Leadership Challenge: Optimism vs. Pessimism

January 29, 2013

Optimism vs PessimismOptimism vs. Pessimism

An optimist is able to say, “What happened was an unlucky situation (not personal), and really just a setback (not permanent) for this one, of many, goals (not pervasive),” according to Daniel Seligman (leading psychologist, best selling author and Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology in the University of Pennsylvania‘s Department of Psychology). Seligman distinguishes between optimists and pessimists along three lines (the 3 P’s):

  1. Permanence: Optimists see setbacks as temporary and bounce back quickly from adversity because they believe positive events are predicated on more lasting attributes.
  2. Pervasiveness: Optimists compartmentalize negative events; they do not interpret them as pervasive across all areas of their lives.
  3. Personalization: Optimists find someone or something outside themselves to blame for poor outcomes; they do not conclude it is because of them. Optimists will, however, internalize positive events.

Naturally, pessimists have different views on the degree of personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness. They are more inclined to see negative events as permanent and pervasive, for instance, and less inclined to accept and internalize positive outcomes.

How to Lead Optimists & Pessimists

As leaders, it can be difficult to work with a blended team of optimists and pessimists. An optimist and pessimist can describe the same meeting in vastly different terms. From their individual reports, you might wonder if they were in the same meeting or if one of them is lying. Seligman’s research would suggest that the pessimist will have a more “real” view of the situation, and yet it is the optimist that will usually be more successful with their outlook. That means, as a leader, you may feel forced to choose between accuracy and winning.

Naturally, you want to be accurate and win. You want to take the “can do” spirit of the optimists and balance that with some of the pessimists’ critical insights. To do that, you need to learn how to decode the feedback you receive and help team members understand where they sit along the optimism/pessimism spectrum. Here are some ways to achieve these ends:

  • Listen to and test pessimists’ concerns about the permanence of a setback
  • Support optimists’ views about the correlation, over time, between positive events and positive attributes
  • Encourage pessimists to compartmentalize negative events
  • Encourage optimists to test assumptions that led to a failure
  • Help optimists to accept responsibility for poor outcomes
  • Help pessimists to accept credit for positive outcomes
  • Speak openly about the relative advantages and disadvantages of optimism and pessimism, and where you sit along the optimism/pessimism spectrum.

You likely have a pretty good gauge as to where your team members sit along the optimism/pessimism spectrum. And they have a pretty good gauge of you, too—especially if their sense of cause and effect differs significantly from yours. If you’re an optimistic leader, for example, your pessimistic team members may think you’re naïve or unprepared. They may think you’re not listening to them or dismiss their concerns too quickly. If you’re a pessimistic leader, your optimistic team members may feel like you’re too controlling and not trusting enough of them and their strengths. They may feel like you’re too slow to act.

Know where you and your team members sit along the optimism/pessimism spectrum. Use that information to be accurate and to win.

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