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What Role Does Optimism Play In Building Your Team?


Are you leading someone who is always radiating ‘doom and gloom’ and bringing down your team? Do you suspect that your team would be more productive and your workplace more a workplace of choice if the gloomy guts could just change their ways? You’re not wrong (except for the odd occasion when you are. More about this soon..)

Resilience and perseverance are two critical characteristics of successful people. One of the factors leading to our own levels of resilience and perseverance is the nature and extent of our optimism. The way we think about success and failure determines, in the long run, who among us becomes successful or fails. The nature of that thinking is nothing but a learned habit. Our genes, childhood, teachers, parents, experiences etc, good and bad, have shaped our thinking. The people you’re trying to lead, when about to begin a job, project, relationship or major task, will view their prospects through a mental lens that has been polished and scratched. You could help them choose to get rid of that lens if it’s not helping them and replace it with one that will – one that they choose themselves. Pessimists, when they actually experience a genuinely negative event, tend to believe the bad effects will be for a long time, that it doesn’t just apply to a specific area of their life but will cut across everything and that the event is their fault. Optimists tend to believe genuinely negative events are temporary, isolated and, whether or not they are to blame or partly to blame, there is a challenge from which to learn. Studies have shown that naturally pessimistic people are generally less successful, less healthy and, by definition, less happy.

If you’re leading a team, how many of those people do you have? How many do you need? Zero? Really?

Studies designed to generate states of learned helplessness amongst the participants (be they dogs or humans) show that about one in ten are inherently prone to giving up almost instantly. Six out of ten will eventually learn to be helpless given the relentless conditions of the study. BUT three out of ten are naturally inclined to never giving up. How many of those people do you have on your team? How many do you need?

I’m not suggesting you should fire or screen out of recruitment processes all those who are natural pessimists. BUT maybe you should try and consciously plan to have the right sort of people in the right sort of roles at the right times? I could be wrong but project planners, financial controllers and neurosurgeons should probably have at least a streak of pessimism in there for safety’s sake. Studies show that pessimists accurately judge how much control they have, whereas optimists overestimate how much control they have. They distort reality in their favour. And I’m glad for the health and happiness of the irrepressibly external optimists but there are, in business, many times when the wisest move is to simply give up. Having someone on board who simply cannot give up might be risky.

So, let’s think about helping average people improve their lives and your team’s productivity by raising their optimism levels. It’s a win-win!

There are various assessments you can undergo if you wish to discover the nature and extent of your own levels of optimism and pessimism. (I was quite surprised at my own. I did very well except for my interpretation of positive events; I didn’t take enough credit for those apparently.) But like so many others of the supposed styles we have such as communication, personality, learning, conflict and so forth, these are natural defaults and preferences. Most are not carved in stone. I choose to believe that we can choose. Some we’re stuck with but not optimism – that, we can choose to adapt and improve and be as optimistic or pessimistic as we think we need to be given the circumstances that we’re in. For all the advantages of being generally optimistic, some situations are better off with a pessimist around. Anytime the cost of failure is high, that’s when you want someone around who considers the possibility that s##t may hit the fan.

An event is just an event. Whether or not it’s adverse is in the eye of the beholder. These events may or may not have actually happened. The sales call that fails. The proposal that gets rejected. The suggestion that gets ignored. The earthquake. The adultery.

How can you take control and train yourself, and eventually model to others, how to sensibly explain the meaning of events and learn how to be more optimistic and reap some of those benefits? Martin Seligman’s ABCDE model is both simple and effective. I’m always a big fan of simple and effective.

A - Adversity
B - Beliefs
C - Consequences
D - Disputation
E - Energization

Write things down for a week. Draw up a rough grid with five headings: ABCDE. A is the Adversity (real or perceived, present or potential.) What beliefs are driving your feelings about the adversity? What are (or might be) the consequences if you believe that? Disputation is arguing with yourself. (It doesn’t have to be out loud although that might be entertaining for others.) In this argument, look for real evidence, consider alternatives, implications and the usefulness to you. Once you have an alternative, then energize it by taking an action, any action however small. Over time, this becomes a habit and those small actions add up.

Supposedly the average person thinks over 12,000 thoughts a day and 70% of those are negative. Some might be useful like, “If you change lanes now you might hit another car,” but some might be holding you back, “If you quit your job you might not get another one.” If you can become a leader who can instill in others, at least the ability to recognise and catch their own negative thoughts followed by some internal dialogue about alternative thoughts, then you’re a long way to standing out from the crowd and being a successful leader of positive and proactive change in your workplace.

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