Team Management Systems
 

Optimism: It's role in the workplace

By Dick McCann
Copyright © Dick McCann. All rights reserved.

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Always look on the bright side of life (song from the movie 'Life of Brian')

Optimism is a characteristic that is the basis of positive thinking. It is a psychological resource that gives people a generalized expectancy that they will succeed in their endeavors. Expected success, in turn, gives people the will to expend effort to realize their goals. If they expect failure then they will put less effort into a task and are more likely to give up as soon as an obstacle appears.

The literature abounds in studies on optimism as a dispositional characteristic (Lightsey, 1996). Many studies have shown that an optimistic outlook on life leads to less incidences of postpartum depression and distress, and greater subjective well being and life satisfaction. It has also been positively correlated with goal-setting and achievement and negatively with goal abandonment and resignation to fate.

People who are optimistic will often see more opportunities than those who are pessimistic. They are able to put problems behind them and take a positive view of the future. Optimism is an attitude to life that prevents people from becoming apathetic, or giving up hope. Their belief that things can only get better is often a tonic for those around them. Their optimistic view of the world can be infectious and influence those they interact with.

In his book,Optimism: The Biology of Hope, Lionel Tiger (Tiger, 1995) argues cogently that optimism is not an optional characteristic in humans; it is as 'natural to man as his eyes that see, and as irreplaceable as hair.' Through evolution we have developed a species-wide tendency to overestimate moderately, the odds in our favor. In other words, optimism is a biological phenomenon. George Bernard-Shaw captured this elegantly when he said, "Love consists in overestimating the differences between one woman and another."

It seems that optimism has been central to the process of evolution. It has greatly influenced the way humans think, work, play and respond to fundamental issues such as birth and death. It is a force that has been used as a lever in the hand of politicians and a weapon in the hands of dictators. Both groups use optimism as a way of controlling people and harnessing them to a cause. If indeed, Tiger's belief that optimism is a biological phenomenon rooted in the genes is true, then it gives us another technique to use in people management processes.

Optimism appears to be socially desirable in all communities. Purveyors of optimism are generally accepted whereas those who spread doom and gloom, panic and hysteria, are treated with contempt. Many of the world's religions are adherents to the doctrine of optimism. The sufferings of this world, the vicissitudes of life, the pain of disease and death are all mitigated by the expectancy of some future favorable outcome, maybe not in this world but certainly in some other. Religions allow communities to organize their fears and their futures by establishing a set of rules and beliefs for everyone to follow. In this way earthly fears are relegated to the arena of trivia and society becomes more manageable.

Optimistic Speeches

The importance of optimism to the human species is shown by Martin Seligman's work (Seligman, 1991) in analyzing USA political speeches using his CAVE technique - Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations - where he analyzed the nomination acceptance speeches of candidates for the USA presidential elections. In the twenty-two presidential elections from 1900 to 1984, Americans chose the more optimistic-sounding candidate eighteen times. In all elections in which an underdog pulled off an upset, he was the more optimistic candidate. The exceptions were three elections contested by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Humphrey-Nixon election of 1968. Roosevelt's proven ability in a crisis and the impact of Chicago riots at the time of Humphrey's speech seemed to have more than negated the opposition candidates' more optimistic speech. It does definitely seem that people want to hear about rosy futures and will support those people who help create a sense of hope, optimism and well being within an individual.

Seligman (1991) has spent many years researching the concept of optimism and pessimism through his work on attributional styles. He has found that people with an optimistic attributional style will attribute negative events differently to those with a pessimistic explanatory style. When setbacks occur, pessimists blame themselves. 'I am just no good,' or 'Nobody wants me,' are phrases that soon flow from the lips of such people. They believe the cause of their misfortune lies within them rather than being due to external or extenuating circumstances. Pessimists also believe that misfortune is long lasting ('Things will never get better') or repetitive ('If I have failed once, it will happen again'). It is also global or 'pervasive', that is, 'If misfortune befalls me in one part of my life, then it will happen to my whole life.' These three characteristics of the pessimistic explanatory style for negative events are known as the three Ps - Personal, Permanent and Pervasive.

Pessimism

Whether a tendency to pessimism is inherited or learned is a debate that has raged among psychologists for many years. The truth is probably somewhere in between. People growing up in a pessimistic environment can be greatly affected by negative events. Witness, for example, the progression of pessimism among the unemployed. The first-time job seeker starts off in a positive way, believing that a job is just around the corner. Many unsuccessful interviews later they believe they will never get a job and their whole life can degenerate into one of despondency.

Many controlled experiments have been carried out showing that a pessimistic mood can be induced by just listening to gloomy stories, watching a depressing movie or listening to melancholy music. Likewise being exposed to a person who is continually focusing on the obstacles can create pessimism in you. Like bush fires, this pessimism can spread quickly, affecting everyone in its path.

Ruminating

People with low optimism often have feelings of fear and uncertainty about the future. In some cases this can lead to high levels of anxiety. This anxiety can lead to the debilitating activity of 'rumination'.

