fernBruna Martinuzzi, a specialist in bringing EQ into leadership, provides a practical view of optimism as a leadership asset. She offers 17 concrete action steps to develop and apply this key competence. The article includes links and references to numerous books on leadership, problem-solving, and peak performance.

Optimism: The Hidden Asset

By Bruna Martinuzzi

Among the topics that our youths study to prepare them for the workforce is calculus, the mathematics of change and motion. While training in calculus is undoubtedly important, I believe that training in optimism is also important. Just as it is crucial to solve problems like the velocity of a car at a certain moment in time, it is also crucial to figure out what drives people to give us the very best that they have to offer. Ironically, Leibniz, one of the inventors of calculus, is also known for his philosophy of optimism. He was considered to be an inveterate optimist, asserting that we live “in the best of all possible worlds.” Optimism is an emotional competence that can help boost productivity, enhance employee morale, overcome conflict and have a positive impact on the bottom line. In writing about optimism, one faces the danger of being seen as advocating a Pollyanna or quixotic approach. The truth is, however, optimism has been proven to be a powerful tool that will pay dividends for your personal life and give you a competitive advantage professionally, in your career. There is a lot to be gained, indeed, in cultivating an optimistic outlook.

Take leadership, for example. Nowhere is optimism perhaps more important than in leading organizations. Highly effective leaders have a transforming effect on their constituents. Among the behavioral indicators of their transformational leadership [1] style, is the gift of being able to convince others that they have the ability to achieve levels of performance beyond what they thought possible. They are able to paint an optimistic and attainable view of the future for their followers: They move others from being stuck in the status quo – “how things are done around here” and help them see “how things could be done better.”

This concept is echoed In The Leadership Advantage, an essay which appeared in the Drucker Foundations’ Leader to Leader Guide on Mission and Leadership, in which Warren Bennis tells us that constituents need four things from their leaders in order to achieve positive results: meaning or direction; trust (both in the leader and in being trusted by the leader); a sense of hope and optimism; and results. Such a leader instills confidence that “things will work out.” This confidence, this optimism, from the leader impacts others in a very positive way. Every “exemplary leader that I have met”, writes Bennis, “has what seems to be an unwarranted degree of optimism — and that helps generate the energy and commitment necessary to achieve results.”

Consider, as well, the obverse: the effect that pessimistic individuals can have on an organization’s creativity and innovation. To be innovative, one needs to be open to new ideas, wide open to seeing possibilities, willing to take risks and encourage others to take risks – willing to challenge the process in order to create new solutions or products or improve processes.

In short, one needs to have a sense of adventure and an expectation of success. How can someone who has a pessimistic outlook embrace change over the safety of the known? Those who have a pessimistic outlook typically approach changes to the status quo with the familiar: “we tried this before”, “it won’t work”, or “it will never fly.” Such individuals often label themselves as “devil’s advocate.”

The negative effect this can have on creativity, innovation and change is reflected in the title of a new book by Tom Kelley of IDEO, the world’s leading design firm: The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Defeating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization. Kelley provides a roadmap for those who want to fuel innovative thinking and neutralize the pessimistic, often destructive “naysayers” who shoot down ideas and stifle creativity. The recipe involves adding ten positive roles or personas to a team, including the Experimenters (who try something new), the Hurdlers (who instantly look for ways to overcome limits and challenges of a situation), the Collaborators (who bring people together and get things done). I am reminded of a Chinese proverb which says: “The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.”

There are other areas which are impacted positively by optimism. Take sales, for example: A study shows that new sales personnel at Metropolitan Life who scored high on a test on optimism sold 37 percent more life insurance in their first two years than pessimists (Seligman, 1990). In another study involving debt collectors in a large collection agency, the most successful collectors had significantly higher scores in the area of self-actualization, independence and optimism (Bachman et al, 2000, cited by Cary Cherniss.)

Perhaps more significant are the countless studies that have shown that those who have an optimistic outlook have healthier relationships, enjoy better mental and physical health and live longer. In The Wisdom of the Ego. Dr. George E. Vaillant, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, writes about individuals who have “both the capacity to be bent without breaking and the capacity, once bent, to spring back.” Vaillant mentions that, in addition to external sources of resilience (such as good health, social supports), these individuals have important internal sources which include a healthy self-esteem, as well as optimism and mature ego defenses. These mature ego defenses (or coping mechanisms) are fully explored in Dr. Valliant’s subsequent book: Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, a truly fascinating study that will be particularly interesting to fellow boomers. This is a compendium of three different longitudinal studies involving over 800 individuals, men and women, rich and poor, who were followed for more than 50 years, from adolescence to old age. We discover that one of the most powerful predictors of successful aging is habitually using mature coping mechanisms or defenses, what Vaillant calls the ability to “make lemonade out of life’s lemons.”

