Ann Andrews’ inspirational online series has just published my chapter. The series as a whole has various writers, speakers and experts talking personally about watershed events in their lives and the lessons to be learned. Many are quite deep, heavy and personal with real and heartfelt meaning. Mine is quite a counter-weight in that it’s about how I got into comedy so I do wonder how it’s going to be read by the audience that by now has been exposed top stories of surviving illnesses, loss, trauma, etc. I think it’s personal and heartfelt but it’s upbeat.
Regardless of its reception, I just re-read it myself having written it early last year and it did vividly remind me that one of the defining qualities of an engaged person is that they do what they do for its own sake, not just for the money or results. So, even if no one else reads it or, if those that do read it don’t dig the lack of pathos, it’s done me the world of good.
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 belief 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 instil 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.
Heidi Grant Halvorson in her recent Psychology Today article made the bold statement, “Positive Thinking and vision boards can set you up to fail.” Susan Krauss Whitbourne also wrote about the trouble with optimism. Both rightly pointed out the faults of positive thinking and optimism if they were the only strategies being used. I’d agree with that. Positive thinking and optimism are tools. Used correctly they’re perfectly useful. A hammer is a tool. Use it for banging in nails and it’s perfectly useful too. Use a hammer for brushing your teeth and serious damage can ensue. It’s not the fault of the hammer…
Whitbourne refers to studies on optimists and pessimists in stressor situations and the different coping mechanisms employed. Two were ’emotion-focused’ coping and ‘problem-focused’ coping. It’s not immediately helpful but I like the findings as they fit in nicely with my world view. There is no one best way of coping. It depends. Sometimes it’s best to focus on the emotion, looking on the bright side etc. Sometimes, it’s best on trying to solve the problem or minimise the damage. What it depends on is how much control you have over the situation at the time. If it’s beyond your control, focus on your emotions. If there’s still something you can do, make the effort.
Some useful tips were to be realistic, look out for the changeability in situations, find sources of social support and look after your immune system. I like the latter two especially as they require us to be prepared and work on our resources before we hit the inevitable stressor situations that life throws at us. Sometimes s**t happens. Even Victor Frankl back in the day identified that as a common trait among successful and resilient people – the belief that sometimes s**t happens and we deal with it and move on. People expecting life to constantly throw them a parade and sprinkle rose petals in front of them as they stroll are going to hit some speedbumps and some pretty serious disappointments in work and life.
It’s not that Halvorson is a raving fan of negativity. She stresses that the right kind of negative thought employed in a practical action-oriented way can move people towards goals. But it isn’t just done by the thinking of the thought. Focus is important as it does affect how our brains perceive what’s going on around us – even if it is just looking out for the luck and the opportunities that are always there. I’ve found even a physiological cross-over. One day I won the lowest prize on lotto – about $36. Nevertheless it put me in a good mood for a time, radiating a bit of positive thinking. Then I noticed that my ceiling corners needed the spiders webs cleaned out of them. Why? Because I was looking up! People in positive moods look up. I wonder if the reverse is true, that looking up can put a person into a more positive mood? Might go Google that now. (Having said all that, I have a few down times and I never then notice that my carpets need vacuuming…)