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Your Team Needs Optimists and Realists for Your Business to Thrive

One of the things we often hear about hiring is that people want a good fit for their “company culture.” If you have a group of high energy, endlessly optimistic go-getters, you might think that a no-nonsense realist will chill your vibe. If your small organization is filled with purely pragmatic, only-dealing-with-the-tangible types, you might balk when you consider how an idealist may approach problems. Hold up, though! Can these two types work together for the greater good?

What optimists bring to the team

Optimists are the ultimate “yes!” people. They’re enthusiastic, always looking for the silver lining and positively engaging with everyone around them, regardless of the circumstances.

There’s some suggestion that optimism cultivates “mentally toughness.” Penn psychology professor Martin Seligman was quoted in Time Magazine stating, “People who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local and changeable.”

Optimists help teams power through hard times. No matter how tough it gets, the optimist is there to say, “We can do this.” They serve as cheerleaders, and their refuse to fail attitude fuels their ability to find creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems.

While I don’t have hard data to back this up (get ready for wild speculation!), I suspect that a lot of company leaders fall into the optimist role. They need to believe in what they have to offer and their ideas so strongly that they pursue them at all costs, seeing every obstacle as a stepping stone rather than a stop sign.

The downsides

Optimists can sometimes miss crucial red flags due to their rosy outlook. While their eagerness to see the glass half-full can drive innovation and creative problem solving, when left unchecked, it can put teams in a sticky spot. If your team’s optimists don’t have the ability to proceed with caution, to take red flags that come up when vetting clients or projects seriously (and make moves to mitigate their impact), then you’ll need to find some balance with your resident realist.

What realists bring to the team

Realists are the ones who are more likely to say, “No.” Realists bring the reality check to counter the optimist’s eternal “We can totally handle that,” with, “But…can we, though?” They’re the people who are keeping a keen eye on available resources and sustainability, and sometimes will drop a bucket of cold water on your favorite optimist’s hot ideas.

Realists have questions about how the things the optimists agree to are going to get done. Who is going to do that work? When does it need to be done by? Who is going to pay for this? They’re the person who can tangibly turn your optimist’s dizzying dreams into reality, taking an intangible big idea and transforming it into something actionable through pragmatism. They also fill the role of protector: they guard the team by preventing the company from overextending itself, as well as avoiding detrimental clients and projects before it’s too late to turn back.

Often, you’ll find your project managers to be your resident realists. They’re the people stepping in before the optimist overcommits your team through a series of unchecked agreements, enforcing boundaries, and appropriately setting expectations.

The downsides

Optimists rely on their sunny attitude to be innovative; their willingness to reach for the stars means they’ll try out things that other people may deem “impossible” or “unrealistic.” If a realist starts to veer into pessimism, and isn’t willing to give the optimists on their team some freedom to experiment, this magical quality can and will be diminished.

If realists aren’t willing to let their optimists take risks, you’ll end up with a team that never grows (or grows too slowly), and output that lacks inspiration.

Finding a perfect balance

You need optimists on your team to help find solutions and to serve as the enthusiastic counterpart to your realists’ no-nonsense assessments. There needs to be mutual respect and understanding for each position. Optimists push the team through to create something incredible, build things that haven’t been built before, and foster the team’s resilience through hard times. Realists are looking out for the bottom line and the practical best interests of the team as a whole.

Optimists need to respect that realists aren’t merely being buzzkills with their cautioned approach, while realists need to understand that optimists offer an incredibly valuable perspective that will help elevate the team as a whole. Optimists need to allow the realist to bring them back to Earth and negotiate their big ideas within the context of available resources. Realists need to use their critical eyes to build in spaces for optimists to take calculated risks–where the optimists can thrive without undermining the team’s fundamental needs.

If these two sides can learn to trust each other (and perhaps rub off on each other a little bit), you’ll find the perfect team blend that fosters creativity without it coming at a huge expense to the team. Instead of letting your “company culture” get in the way, find your competent counterpoints and collaborate.

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