Defensive pessimism is not an easy answer

Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

CONFIDENCE is what you have, before knowing the problem. Here’s one story to prove the point. One lazy Saturday afternoon, a 76-year old widow was at home when a knock was heard at the door. Upon opening the door, she was greeted by a five-year old boy and a four-year old girl whom she knew live in the neighborhood.

The little girl said that she and “her husband” were coming to visit her as a family friend. Without anything to do on that day, the old lady played along with their little “husband-and-wife” game and invited them in. She took them to her newly-bought sofa just like they were grown-ups and asked them if they would like some lemonade and cookies.

The two kids said they would. After they had finished their glassful of lemonade and some cookies, the lady asked them if they would like some more. The little girls said: “No, thank you. We really must be leaving now. My husband has just wet his pants.”

What image enters your mind when you read the words “unintended consequence?” The first time when I ask this question to some of my old friends, they typically start with a naughty smile as a prelude to rattling off some green jokes. But before they knew it, I’ve to cut them short before they turn an intended intelligent discussion to the wasteland.

There are so many exciting facts, most of them anecdotes about the fascinating topic of “unintended consequence,” the most basic of which is when you hired someone and that person turns out to be a dud or when you invested money for a business that failed to fly. Another example is when you joined a group that has continued to contradict its avowed mission. Now what?

What is the cause of this? Well, I can blame the same institution that is responsible for ineptitude and crime. No, I’m not referring to government bureaucrats and politicians, but to some successful corporate executives who are working for major companies. You think that they can duplicate their achievements in other organizations, like an advocacy-volunteer group? No, you’re wrong.

It appears that many of these people are in a “defensive pessimism”—a buzzword attributed to Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president of Syracuse University. Defensive pessimism happens when people set low standards for their performance, regardless of how well they performed in another organization or situation.

Again, what is the cause of this utter disgraceful lack of consistent motivation to excel in another environment? The first thing that I can think off is tolerance by people who are also a bunch of defensive pessimists who would tell you a faulty excuse—they’re only doing volunteer work. And their priority is where they’re earning their bread and butter. Sure, why not?

When you are in management as long as I have (1,000 years), you get used to people making all kinds of wacky claims, such as that they’re needed badly in that endeavor and no one can take it away from them. If that happens, then I must act necessarily as brutally frank against these people.

This could be a pretty complex and tedious situation for everyone, but just the same I will try to outline my perspectives here: First, whatever you think about quality and productivity improvement is wrong. Second, there is no such thing as volunteerism the moment people start selling their products. Third, you never know how bad the situation is until it is too late.

Fourth, if a bad practice is tolerated long enough, it becomes the norm. Fifth, the present is more dangerous than the future. Sixth, the forbidden fruit has become the favorite jam.

Seventh, everyone is a fraud, except those who refused to admit it. Eighth, to keep a secret among a group of five, four of them must die. Ninth, if people don’t measure up to standards, examine the yardstick. Lastly, experience is a terror-teacher. He gives the test first, and then the lesson.

So, let’s get started. Most likely the foremost question in your mind as you prepare for the New Year is this: “How can I change for the better?” That’s an excellent question, indeed! It looks easy, until you start answering it.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant with a fused interest in human resources and total quality management. Send feedback or comment to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


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