Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan write, following a multi-year organisational research project, in the Harvard Business Review ‘imagine if double the number of people on your team felt like the company was going in the right direction, even in the midst of an incredibly challenging time’.
It’s likely that many of us can imagine a more confident and productive workforce, but we might wonder what else we would need to change in the workplace to bring about this change of outlook. What stands out from their research is the finding that regardless of wider workplace dynamics, targeted interventions designed specifically to bolster optimism are possible and well worth investing in.
Optimism is an inner (psychological), as well as a collective (cultural) characteristic that can be developed with remarkable individual and organisational benefits. How does optimism work?
Optimism, the assumption that a positive way forward is possible, finds a foot hold when we have succeeded in the past – we tend to be more optimistic about succeeding again and so we believe our efforts will be worthwhile and we approach new challenges optimistically.
Aren’t we also optimistic when those around us are, particularly the people that we trust and respect? Isn’t optimism contagious? In any successful organisation optimism is visible in the culture, the behaviour of its leaders, the tone of communication, how colleagues support each other, the way in which risks are taken and investments undertaken. Optimism is also evident in how organisational routines reinforce optimistic approaches: the availability of opportunities to step up; how success is celebrated; and how much organisations (optimistically) invest in their people and their culture. We can’t miss it.
Optimism is also linked with many successful business practices and other foundations of Mental Fitness. Optimism feeds innovation and creativity, it underpins motivation and enterprise, it drives hard work and continuous improvement. When optimism proves itself, it has an increasingly powerful impact on all aspects of our work.
The cultural narrative ‘we succeeded because we remained optimistic through tough times’ is worth its weight in gold. Many organisations succeed due to their optimism, but not all organisations take the adequate time to celebrate their success, nor reflect on how this important cultural capital can be bolstered, nor how it might be inadvertently undermined. In successful times, and more so in challenging times, it is worth safeguarding and investing in the development of optimism.
Why then does optimism require specific consideration and investment? The short answer is that levels of optimism go down as well as up. We face challenges, sometimes profound and dire challenges that can all too easily strip the optimism out of our workforce.
Since the first lockdown, we have seen a 12% drop in how Optimistic our customers feel at work, with the greatest impact being felt in the 21-30 age range. The challenges of Covid and its various implications can all too easily wear away optimism. Data from Cognomie’s Cognosis platform, measuring the Mental Fitness of organisations.
Sometimes optimism can seem naïve, and sometimes reality can knock the optimistic wind out of us. Whilst fluctuations in felt optimism are understandable, we need not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Even if we can’t see it all the time, there is always a place for optimism (this is why we consider optimism a Foundation of Mental Fitness).
Of course, optimism needs to be regulated by realism. Optimistically banging our heads against a brick wall isn’t sustainable. However, and this is particularly true in challenging times, optimism affords us a unique opportunity to learn, adapt and bounce back when the going gets tough.
Pessimism, in contrast, is the attitude in which challenges seem to be only external to us or else impossible. We believe we face insurmountable barriers, we lose sight of our agency, we can’t see a way forward, we are already losing. With an optimistic attitude, challenges are explored, we look for a comma where there used to be a full stop.
One of the critical differences is that we recognise that we are now in the picture too – us individually, our team, and our organisation are all variables that we can manage. When we discover how the problems that we face at work also exist within us, we can do the work on ourselves to be best positioned to discover new ways forward. We’ve overcome an internal barrier when we believe that there is something that we can do that will make a positive difference.
Because optimism is an internal characteristic, it can be coached, learnt and developed. As a cultural characteristic, optimism can be reinforced, celebrated, role-modelled and valued.
The discovery of optimism at a difficult time can feel invigorating and inspiring. With support from colleagues, shared optimism can underpin positive cultural change. It can strengthen collegiate bonds.
In coaching and training conversations, we ask ‘How much of the problem that’s wearing down your optimism have you internalised? and ‘How can you change your outlook or your behaviour to find the best way forward in this challenging situation? We each find our own answers to such questions, but sometimes we find answer in common with colleagues. Some of our clients have developed their optimism by reflecting on their purpose: why they enjoy their work; what they want to achieve; and why their work matters to them. Others have done so by reflecting on which environments are most conducive for their optimism – they decide to change something in their life and report back what difference it has made: a jog before work; more informal time with colleagues; having a courageous conversation about a problem they have been avoiding, can make all the difference. Other customers have identified the one key thing they can do in an otherwise overwhelming situation, they find their agency, how they can take responsibility for the positive impact they can have in their place of work, and perhaps what support they need to do just this.
Whatever answers we discover to such questions, if the answer is authentic and comes from honest reflection, then it is likely to mark a positive change in our outlook and often a reinvigoration of our optimism. We can recognise and understand what it is we can do, and so we look up and out again, with greater realism, resilience, knowing optimistically that there is something we can do that will help move our work forward.
With effort and support we can discover where and when we can make the choice to be optimistic. It’s an empowering and exciting discovery, and a relief at times. It is a state of mind we can access when we need to, a style of communication, techniques to employ in conversations and team meetings – optimism is a practically applicable skill – we can discover how optimism becomes a leadership quality.
How optimistic do you, your team or your organisation feel? It helps to know (we can manage what we can measure). We have developed a short and long form survey to help you identify how much more optimistic you can be (include link to sign up to the pulse survey and full Cognomie survey).
We have designed our coaching, training and consultancy services at Cognomie to support you to understand and develop your optimism, to clarify what enables your optimism, and explore both what support your optimism needs and how you can support your colleagues to develop their optimism in turn. It is a personally and professional rewarding enquiry we can support you to undertake.
Get in touch with us below to find out more about how we might help you and your organisation learn to be more optimistic.
We look forward to hearing from you if your optimism matters to you as much as it matters to us.
The Cognomie Team