The Value of Both Optimists and Pessimists in the Room

I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on team dynamics. For a sense of how we think about them at Foundry Group, read Lindel’s great recent post Working at Threshold.

During a recent board call, there was a particularly challenging segment of the discussion. Afterward, I was frustrated because I felt like I was having an argument with another board member about something, but operating with different data. When I reflected on it, I realized that it wasn’t the data, but our respective frames of reference.

I was coming at the issue with an optimistic posture. She was coming at the issue with a pessimistic posture. The other board members on the call just listened, so while the data was the same, went ended up discussing it from opposite perspectives.

In general, this is a good thing. When the biases are known in advance, or explicitly stated, different starting postures can generate better critical thinking. But you have to know your bias as well as the other biases in the room. And, it has to be ok to come at things from different perspectives.

In this case, we weren’t explicit about it. I expect the other person knew that I was coming at things from an optimistic perspective (including the notion of “ok – we have an issue, but I’m optimistic that we can solve it) since that’s my nature. However, it’s possible that her pessimism about the situation overwhelmed her view of my position, and my frustration with her pessimistic viewpoint caused me to forget that this is her nature. If either of us had paused during the conversation and acknowledged our bias, or if someone else on the call had made the observation that we were simply talking past each other, that might have resulted in a more productive and fruitful discussion.

We talk a lot about this inside Foundry Group. Each of the seven of us comes from a different frame of reference on many issues. We have different biases, some deep-seated. We react differently to stimuli and behavior of others. We carry our own stresses in different ways. But, we know each other extremely well. By knowing that, and embracing it, we have more robust and honest discussions that we think lead to better decisions.

Ultimately, it’s not important to feel like you have to win each point, but rather simply be heard. As part of this, you have to also listen. Through this process, especially if you do the work to understand the posture of the other person, you should be able to modify and evolve your position based on the data you are hearing.

I wish I had a do-over on the board call that started this post with this rant in my mind.

Also published on Medium.