A Case for Workplace Optimists
by Casey Daline
I’m going to tell you something obvious: optimistic people are way more fun to be around than pessimistic people. You knew that right? “Bright side people” are more enjoyable.
When it comes to the workplace, however, it’s sometimes pessimists—or “realists,” which is the same thing with a name that makes them sound smarter than the rest of us—who get all the street cred. They’re viewed as more prepared, tougher, what have you.
In practice though, it’s optimists who make for better workers and who become better leaders. Let’s talk about why that is, and what adjustments we can make to become more optimistic at work.
What’s An Optimist?
Maybe we should start by defining optimist and pessimist. Right now, you’re probably picturing two very extreme ends of the spectrum: an oblivious ball of sunshine who can’t get anything done (TOO BUSY SMILING), and a full on head-shaking Eeyore who sadly trudges away waiting for more bad things to happen (like existence).
Let’s disregard both of those right away, shall we?
An optimist is not, and should not, be someone who naively believes that everything will just work out for the best of its own accord, or someone who turns a blind eye to difficulties that may come his or her way. The opposite, in fact. I think of an optimist as a positive problem solver. Someone who expects a positive outcome not because everything will go right all the time, but because he or she is confident in his or her abilities (or the abilities of the team) to creatively meet challenges as they come.
A pessimist, on the other hand, I see as someone who expects roadblocks that will inevitably hinder their success. They tend to start with a negative slant and see challenges they encounter as proof that they were correct to expect failure.
Is it all bad to plan for things that might go wrong? Of course not. In fact, troubleshooting to see where you could better prepare is a great practice. But your attitude about what challenges may come—how you talk about them and how you prepare for them—will make a difference in how you face them when they arrive.
Optimism Leads to Innovation
So what do you miss by being a pessimist at work? (Besides, you know, making any friends.)
No, really. To see potential for change, you must be optimistic about possibilities. Starting each project with the attitude that there is no problem that you can’t solve means you’ll think creatively in order to solve it.
Being a pessimist is easy; it allows you to hunker down and get through each day the way you did before: gritting your teeth. The problem with that, though, is that it doesn’t leave any room for creativity or innovation (or hope, but that’s another matter). Being an optimist? That takes some skills; as Marillyn Hewson rightly puts it in her WashingtonPost.com article, “optimism requires a steadfast belief that there’s an answer for every challenge.”
Begin with a positive vision of what’s possible, and work toward it. Take on the attitude that there is no problem you could encounter that you or your team can’t find a way to solve. That preparedness allows you to rise to the occasion when it comes.
Challenges = Possibilities
Before you see problems, see possibilities. Expect that along the way, you will meet not hardships, but opportunities for innovation. Cynics miss key moments for improvement by expecting challenges to lead to failure. (If you don’t believe you can solve a problem, I guarantee that you won’t solve it.) Optimists, on the other hand, having expected moments like these to come along the way, are more prepared to view issues as part of the process instead of hindrances to that process.
Listen, I know a lot of this just sounds like positive self-talk spin. But the truth is—your outlook is obvious, and changes the way you deal with issues that arise. It affects your clients, it affects your team, and it affects your work. As Geoffrey James notes in this INC.com article on training your brain to be more optimistic, the crucial shift is that you should not be blithely expecting no problems come, but “trust your ability to cope, regardless of what life throws at you.”
So—be an optimist at work! Not because it will make you more popular or fun to be around (though, bonus! it will), but because it will make you better at your job. Should you expect that only good things will happen? Of course not. But you should expect that when a challenge arises, you will rise to the occasion and do whatever it takes to succeed. That attitude will lead to a dynamic approach to problem solving that could be a real game changer in your office.
So cheer up, buttercup! You’ll get a lot more done.