I’m really lucky. In looking back at my career, I can’t recall ever having a boss who was a negative pessimist. Many of you are not so lucky. It’s not hard to argue that having a negative, pessimistic leader is a bad spot in which to find yourself. There are numerous explanations why most people don’t like working with pessimists generally, and certainly don’t like being led by them. Here are three reasons why we instead naturally seek leaders who are optimists.
1. Optimists are problem solvers who try to improve the situations they’re in. We want leaders who’ll face obstacles head on, analyze them and formulate solutions, and then lead us around them. Researchers Michael Scheier and Charles Carver looked at the implications of optimism on outcomes in their groundbreaking 1985 study, “Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies”. When interviewed in a 2012 Hans Villarica’s article in The Atlantic Home, Scheier said of their research results: “We know why optimists do better than pessimists. The answer lies in the differences between the coping strategies they use. Optimists are not simply being Pollyannas; they’re problem solvers who try to improve the situation . . . Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to deny, avoid, and distort the problems they confront, and dwell on their negative feelings. It’s easy to see now why pessimists don’t do so well compared to optimists.”
2. Optimists are more resilient in the face of failures and setbacks. Failures are a part of life and the workplace. A common business adage goes something along the lines of, “if you’re never failing, you’re not taking enough initiative.” But when those failures do come, we want leaders who can adapt to setbacks, get the team moving forward again, and get us back on track. Nobel prize winning economist, Daniel Kahneman, discussed his research of optimists and their ability to lead others in the face of setbacks in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. In it he said it’s the resilience of optimists in the face of failure, their ability to adapt and rebound, that sets them apart from everybody else. Interestingly, he also points out that their optimism can sometimes lead them to underestimate dangers and take more risks than others. But in spite of that, Kahneman’s conclusion is that the benefits of having optimistic leaders outweigh their costs: “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. Leaders’ behaviors are infectious, and we’d rather our leaders spread optimism. We know that the behaviors of leaders and the outlooks they have will impact everyone around them, especially their followers. Early in my career I had a boss who was optimistic and generous in nature but, depending on the day, could come in cantankerous and angry. We learned to be on the lookout each morning when he entered the office, and word quickly spread as to his mood. Whatever it was that day – positive or negative – it’s impact was infectious. It immediately suppressed or lifted the atmosphere across the entire office.
Researchers from the University of California at San Diego and Harvard University published an interesting study on this topic of “emotional contagion” in 2008. The research had a simple conclusion: people who are surrounded by those who are happy will in all likelihood become happier themselves. Not only that, but the clustering effect of happy and unhappy people they observed was not a result of people simply electing to hang out with others having a similar emotional outlook. In fact, they found that it occurred as the result of the spreading of the happiness emotion. The study found that if Person A’s friend – Person B – lives within a mile and Person B becomes happy, it increases the probability of Person A becoming happy by 25%. Just as fascinating was their research finding that the impact extended up to 3 degrees of separation, meaning all the way to the friends of one’s friend’s friends. That’s quite a reach, for sure.
So, what does this emotional contagion research mean for leaders? It’s likely that the impact of a leader’s outlook, whether positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic, is going to spread just as it did in the case of my optimistic, generous, but sometimes cantankerous former boss.
I’ll close by leaving you with three questions to consider relative to your own level of leadership optimism. The first question is, “where do others see me on the ‘outlook’ spectrum, am I perceived as a terribly negative pessimist on one end, a wildly positive optimist on the other, or somewhere in between?” Second, “wherever it is others see me on that spectrum, what are the consequences of my expressing that kind of an outlook?” And finally, “should I be doing something about it?”
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist the opportunity in every difficulty.” — Winston Churchill
COO, Zenger Folkman
Zenger Folkman socio estrategico de Grupo P&A
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