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Working With Pessimists? Take Away Their Oxygen

(Photo by JT)

(Photo by JT)

Do you know what the fire triangle is?

It’s a simplified way of understanding the three elements required for fire: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Take away one of those elements from, say, a campfire — and you can forget about having s’mores.

Spraying that marshmallow-melting blaze with water creates a barrier between the fuel and the oxygen. Fire goes out. Kids boo and throw graham crackers at you.

And you’ll never be invited back to the fire pit.

To reach his full negative potential, a pessimist needs a variation of those same three elements: 

The Pessimism Triangle:
Fuel = Annoyance or perceived insult
Heat = Audience
Oxygen = Reinforcement

Chronic complainers love to let everyone around them know how annoyed they are. And they give bonus points to anyone in the audience who joins in to reinforce their negativity.

What’s crazy is that a pessimist and a glass-is-half-full person can have completely different reactions to the same experience — such as driving through road construction.

In Orlando, we’re in year five of “I-4 Ultimate.” It’s a seven-year project to rebuild 21 miles of Interstate 4, which is the main pipe through Central Florida. After four-plus years of lane shifting and a perpetual game of “Who Moved My Exit?” it’s getting hard to remember what the interstate was like before the project began.

None of it bothers me. Because whattayagonnado?

Not everyone is so chill about it.

I was riding in someone else’s car to a meeting on the other side of town. We were merging onto I-4 by way of a barrel-lined on-ramp with no stripes and somewhere between one and five lanes.

“Whose bright fuckin’ idea was THIS?” my colleague said. “This is a disaster. Will it be any better when it’s done?”

Two weeks later, I was heading to another meeting with a different business partner when we merged onto I-4 from a similar ramp a couple of miles downstream.

“Isn’t this AWESOME?” he said. “Think about how great this’ll be for our city when it’s all done!”

Guess which guy I prefer working with?


There’s something to be said for maintaining a little healthy pessimism. You can’t be delusional and assume every person is good and every situation is favorable. Things do go wrong sometimes.

However, that doesn’t give anyone a license to bitch and moan about every little thing that gets under their skin. It’s draining, demoralizing, and unfair to everyone who has to listen — especially if the bellyacher is in a position of authority.

When leaders badmouth clients and act snide all the time, they’d better remember that shit is contagious. And they shouldn't be surprised when they end up with a staff that deploys cynicism by default.

Because when you’re the boss, people follow your lead. Employees — especially young, impressionable ones — will model your behavior. Except for the self-aware people who already know who they are. They’ll sniff out a few like-minded team members they can relate to.

Once they realize they’re in a secret club together, they have fun comparing notes and rolling their eyes at everything The Boss says. Those folks will self-select out and find a new gig as soon as possible.

Their departure is part of the pessimism lifecycle.

When someone leaves, the pessimistic boss has new fuel for the Hate Fire. There will be days of internal conversation about how she was never a good fit. Or about how he was a lousy hire anyway.

The employees on Team Everything Sucks will whoop it up and high-five The Boss. And while they’re talking smack in the break room, a remaining member of the secret club sends her resume to the friend who made it over the wall.

It won’t be long before she’s gone, too.

If you’re the one left behind, then you might need a dose of positivity to get you through those days when The Boss is complaining because someone parked next to his car. In the parking lot. Where people — park cars.

A great place to start is with Claude Silver. You can follow her on Twitter @claudesilver. And if you work in a creative field, check out Chase Jarvis and follow him @chasejarvis.

Smother Negativity

So what do you do the next time your boss, co-worker, friend, or family member launches into another bitchfest, and you think it’s out of line?


I know it’s tempting to correct them. You want to point out the reality and show where they’re wrong.

That rarely works. Take it from a rebuttal veteran — you can’t force someone to see what they don’t want to see. Debbie and Dicky Downer would rather keep wading through the swamp of suck then listen to logic and reason.

The best reaction is to not react. Be indifferent. Walk away or change the subject. But don’t engage.

It might feel awkward at first. Don’t worry, you get past that feeling after exercising the Ignore Muscle a few times.

By opting out, you’ve taken away the reinforcement they crave, which eliminates one side of the pessimism triangle. That’s only the first step. Eventually, they catch on that you’re not down with their cynicism and realize they no longer have you as an audience member. Check! Another side of the pessimism triangle removed.

Chances are they have other people to fill the void, but at least the fire isn’t burning in your front yard anymore.

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John Terry