Being positive, are you positive it works?
Many years ago, my wife and I lived next door to a young man, a sales manager who practiced the art of positive thinking. Every morning he would stand in his dressing gown, on his first floor balcony, and take deep infusing breaths, drawing in the energy and wisdom of the universe and affirming his power and inevitable success with every repetition of his morning mantra. He was older than me, granted, but he had more money than me, and a golf membership at a private course, so I thought he was onto something. I thought he was a bit of a nutter, but definitely onto something. I went on to believe in the power of positive affirmations and I still do, although, mostly I am too lazy for the real discipline required to achieve the desired outcome.
How would you feel though, if I told you that there was evidence to suggest that all the positive thinking and all of the affirmations you can fit in your shopping trolley, amount to nothing if you drop the ball when they don’t deliver the goal? Dr Martin Seligman tells us, in his book ‘Learned Optimism, How to Change your Mind and Your Life’, that the secret to success, is in how we handle things when we’re not successful, not just how we prepare for success.
“Learned optimism is not a rediscovery of the power of positive thinking. The skills of optimism do not emerge from the pink Sunday-school world of happy events. They do not consist of learning to say positive things to yourself. We have found over the years that positive statements you make to yourself have little if any effect. What is crucial is what you think when you fail, using the power of “non-negative thinking.” Changing the destructive things you say to yourself when you experience the setbacks that life deals all of us is the central skill of optimism.” (Seligman M.E.P, 2006)
Dr Seligman’s book draws on more than 20 years of research to demonstrate that not only does optimism play a major role in enhancing the quality of an individual’s life, but that optimism can be learned. Seligman provides ideas and tools for use in breaking up depression, boosting the immune system, developing your potential and making you happier.
Teaching a team to be optimistic
In applying these theories to work, I began to think about teams and their levels of optimism or pessimism. Is your team depressed? There must be many teams who, as a collective mind, are experiencing a degree of depression as a result of the global financial challenges and the associated impact on many workplaces. We all know humans, in a community (say a work team), seem to travel as a herd, and the collective mind synthesizes to a common mind. Those who wander off from the herd to go it alone, are often taken by a predator, maintaining the collective/common culture, regardless of it being positive or negative in nature.
As managers, teams, and individuals, we all focus really hard on preparing for our goals, be they achieving sales targets, delivering a winning proposal, meeting a challenging deadline or achieving a stretch profit margin. Often we are unsuccessful. So then what? Set more targets, start the next activity, pump yourself up with a bunch of high fives and chest bumps. Accept the fact that you lost and understand you’ll probably lose again because that’s what happens to your team. In fact drop the high fives and chest bumps, this is all hard work, particularly when you know you’re likely just to lose again. Let’s just get on with it and get it over and done with.
Seligman talks of his two principal concepts, the Learned Helplessness and Explanatory styles.
“Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter. Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen. It is the great modulator of learned helplessness. An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness.” (Seligman M.E.P, 1990)
It seems it’s all about your expectations. I love a good sporting analogy, particularly since I am an Australian and then further, since I am from Melbourne, the sporting capital of the world. If you don’t believe that, then you’ve never been here. I support many teams and many sporting codes, but my Australian Football team is Richmond. It’s been a long and tough drought for Richmond supporters, some 30+ years since we won a Grand Final. In the decades prior to that last big victory we were a power-house. But after many years of disappointments, there has definitely been a collective expectation of failure hanging around the team like a cloud of impenetrable fog. Every time you catch a glimpse of the lighthouse, the fog roles back in and you’re caught blind again and in the doldrums. The supporters, for and against Richmond, their competitors, the media, in fact anyone who had an opinion, expected Richmond to lose. Every time they began to look good, they seemed to realise their beliefs by falling back into their losing patterns.
Seligman tells us that:
“the pessimist seems to be at the mercy of reality, whereas the optimist has a massive defense against reality that maintains a good cheer in the face of a relentlessly indifferent universe.” (Seligman M.E.P, 1990)
Is this why some teams and some individuals are successful where others are not, with seemingly identical resources, capability, competence and opportunities? We all experience a degree of helplessness when something goes wrong, but it’s the length of time that feeling persists that’s critical and often divides the optimists from the pessimists. It’s about the ability to bounce back, regardless of the outcome. It’s about resilience. Are some teams full of optimists, or are some teams a collective optimist?
“Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better. As we have seen, the optimist bounces back from defeat, and, with his life somewhat poorer, he picks up and starts again. The pessimist gives up and falls into depression. Because of resilience, the optimist achieves more at work, at school and on the playing field.” (Seligman M.E.P, 1990)
When we encounter adversity; people spend time thinking about it. Often teams spend time discussing it, at their desks, at the water cooler, over lunch. Very quickly these thoughts and opinions form a collective reality. The thoughts become habitual and then may become part of a team’s culture. This of course influences navigation through future challenges, including simply giving up as an option. Seligman says we need to interrupt this vicious cycle and offers guidelines for developing optimism. Perhaps we, as mangers, should be using these in our interactions with our teams and staff.
Helping your team learn optimism
2 examples of a lessons learnt session, one with a pessimistic team’s out come and one with an optimistic outcome.
A pessimistic team identifies the adversity as, for example, the competitor undercut us, the client made demands that we failed to meet etc. As you explore this further the team talks about their immediate understanding or perception of what has happened. “Our rates are too high, we are just not good enough to deliver on time”. The group should then discusses how it makes them feel. “It’s not worth bidding with that client or in that market anymore, let’s stick to the simple jobs with no significant technical or time challenges”.
The shift in thinking by focussing on your explanatory style
Using Seligmans techniques of learned optimism you would take the same lessons learnt session and work toward the following conclusions (as an example), which reflect an optimistic outcome. Our rates are competitive in the market, otherwise we’d have no work. Our competitors are desperate for work, so they bought this job, which is not a sustainable strategy and not a longer term threat. Our client made unreasonable demands, but we did everything we possibly could to deliver and we are proud of what we achieved. We can revisit our bidding strategies with a better understanding of this client’s selection criterion and we can allow for and anticipate dynamic changes to the project in regards to timeline. We know we will be better prepared for the next opportunity.
The fact is you need to be real in your assessment and review of what has happened. It won’t always be pretty, but there is always an upside, you just need to look.
References: Seligman, M.E.P, 1990, Learned Optimism – How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Vintage Books, USA.
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