Vaillant’s study discovered five of these coping mechanisms: they are altruism (doing for others what they need, not what we want to do for them), sublimation (diverting energy to more constructive pursuits such as creativity, art, sports); suppression (postponement of stressors, not repression), humor and anticipation. Anticipation is realistic, hopeful planning for the future. This means not operating in a pessimistic crisis mode but preparing and adapting for whatever life brings.

So how does one recognize an optimist? Alan Loy McGinnis, author of The Power of Optimism, studied the biographies of over 1000 famous people, and isolated 12 characteristics of the optimistic personality. Among these are: “Optimists look for partial solutions”, that is, freed from the tyranny of perfectionism, from paralysis by analysis, they are open to taking small steps towards achieving success; Another characteristic of those who have an optimistic nature is: “Optimists use their imagination to rehearse success”, in other words, they play positive mental videos of preferred outcomes, much like sports figures do.

Michael Jordan, for example, once stated that he never plays a game that he hasn’t first visualized. Another trait is that “Optimists think that they have great capacity for stretching” – they believe that their personal best is yet to come. This takes us to the researcher who probably devoted the most time in studying the traits of optimists, Dr. Martin E. Seligman, the modern scholar most often associated with the topic. Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has devoted decades to studying optimistic people and reports three traits that they have in common: They view adversity in their lives as temporary, specific (not permeating all other aspects of their life) and external, that is not entirely their fault, as opposed to pessimists who view adversity as permanent, (unchangeable), pervasive (affecting all aspects of their life), and more personal (viewing themselves as the source of the adversity – all their fault).

In the face of setbacks, challenges or difficult jobs, pessimist are more likely to do worse than predicted and even give up, while optimists will persevere. Optimism, therefore, is also an important component of achievement, and is especially important in times of chaos, change and turbulence. Those who have an optimistic outlook will roll with the punches, will be more proactive and persistent and will not abandon hope.

So, where does optimism come from? Is it something we are born with or is it learned? For some lucky individuals, being optimistic comes naturally. The good news is that, for those who don’t have it naturally, optimism is an attitude that can be learned and practiced. Here are some strategies you can consider in your journey to becoming more optimistic or in helping someone else who suffers from pessimism:

1. Avoid negative environments. If this is not realistic, make every effort to seek the company of positive individuals in your organization. Sometimes this may mean fraternizing with peers in other departments. Stay away from the professional complainer. (Be aware that there is a strong connection between pessimism and depression. Research shows that pessimists are four to eight times more likely to succumb to depression.)

2. The key to high achievement and happiness is to play out your strengths not correct your weaknesses (Seligman). Focus on what you do well. Celebrate your strengths. (If you are not sure what your signature strengths are, take the Emotional Intelligence Assessment Brain Talent Profile or consider reading: Now Discover Your Strengths. The book provides you with a Web-based interactive feature that allows you to complete a questionnaire developed by the Gallup Organization and discover your own top-five inborn talents).

3. Consider taking Dr. Seligman’s Optimism test 

4. Take care of your spiritual and emotional well being by reading inspirational material on a daily basis. This may be different for each person. Some may be inspired by daily quotations, others by reading biographies of successful people in their field and yet others may derive inspiration from reading about all the innovations that we are graced with. A useful website in that regard is the World Future Society to keep up with new inventions.

5. When faced with setbacks, identify what you can change and proactively try to find ways to do something about it. Manage or ignore what you cannot change. We have often heard this advice – it bears repeating. Be inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s words: “While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us.”

6. If you are serious about developing greater optimism, there is no better book than Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Dr. Martin E. Seligman. Learn Dr. Seligman’s ABCDE model for disputing pessimistic thoughts. This is a very useful and powerful tool for changing your attributional style (the way you explain events) from pessimistic to optimistic. The tool entails your analyzing an event that troubles you by following these steps:

A: Adversity. (Identify and articulate the adversity)

B: Beliefs. (Identify the belief(s) about the adversity. For example, if you make an unsuccessful cold call and you think: “I am never good at cold calling.”

C: Consequences. (How do you feel as a result of this belief?)

D: Disputation. (Dispute your belief. Ask yourself: “What evidence do I have to support this belief? What are all the possible explanations for the adversity? For example, did I catch the client at an inopportune moment? Was the client distracted by other issues?

E. Energization. (List your thoughts and feelings as a result of disputing your negative attribution. You are likely to feel better and this may have a positive effect on your subsequent actions). Using this tool on a regular basis – getting used to disputing your negative beliefs, essentially arguing with yourself – over time, will result in your positive explanatory style becoming automatic. It is important to note here that this is not about blindly practicing positive thinking. Rather it is about getting into the habit of thinking non-negatively.

