Oppo­sites may not nec­es­sar­i­ly attract in busi­ness, but they can make your team a more pro­duc­tive whole.

5 min read

Opin­ions expressed by Entre­pre­neur con­trib­u­tors are their own.

How often do con­flicts occur in your enter­prise because some­one pro­posed ill-con­sid­ered or insuf­fi­cient­ly thought-out ideas? What about because some­one opposed inno­v­a­tive, out-of-the-box ideas?

If you have either prob­lem, you might be plagued by two very com­mon cog­ni­tive bias­es: the opti­mism bias or the pes­simism bias. The opti­mism bias describes the many peo­ple who tend to make over­ly pos­i­tive assess­ments of future risks and rewards, while the pes­simism bias refers to those who make exces­sive­ly neg­a­tive assess­ments. These men­tal blindspots are two out of myr­i­ad dan­ger­ous judg­ment errors that result from how our brains are wired. It’s what schol­ars in cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science and behav­ioral eco­nom­ics like myself call cog­ni­tive bias­es.

These prob­lems plagued a quick­ly grow­ing health­care start­up in the North­east, which expe­ri­enced a great deal of inter­nal tur­moil. The opti­misti­cal­ly mind­ed peo­ple on the team gen­er­at­ed lots of great new ideas, with­out think­ing through all the poten­tial prob­lems. For exam­ple, they’d sug­gest an inno­v­a­tive, out-of-the-box mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy to pro­mote their new prod­uct and feel all excit­ed about it. By con­trast, the pes­simisti­cal­ly inclined indi­vid­u­als on the team came up with new ideas much more rarely, because they saw all the poten­tial prob­lems of any sug­ges­tion, even some­times flaws that weren’t there. The pes­simists would crit­i­cize the opti­mistic mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy and oth­er ideas, high­light­ing all the risks of each inno­v­a­tive sug­ges­tion, such as pun­ish­ments by reg­u­la­tors for over­hyp­ing med­ical claims.

As a result, both groups felt defen­sive and had neg­a­tive rela­tion­ships with each oth­er. The opti­mists per­ceived the pes­simists as naysay­ers who nev­er allowed good ideas to go for­ward. The pes­simists per­ceived opti­mists as always going off half-cocked and com­ing up with flawed efforts.

Relat­ed: Being Too Opti­mistic Is Bad for Your Busi­ness

Different From Each Other, But Stronger Together

Giv­en the dif­fer­ences between them, can you imag­ine how much more effec­tive pes­simists and opti­mists would be if they came togeth­er and played to their strengths?

For instance, opti­mists should be allowed and encour­aged to gen­er­ate ideas while acknowl­edg­ing that all ideas are half-baked. Pes­simists can then focus on tak­ing these half-baked ideas and bak­ing them fur­ther, instead of mere­ly shoot­ing them down.

That was the focus of the changes I worked on at the afore­men­tioned health­care enter­prise when I was brought in to address the prob­lems in col­lab­o­ra­tion and improve employ­ee engage­ment. I espe­cial­ly empha­sized the impor­tance of hav­ing at least two devil’s advo­cates on a team. Our soci­ety usu­al­ly tends to see pes­simism as neg­a­tive, where­as in real­i­ty, research shows it’s incred­i­bly impor­tant to have con­trary posi­tions to make wise deci­sions. And I say this as an invet­er­ate opti­mist.

Devil’s advo­cates force a team to exam­ine its assump­tions and close gaps in its plans. They’re also very help­ful to pre­vent group­think. This rather sim­ple trans­for­ma­tion made a dras­tic improve­ment in meet­ings and sub­stan­tial­ly improved employ­ee engage­ment. The health­care team’s opti­misti­cal­ly inclined voic­es cre­at­ed ideas and then gave them to the pes­simists, giv­ing up own­er­ship of their dar­lings. The pes­simists then took the ideas, select­ed the most viable ones and fixed their flaws to devel­op the half-baked notions into well-thought-out project plans.

Finding the Balance

It’s espe­cial­ly impor­tant to rec­og­nize that a mixed group of pes­simists and opti­mists would work much bet­ter com­pared to hav­ing a group com­posed of just pes­simists or just opti­mists. If you have just opti­mists in a group, every­one will per­ceive their own ideas as bril­liant and con­tin­u­ous­ly sup­port each oth­er, at the risk of not fil­ter­ing out bad ideas. This could result in ideas run­ning in 20 dif­fer­ent direc­tions at once.

On the oth­er hand, if you have just pes­simists in a group, they won’t cre­ate near­ly enough new ideas for the needs of our increas­ing­ly dis­rupt­ed world as they would find fault at every turn. This was fine a gen­er­a­tion ago, but not now.

Hav­ing a mixed group gives you the best of both worlds in gen­er­at­ing new ideas and refin­ing them to address prob­lem­at­ic spots. When they work togeth­er effi­cient­ly, pes­simists and opti­mists can ensure that process­es are both inno­v­a­tive and thor­ough, max­i­miz­ing an organization’s suc­cess for the long term.

Relat­ed: The 5 Ben­e­fits of Being Opti­mistic

Mixing It Up

Giv­en that a bal­anced group of pes­simists and opti­mists can lead to bet­ter col­lab­o­ra­tion and improved employ­ee engage­ment, it makes sense to be mind­ful when hir­ing employ­ees, espe­cial­ly lead­ers, for your orga­ni­za­tion.

Be aware that it’s very hard to go against your intu­ition and hire some­one dif­fer­ent from you. If you are a pes­simist, it would be dif­fi­cult for you to hire an opti­mist, and vice ver­sa. The same chal­lenge exists when pro­mot­ing peo­ple to high­er posi­tions due to the halo effect and the horns effect. The halo effect refers to the fact that if we feel a sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive emo­tion toward one char­ac­ter­is­tic of some­one, then we will have an over­ly pos­i­tive eval­u­a­tion of that per­son as a whole. The horns effect is the oppo­site: If we don’t like a char­ac­ter­is­tic that is sig­nif­i­cant to us, we will tend to have a worse eval­u­a­tion of that per­son as a whole.

If you want to suc­ceed as an entre­pre­neur, you need to be aware of and learn to defeat these cog­ni­tive bias­es. Only by doing so will you be able to make good deci­sions in hir­ing and col­lab­o­ra­tion, whether regard­ing pes­simists and opti­mists, and in all oth­er areas of your busi­ness.












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