The real-world value of optimism, and how to cultivate a “we can do it!” attitude.
This is quite unique. Many leaders that I have worked with generally caution teams to be realistic. They counsel to consider all the things that can go wrong. Don’t wear rose-tinted glasses, they warn.
You have probably received as well as given advice like this. While being pragmatic is certainly important in corporate life, we often overlook the value of optimism, perceived as a “soft” quality – one that doesn’t help leaders in the world of productivity and profitability.
But that’s not quite true. To be optimistic doesn’t mean blindly believing that everything will turn out wonderfully, while burying your head in the sand and ignoring real-world circumstances.
In The Importance of Optimism, Stacey R. Sauchuk describes what we mean by optimistic leadership:
It isn’t about denying reality. Rather, it’s about the ability to remain committed to a vision in the face of adversity; of believing that the team can overcome adversity and still succeed. Leaders must be optimistic because the execution of a plan never happens without setbacks. When those setbacks occur, the optimist powers through.
So, this week, my message focuses on the value of optimism and how you can practice being more optimistic.
A pessimistic leader makes life very difficult for the people around them. Your negativity is sure to dampen the enthusiasm of your team, leaving them dull and uninspired. It can also hold back innovation and progress, and make it tougher to push through adversity. On the other hand, a positive outlook goes hand in hand with effective, inspiring leadership.
Here are some of the reasons why people love working with an optimistic leader:
1. They solve problems
Those with a negative worldview avoid examining the problem and, instead, wallow in their misery or anger.
Optimists, however, have far better coping strategies. Their natural response is to take the bull by the horns: they analyse the issue, come up with solutions, and do everything they can to change the situation. They lead the charge for improvement, driven by their firm belief that it is possible and that they can pull it off.
2. They bounce back
While pessimists tend to see obstacles as insurmountable and permanent, optimists view them as temporary and beatable. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel winning economist Daniel Kahneman explains that optimists are more psychologically resilient and even have stronger immune systems as compared with realists. This enviable ability to rebound comes with a caveat: optimistic leaders are also more prone to underestimating danger and taking risks. However, as Kahneman concludes, the pros trump the cons:
Their confidence in their future success sustains a positive mood that helps them obtain resources from others, raise the morale of their employees, and enhance their prospects of prevailing. When action is needed, optimism, even of the mildly delusional variety, may be a good thing.
3. Their optimism is infectious
A leader’s mood and mind set are contagious. If you have ever worked for a leader with a moody temperament, you must have witnessed first-hand how the temperature of the team can change with something as minor as a smile or a frown. The same goes for outlook. If you see the bright side and are open to new ideas, your team will stay motivated and look to the future – and vice-versa.
4. They inspire greatness
When it comes to rallying the troops, no one does it quite like an optimist. Be it a battle, sports match or singing competition, great pep talks are filled with positivity and belief in success. No underdog has ever emerged victorious thanks to a “realistic” speech! Optimistic leaders also tend to be good communicators, with the ability to lift up their teams and show them an inspirational vision of the future.
Here are six suggestions to help you practice more optimistic leadership:
1. Say yes before no
Being optimistic doesn’t mean you stop being a critic. The key difference is this: you focus on the positives before looking at the problems. This little tweak in sequencing your thought process can have big results. When you first look at the good side of an idea, you become more receptive to it and undercut your own cynicism. With experience, our knowledge increases – but so does our cynicism, which makes it more difficult for us to believe in untested possibilities.
In his Harvard Business Review article, Learning Optimism with the 24×3 Rule, Anthony K. Tjan recommends the 24×3 rule:
The next time you hear an idea for the first time, or meet someone new, try to wait 24 seconds before saying or thinking something negative. This reinforces a foundational skill of good optimists and good leadership. That basic skill is listening.
As you gain the ability to listen…move to the next level and try to do it for 24 minutes. At 24 minutes, you are able to give more considered thought to the idea and think more carefully of the many reasons why it might actually work, why it might be better than what is out there, and why it might just topple conventional wisdom.
And yes, you should also work towards the ability to wait 24 hours – one single day – before pondering or verbalizing the cons against something.
2. Maintain momentum
Stagnation is the natural enemy of optimism. To keep your team thinking positive, you have to keep moving – even if you are faced with a massive roadblock. Remember, you don’t need to solve the entire problem in one go. Partial solutions can help you pick up speed and power through. Momentum gives rise to fresh thinking and ideas, which in turn creates more forward movement.
3. Practice mental contrasting
According to Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology, simply fantasising about the future isn’t good enough. That might give you warm and fuzzy feelings but won’t motivate you to actually start tackling the challenge. Tempering your optimism with a dash of realism is what helps you realise your dreams are achievable, gives you energy and clarity, and sparks action.
In her Harvard Business Review piece, Stop Being So Positive, Oettingen describes a mental contrasting tool created by her research team, called WOOP – Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.
Here’s how it works: Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, switch off your devices, and close your eyes. Name a wish that is attainable or realistic for you — say, landing a new client. Then imagine for a few minutes what would happen if that wish came true, letting the images flow freely through your mind. Then change things up. Identify the main obstacle inside you that stands in the way, and imagine it for a few minutes. Now on to your plan: If faced with obstacle X, then you will take effective action Y in response.
4. Take people along
If you want optimism from your team members, ask for it. When you notice someone having doubts about your plan, ask how you can help get them get on board. Hear out their objections and fears. Chances are that you might have already considered what they are saying, but listen anyway. Address their concerns, then ask if they can join you in looking on the positive side. Many times, people get stuck in pessimistic mode – they just need a helping hand to make the switch to optimism.
5. Make room for possibility
Certain teams always seem to be on the run, with jam-packed days and a constant rush to meet deadlines. In such an environment, there is simply no time or energy to be intentionally positive. Glenn Cole, the founder of advertising agency 72andSunny, highlights the importance of creating the right conditions for optimism. For example, you could make time for your team to have fun together in novel and interesting ways – a practice that keeps their sense of possibility alive.
6. Paint the big picture
In 5 Reasons Why Optimists Make Better Leaders, Carmine Gallo explains that in tough times, it falls to optimistic leaders to help their teams see past the immediate struggle:
We all need optimists in our lives to fight the recency effect. The recency effect is a psychological term that simply means the most recent experiences we go through are the ones we are likely to remember and we assume those experiences will continue into the future.
We need leaders who are immune to the recency effect and who see the big picture, reminding us of the long-term…. If you’re surrounded by pessimists you’re likely to assume that nothing will get better – the economy or your personal situation.
As always, I look forward to your optimistic thoughts!