7. Another tool that is helpful is reframing: deliberately shifting perspective and looking for the hidden positive in a negative situation: the proverbial silver lining. Look for the gift in the adversity.

8. Consider how a simple shift in the language you use can make a difference in your outlook: In a conversation with a client a few years ago, the words “dropped out” kept surfacing. When the client was encouraged to change the words to “took a hiatus”, there was an immediate shift to the positive which was more reflective of the reality of the situation. On the subject of language: Do you frequently say: “yes, but….” in response to your constituents’ suggestions? The “but” automatically negates anything you have said in the beginning part of the sentence. A simple shift to “yes, and…” might make a positive difference in how the message is received. Do a forensic analysis of emails you have sent. Count the proportion of negative to positive words. It could be enlightening.

9. Become aware of your stance in business meetings. Are you known as the “devil’s advocate”, the one who is quick to shoot down others’ ideas? Jumping in too quickly to negate an idea can derail the creative process. Often valuable ideas are the result of an initial “crazy” thought. At meetings, even when we don’t have the floor, we are under a magnifying glass. Practice being more upbeat and see what happens. Practice being the last one to speak and see what happens. A primer for brainstorming savvy is The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm by Tom Kelley et al.

10. If you run meetings, watch, in particular, situations where a constituent or colleague makes a suggestion and someone else jumps in with another comment. What happens to the first person’s comments? Typically, they are ignored as the discussion moves on. This is particularly difficult for the more reticent participant. You can boost their confidence and optimism in participating by encouraging them. A simple: “Janet made a suggestion earlier that we didn’t address” models the way for others.

11. When you encounter an adversity, ask yourself: Will this situation last for my entire life?

12. Focus outside of yourself – on important people in your life, on pursuits and projects that fire you up. Bertrand Russell once said that the quickest way to make ourselves miserable is to continually focus on ourselves. It was his love of mathematics that kept him going.

13. Cultivate spontaneity. Consider putting aside all your plans once in a while to take a walk with your kids, play a game or catch a show. Getting out of your comfort zone by being spontaneous helps to develop your optimistic muscle, as spontaneity essentially involves an expectation of having a pleasurable experience.

14. If you have teenaged children, encourage them to be aware of the pessimistic phrases they use. Challenge them to develop a more positive outlook. It will be one of your greatest gifts.

15. If you need an extra motivation for practicing optimism, consider the statistics linking optimism to greater health. As Dr. Seligman explains, there is evidence to believe that the immune system among optimistic people is stronger than among pessimists. Optimists have also lower rates of infectious illnesses. As well, the probability of death from a second heart attack has been found to be lower in the optimist set.

16. If you are in charge of other people at work, nurture a culture of optimism. Expect people to succeed. Even when they occasionally fail to achieve what they set out to do, encourage them so that they can tackle the next challenge. A simple: “I know you’ll do better the next time” can have very positive effects.

17. Make a point of studying and becoming aware of the ten cognitive distortions, i.e. the ten common mistakes in thinking which include “Mental Filter” (picking out a single negative detail and dwelling on it exclusively so that your vision of reality becomes darkened like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water); or “Emotional Reasoning” (assuming that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things are: I feel it, therefore it must be true.” These distortions and the other eight are illustrated in Dr. David D. Burns’ seminal book entitled Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Analyzing your thoughts to catch yourself when you practice these cognitive distortions in every day events will help you in your quest towards increasing optimism.

This paper would not be balanced if we did not address the benefits of pessimism. Pessimists, as Seligman explains, may be more realistic and accurate about dangers and risks. At times, when there is a risk of serious negative consequences, a cautious, risk-avoiding evaluation is appropriate and desirable. But the positive effects of being optimistic — fighting depression, aiding in professional, academic and sports achievement, and boosting mental and physical health — outweigh the benefits of being a career pessimist.

The answer then is, as Seligman explains, “flexible optimism”, i.e. having the wisdom to assess situations and identify those that require a pessimistic inquisition, and those that call for optimism, for having a “can do” attitude” and taking a chance. If your default mode is skepticism and a pessimistic inclination, there is a huge payoff to including optimism as part of your operating mode. Churchill had a reason for saying: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Practice seeing the opportunity.


Notes: 1 Bass, B. M. and Avolio, B. J. (1993). Transformational Leadership: A Response to Critiques. In M. M. Chemers and R. Ayman (Eds.), Leadership Theory and Research: Perspectives and Directions (p. 56). San Diego: Academic Press.


About the Author: Bruna Martinuzzi is the President and Founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., a company that specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership and presentation skills training. Contact her by email: bmartinuzzi [at] increaseyoureq [dot] com Copyright © 2006 by Bruna Martinuzzi. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted on 6seconds.org by permission.

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