Why Optimism Matters


Is there such a thing as being TOO positive in how you approach life?

       

Is optimism simply a perspective that some people are born with?

 

How does a leader’s outlook, pessimistic or optimistic, impact their team?

 

Do people across the globe hold the same view of optimism?

 

These are among the questions I considered as I wrote my part of Positive Outlook: A Primer for my new series on the twelve Competencies in my model of Emotional Intelligence.

 

Researchers have tried to tease apart how optimism helps or hinders leaders at all levels in an organization. Their findings helped me understand the nuances of this important skill. Yes, I said “skill.” People are not born optimists – a positive outlook is something you can develop, just as you can enhance physical skills such as swimming.

 

What is Positive Outlook?

 

A positive outlook means you’re able to see opportunity even when faced with what at first glance seems a failure. You expect that changes in the future will be for the better. This view combines different strands of research on optimism. One, the focus of work by Martin Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, looks at how people explain to themselves the good or bad situations they encounter. Some people blame themselves for bad things that happen and assume that such setbacks will continue to occur and will impact everything they do. Others think that setbacks are situational, caused by a variety of forces – not due to some personal failing – that things will improve, and that they have the capabilities to shift things for the better.

 

Why Positive Outlook Matters for Leaders

 

It’s no surprise that research by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina shows that Positive Outlook leads to positive emotions. What matters for business is the knock-on effect: positive emotions increase performance, loyalty, motivation, and customer service.

 

Then consider that the emotions of leaders shape the feelings of the people around them for better or worse. Such “emotional contagion” has been extensively studied by Sigal Barsade at the Wharton School of Management. In a recent Harvard Business Reviewarticle, Dr. Barsade and a colleague detail how leaders’ emotions can create a positive emotional culture and enhanced performance.

 

Too Positive?

 

But don’t be a Pollyana: several studies point to the dangers of too much positivity. Reality matters. For example, people who are chronically anxious find it helpful to use “defensive pessimism” to consider and prepare for a range of possibilities, not just for the best-case scenario. And, in some situations, a bit of pessimism is a tempering influence to help us not leap into something that is realistically beyond our ability. For example, I might feel truly optimistic that I can climb Mount Everest, but I recognize that optimism won’t get me up the mountain given that I have no background in high altitude climbing.

 

In the business world, Harvard research finds, the most successful entrepreneurs have a realistic sense of optimism based on the strengths they know they and their outfit have. Entrepreneurs who fail too often are victims of their own excessive optimism. On the other hand, there are those who never risk because their pessimism leads them to under-estimate their own capacities.

 

Another case of “too much positivity” comes into play because of cultural differences. What comes across as an optimistic, positive outlook in American culture can be seen as arrogance in Europe. Likewise, in many Asian countries, bubbly optimism comes across as too self-promoting or bold.

 

How to Build a Positive Outlook

 

One of the best ways to build a Positive Outlook is to use techniques from mindfulness meditation. With mindfulness, you monitor whatever goes on within the mind. The basic premise of mindfulness meditation is to notice when your mind has wandered from your focus and to bring it back to focus. Repeating that basic “notice and re-focus” move builds connections in your brain so that it is easier for your thoughts to make those connections in the future. You are essentially re-wiring the neural circuits, and building new habits.

 

Similarly, to develop a more Positive Outlook, first you must notice that you are focused on the negative. This takes Emotional Self-Awareness, a fundamental Emotional Intelligence competency, then actively choosing to shift your focus to a positive feeling. For example, how do you react when you see that your team’s sales dropped in the past quarter? Do you feel hopeless in the face of those lower numbers and convinced they signal a downward trend? If so, create a list of the ways your team is working to boost sales, to remind yourself of the upside. Then, when you first feel that distressing “sales are going to keep sliding” feeling, catch yourself, and redirect your focus to something positive from the list. That might feel like a small step, but that’s the power of mindfulness, and the moment-by-moment development of an EI competency. Repeating those steps—notice, redirect—many times builds the pathways of positive feelings in your brain.


(This blog was originally published on LinkedIn. It has been re-posted here with prior permission from Daniel Goleman.)


(Image Courtesy: Pixabay.com)

Categories: Leadership

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Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman is the Co-Director of Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations....

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