The Case for Optimism

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Omicron isn’t the only thing that’s contagious. So is mood. When those around us are scared or anxious, it’s hard not to feel that way. And when senior leaders around us are filled with hope and optimism about the future, those in the organization feel better and more positive too.

As one CEO put it, “If I’m having a bad day, everyone in the company is having a bad day.” Bob Iger, former CEO of The Walt Disney Company summed it up: “No one wants to follow a pessimist.”.

The purpose of leadership is to pursue “something new and better,” says Sloan Professor Ed Shein. As one CEO of a midsize consulting and outsourcing firm put it, “You need to be optimistic. If as CEO I’m not hopeful, aggressive, and optimistic, then no one will believe it.”

Optimism isn’t just good for leadership, it’s good for business. Optimism is “an essential ingredient of innovation,” says Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel Corporation. “How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in safe places?” Optimism is having a positive state of mind while still knowing all the relative information about the situation at hand. Optimism persists almost despite knowing the worst. As Thomas Jefferson once famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Optimism that he would prevail fueled his persistence.

Optimism has also been found to improve connection and to lower burn-out, both absolutely critical goals in today’s organizations.

But how can we stay positive in the face of widespread negativity from the news looking for readers, from the fatigue of leading through the hurdles of the pandemic, and from challenges like the supply chain crisis?

What Gets in the Way of Optimism

There are a few mistaken beliefs that get in the way of optimism. We may worry that communicating optimism in the midst of widespread exhaustion, worker disengagement and an enduring pandemic seems out of touch and inauthentic. As one manager said, “I wanted to show the team that I was positive, so I didn’t tell the full truth.” But a lack of transparency doesn’t make people feel better — it erodes trust. Instead we need to communicate the truth of the current situation, which can be a catalyst for change. Then we need to communicate our belief that things will get better, the path to get there, and why we have confidence we can be successful. In short, we need to be honest about the current situation, and optimistic about the path forward.

Hans Rosling, author of Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think whose TED talk has logged more than 15 million views, points out that our brain is naturally wired to recognize what is wrong with the world, not what is right. It’s a survival trick of our brain to constantly scan for danger. Many of us also pay more attention to the media world than to our real world.

The media world is 24/7 bringing us an endless stream of negative stories that shock us to get views. While the real world isn’t always pretty, it is much better than the media world lets on — in the real world, there is marked progress on real issues and there are everyday kindnesses. Rosling found that even the most educated people around the globe had a badly misshapen view of the state of the world. Try this quiz: How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?
A. More than doubled
B. Remained about the same
C. Decreased to less than half

The world may seem worse and scarier than it really is because our awareness is skewed, both by our own attention filter and by the media. (And yes, the answer is C on the quiz above.)

But it doesn’t need to be this way. Rosling talks about needing to hold the concept of “bad and better.” By this he means recognizing that things are often not great. And yet, much of the time, it’s better than it has been in the past. For example, 60,000 people die each year from natural disasters. That’s bad. And yet it’s much better than the 500,000+ who died annually in the 1920s or even 170,000+ in the 1960s.

As leaders, thinking about “bad and better” is an important and useful mindset, rather than the more typical binary “good and bad” which is usually an oversimplification. This juxtaposition of bad (what we need to move away from) and better (optimism of how change is possible because we have created positive change before) is critical for moving others forward. If we just focus on the bad, we can’t inspire others with optimism that change for the better is possible.

What’s needed from today’s senior leaders

Our organizations need senior leaders to find that optimism. In the wake of such exhausting and volatile times over the last couple of years, it’s tempting to let frustration or fatigue win the day. But knowing how much senior leaders set the tone for hundreds or thousands of others, it’s imperative that leaders find ways to renew their energy, their passion, and their confidence in the future. The definition of “inspire” is “to breathe life into…”. If leaders are to inspire, they need to inspire themselves first.

Your team is watching you. Your success in leading change is dependent on believing that a better tomorrow awaits. And if that belief is there, you’ll see it’s contagious. It’s about time that what spreads is a good mood—many good things will follow.