BY Michael Fleming

DATE: 17 JUL 2020


I like pessimists

“I like pessimists. They’re always the ones who bring life jackets for the boat.” Lisa Kleypas, American author

I am an optimist. But I love this quote, celebrating the advantages of pessimism – in certain circumstances.  

I talk a lot about optimism in my work with lawyers and others in the world of professional services. Optimism is an emotional intelligence competency that tends to be well developed in star performing business developers. Optimists outsell pessimists. To explain this let’s turn to the guru of optimism - Martin Seligman (psychology professor, Penn Uni), the founding father of the positive psychology movement. He says that optimists and pessimists have different “explanatory styles” – in other words the little voice inside their heads has a different narrative.  

In the face of a setback (inevitable if you engage in business development, because it’s fundamentally a numbers game and you simply cannot convert every opportunity), pessimists tend to write this story in their heads:

  • Permanent – I’m never going to get a win.
  • Pervasive – none of my BD activity seems to be going well.
  • Personal – it must be me – perhaps I’m not good at this.

Optimists think like this about setbacks:

  • Temporary – it hasn’t gone so well for me today, but there’s tomorrow to look forward to.
  • Specific – I didn’t win that one but there are other opportunities I can win.
  • External –there may be external reasons why they didn’t pick me – perhaps they need to give the work to another person this time round because they owe them a favour.

So, the optimists play the BD game and keep playing it. And they tend to be more resilient in dealing with the inevitable set-backs of BD. Pessimists invariably give up too soon, if they play the game at all.

So if you want to put together a crack team of business developers to lead your sales charge in the current challenging marketplace then put an optimist in charge.

But, there are some circumstances in which you definitely want a pessimist in charge. I heard Seligman explain this brilliantly just last week. If the consequences of failure are inconsequential - use optimism. (And let’s face it, getting a knock back - in a BD sense - from one of your contacts or clients is hardly likely to change the course of your life). But, if the consequences of failure are catastrophic – use pessimism! So if you are planning a boat trip, put a pessimist in charge of preparations. 

As Kleypas says - they’ll bring the life jackets. And that just might save your life if an unexpected storm blows up.