As a manager, you may completely baulk at the notion of having a pessimist on your team.

But there is a breed of pessimist called defensive pessimists, who are able to transmute their penchant for pessimism into a positive strength — and these people are essential in balancing your team.

Defensive pessimists

Give defensive pessimists a project and their anxiety over the possibility of failure will ensure that they succeed at almost every task.

It is a defence mechanism that kicks in and they will channel that energy into action, as they strive for perfection because they are, after all, perfectionists at heart.

Defensive pessimists, therefore, focus on the negative aspects of the situation. They anticipate negative results but are able to control their anxiety beforehand so that it does not affect task performance.

They prepare for a situation by setting low expectations of themselves and follow up with a very detailed expectation of what could go wrong.

Once they have imagined the full range of possible negative outcomes, they will come up with a meticulous plan of how to handle the various worst-case scenarios that may arise — and that gives them a sense of control.

As a result, defensive pessimists are mentally prepared for anything, including failure.

And in the rare event that the individual does fail, he is ready for it, so the impact isn’t as catastrophic. This translates to a higher degree of resilience that will enable him to bounce back faster.

There is a growing body of empirical research in recent years to support the theory that defensive pessimism is used as an effective strategy for managing fear, anxiety and worry over a perceived negative outcome.

This enables the defensive pessimist to work productively and strive to achieve a consistently high level of performance.

Dispositional pessimists

It is important to note, however, the difference between defensive pessimists and dispositional pessimists.

The latter refers to pessimism motivated by the individual’s mood state, and while dispositional pessimists also anticipate negative results, the disparity is in their performance.

Dispositional pessimists exhibit less perceived control, which usually means that they do not take the necessary action required towards achieving their goals.

This generates a feeling of helplessness that makes them focus more on their limitations in performing tasks, and creates a spiral of anxiety that overwhelms them, which increases over time.

Their performance thus suffers or even results in non-performance, and they end up as underachievers due to negativism or apathy.

So as a manager, this is how you distinguish between a defensive pessimist who will contribute positively to your team, and a dispositional pessimist, who will suck energy from your workforce.

The type you need

Defensive pessimists bring a different perspective and level of energy to your team.

With their uptight nature, they add a degree of pressure to get things done — on time — as they always strive for excellence in everything they do.

Additionally, they are exceptionally cautious and meticulous; they will triple check each task and then check through one more time, just in case.

“Thorough” is the name of their game.

These are the people you particularly want as accountants, auditors, police or security officers, engineers, forensic scientists, investigators and aerospace personnel, to name a few.

Equipped with the ability to play the devil’s advocate well, defensive pessimists are also good negotiators and will excel as part of the management team or board of directors.

A word of caution, though: Research shows that if you pressure defensive pessimists into being optimistic or if they try to artificially raise their expectations of the outcome or avoid playing through a worst-case analysis, their anxiety increases and their performance will suffer.

So just let nature prevail when dealing with defensive pessimists and they won’t let you down.


Article by Stephen Lew, the founder and director of The School of Positive Psychology. It provides higher-education academic and professional positive psychology and psychotherapy courses, training programmes and seminar workshops. For details, call 6884-5161 or visit This article was first published in the Singapore Business Review.