Rumination is a term often used to describe a negative internal dialogue that people have with themselves. If your level of optimism is low then you may well imagine all the things that could possibly go wrong. You may even be an advocate of Murphy's Law.

Negative self-talk becomes an unstable cycle. The more you think about the terrible things that might happen, the more vivid they seem and the more cautious you become. Your very fear of the future event is magnified through rumination. So when the event actually takes place, you are more likely to be tentative and unsure of yourself. This very attitude creates a self-fulfiling prophecy and the imagined negative outcome becomes a reality. Your worst fears, your preprogrammed 'movie' of the event is played out in real life. Sometimes negative self-talk becomes so bad that it occupies much of your waking time and may even prevent you from sleeping at night.

For many years researchers have continually shown the close connection between the mind and the body. Thus negative self-talk will cause the body to act in alignment and your actual behavior will mirror your mind image. In other words, negative thoughts stimulate negative behavior.

Positive Imaging

One of the most effective ways to prevent rumination is to replace it with positive self-talk, together with imaginal thinking or 'image-ination'. Imaginal thinking involves constructing a desired future model of a situation you would like to experience and then running that model several times over so that it is programmed into your mind.

The 'movie' you create should also have a sound track containing the words you would like to hear yourself saying. The trick is to become your own 'Steven Spielberg' and create the blockbuster movie of all time, starring yourself!

As well as vision and sound, your internal movie must also create a feeling for you. You need to decide how you would like to be feeling during the future event you are creating. Do you want to feel relaxed, confident, powerful, happy, forceful etc? If you want to be confident and relaxed throughout the 'movie' then you need to edit into your sound track a repetitive 'feelings' track where your movie-self repeats over and over again, 'I am relaxed. I am confident.'

Positive imagining has been recognized for many years under such names as mental practice, imaginary practice, covert rehearsal, symbolic rehearsal and introspective rehearsal. But what is the scientific evidence that it actually works? Driskell, Copper and Moran (1994) have reviewed many studies in the literature and concluded that there is a definite relationship between enhanced performance and positive imaging. Results show a significant performance enhancement whose magnitude depends on the type of task being undertaken, the interval between rehearsal and performance and the duration of the 'practice'.

The effect was more significant on cognitive tasks rather than physical tasks. For physical tasks there is, as expected, no substitute for practice. However for improved performance in management skills such as negotiations, there is often no room for practice as the events are 'one-off', with just the one opportunity to get the best result. In these situations positive imaging is a definite advantage. Another conclusion is that the effect of positive-imagining training halves after a two-week period and reduces to almost zero after three weeks, indicating the need for continual refresher training. Also a total duration of about 20-minutes positive imaging seems to be optimal, indicating the desirability of short practice sessions, something that busy executives will no doubt appreciate!

Optimism in the Workplace

Optimism is one of the subscales of the QO2™ - a measurement of behavior in the workplace. This instrument taps into the fifth dimension of the human psyche and measures characteristics about people not measured by either the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) assessment1 or the Team Management Profile. The other subscales provide feedback on:

  • MTG Energy - the energy that gives us the determination, enthusiasm and resilience to formulate and achieve our goals in life
  • Multi-Pathways - the ability to generate lots of possible pathways around obstacles
  • Fault-Finding - the effort put into looking for faults in both proposals and people
  • Psychological Time - how people run their internal time clock

These subscales combine to record the balance of effort people are likely to put into either seeing the opportunities or seeing the obstacles. Optimistic people are more likely to focus on the opportunities but too high a level of optimism can cause potential problems to be ignored, leading to major catastrophes. Lower levels of optimism are more likely to cause people to focus on the obstacles lying in their path, but if they are too pessimistic then they may never seize the opportunities.

Footnotes:

1 ® MBTI, Myers-Briggs, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are trademarks or registered trademarks of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Trust in the United States and other countries.

References:

  • Driskell, J.E., Copper, C. & Moran, A., (1994), Does Mental Practice Enhance Performance? Journal of Applied Psychology, 79, 481-492.
  • Lightsey, R.L., (1996), What Leads to Wellness? The Role of Psychological Resources in Well-Being, The Counselling Psychologist, 24, 4, 589-735.
  • Seligman, M.E.P., (1991), Learned Optimism , Alfred Knopf, New York.
  • Tiger, L., (1995), Optimism: The Biology of Hope , Kodansha, New York.

Copyright © Dick McCann. All rights reserved.


With a background in science, engineering, finance and organizational behavior, Dick McCann has consulted widely for organizations such as BP, Hewlett Packard and Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. He is coauthor of Team Management: Practical New Approaches with Charles Margerison; author of How to Influence Others at Work, the TMS E-Book Series and The Workplace Wizard: The Definitive Guide to Working with Others; and coauthor with Jan Stewart of Aesop's Management Fables and The Half-Empty Chalice. Dick is coauthor and developer of the Team Management Systems concepts and products and also author of the QO2™ Profile, Window on Work Values Profile and the Strategic Team Development Profile. Involved in TMS operations worldwide for over 25 years, Dick is now Managing Director of TMS Australia and a Director of TMS Development International.
 

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