms how pessimism can be a useful tool in the analytical process. We can use pessimism to identify potential risks and threats. Deliberately anticipating and discussing worst case scenarios, for example, can bring clarity to a problem and help some lawyers reduce anxiety about making a decision to act.

Partners who complain, argue a point, raise unpopular questions, and challenge “reality" are often a source of frustration to their colleagues. They may be accused of taking up valuable time, resisting the need to change, or of not being a team player. They may be labeled as being too negative or skeptical. Sometimes their partners even work around them to try to get quick support on decisions to move forward. Yet, when partners make the time to visualize “What’s the worst that could happen if we do nothing?” or “What will we do if X occurs?,” they make better-informed decisions with greater commitment, which ultimately lead to better follow-through and results.

Pessimistic thinking can increase awareness and a more thorough understanding of a problem. It helps lawyers more realistically scope out consequences of their actions, including the cost of doing nothing. It surfaces perceptions about the level of urgency and highlights the need for contingencies and reliable progress measurements. When partners verbalize their feelings of doubt, worry and unease about a course of action, it keeps them from simply internalizing perceptions and going underground with their concerns.

As you can see, none of the above mentioned behaviors negate the benefits of optimism; pessimistic thinking simply puts optimism into perspective.

“We must have the courage to endure pessimism when its perspective is valuable. What we want is not blind optimism but flexible optimism – optimism with its eyes open. We must be able to use pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it, but without having to dwell in its dark shadows.” 

-- M. Seligman, Learned Optimism

However, “dwelling in the dark shadows” of pessimism can also become a bad habit, limiting our ability to move forward. It can quickly cease to be an asset if we automatically see threats as opposed to opportunities in challenging situations. It can also lead to blaming others (and ourselves) for problems, dwelling on what is wrong with others (and ourselves), and assuming negative intentions when others speak or when they act in a manner that is inconsistent with our own preferences.

If law firm partners get stuck in too much pessimistic thinking, it shapes how they perceive themselves, the firm, and its clients. This in turn affects their state of mind, the quality of their relationships, and their critical thinking and reasoning skills; in short, it influences all of the choices they make in what they do and say every day.

If unaddressed, too much pessimism gains momentum, leading to a depressing and toxic climate in the firm, where self interests dominate collective interests and information is hoarded. When lawyers have such little faith in each other's motives that they actually invite defensive and guarded responses from each other, they perpetuate a self-fulfilling cycle of bad feelings and inaction. In this kind of environment, even clients are talked about in disparaging ways. Relationships inside and outside of the firm are leveraged and manipulated, not developed and valued. Lawyers lose their sense of purpose and commitment to succeed. There is a prevailing sense that the firm will not be better than it is today or was in the past. A downward spiral that started slowly in a group of partners can pick up alarming speed firmwide.

Optimism without pessimism may be misleading, creating false expectations for happiness and financial well being. On the other hand, pessimism without the skills of optimism will have an equally devastating effect on lawyers' emotional responses to failure, the decision making process, and ultimately the future of their firm.

When working with a balance of pessimism and optimism, lawyers make better-quality decisions, overcome procrastination, and encourage others to have a realistic yet positive view of their own future. They are better equipped to maintain their own emotional equilibrium when stressed, and are less likely to personalize the objections and complaints of others.

Lawyers use their minds to achieve professional success with clients. Pessimistic and optimistic skills can be learned just like the technical skills for practicing law. Certain lawyers may feel predisposed to pessimism and others to optimism; and there is some research to support both neurological and environmental reasons for this. However, everyone can learn to use and balance the skills they need to be effective leaders and fulfilled professionals, as well as to respect the strengths that their peers bring to the process.

Do you know what the balance of pessimism and optimism is currently in your partnership? In your firm? There are ways to find out that can be quite constructive in making sure that you continue to use pessimism for “good,” without getting stuck in a downward spiral of inaction.

Above all, don't equate pessimism with defeatism, obstruction, or disloyalty. Listen to it, understand its sources, and integrate it into the decision-making process to keep your partnership moving forward together on a realistic course to the goals that all of you -- "optimists" and "pessimists" alike -- want to achieve.

Lisa M. Walker Johnson