LEADERSHIP / DEC. 22, 2014
version 4, draft 4

Optimism is a Leadership Asset – Here’s How to Acquire It

Leadership is increasingly seen as a key leadership attribute. Countless studies have found there to be a positive correlation between entrepreneurial success and optimism, and even the US government lists optimism as a key leadership asset. But what if you’re not a natural optimist - can you learn to be optimistic?

Yes, you can; and here’s how:

Define your “explanatory style”

Psychologist Martin Seligman’s work on "learned optimism" is now world renowned. According to Seligman, each of us has a specific way of interpreting the events that happen to us in our lives, something he calls our “explanatory style.” It is the lens through which we explain to ourselves and to others why things happen to us. Unless we take steps to change our explanatory style, this tendency will remain with us forever. Seligman has identified three explanatory style dimensions, which, very conveniently, each start with a "P" (source: Centre for Confidence):

  • Permanence: If you are a pessimist, bad things or events will assume a permanent status: they will last indefinitely. For example, a pessimist would have this interpretation of a missed promotion: “I’ll never get promoted."
  • Pervasiveness: If you are a pessimist, bad events are ‘pervasive’. For example, a pessimistically inclined manager might say, “None of my team like me” or “HR are all a bunch of losers."
  • Personalisation: Here, the pessimist will look inwardly to assign blame, rather than seek new information to establish the cause of failure.  An example of this would be: “I’m to blame for this. I’m useless."

The opposite tends to be the case when positive events happen, according to Seligman. Good events are seen by pessimists as temporary, rare or random and not down to any contribution from themselves.

And what of optimists? Optimists will view adversity as temporary setbacks (“This is a rare occurrence, it rarely happens”); bad events have a specific cause (“When we start using the new sales model, our sales will go up”); when expectations have not been met, they will identify various factors or circumstances that have caused the failure (“I’ll speak to a more experienced HR person to see what my options are”). And when good events happen, optimists believe they will continue to happen, can be extrapolated and are the results of their efforts.

The concept of the explanatory style explains why pessimists often give up and optimists keep going. If you’re a pessimist, life starts to feel futile; so why keep trying?

Disputing, Reframing and Active-constructive responding

According to Margaret Greenberg, president of the executive coaching practice The Greenberg Group, there are three ways of developing optimistic behaviours (source:Gallup Business Journal):

Disputing: Refuting pessimistic thoughts that come to your mind – for example, you could ‘flip’ from the permanence, pervasiveness and personalisation scripts you use to explain bad events to fleeting, rare, and it’s-not-all-my-fault scripts.

Reframing: Identifying the original positive intent behind an action and using that to generate behaviour change. For example, faced with the difficult task of having to lay off some of your team, rather than positioning the circumstances befalling the company as the apocalypse, you could discuss the options the company is faced with: go out of business or make cost savings. Such reframing can mean the difference between an invitation to blind panic (the first frame) and an invitation to view circumstances calmly and professionally.

Active-constructive responding: This is a form of listening that invites the person talking to elaborate on the positive aspects of an event. For example, rather than responding to a person’s good news with “That’s great”, invite elaboration on the positive dimensions of the event, for example, “That’s great, tell me more about what made the difference in getting such an excellent result.”

So there’s light at the end of the rainbow after all. Have a go at some of these techniques and let me know how you’ve benefited from them. Good luck!  

Main article image via Nisca and Ilmi’s blog

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