“Optimism is one of the key things people need from their leaders in order to achieve positive results”. (Warren Bennis). As a leader, having an optimistic perspective will help you and your teams to get through challenging situations effectively. As Leibniz explains “optimism is an emotional competence that can help boost productivity, enhance employee morale, overcome conflict and have a positive impact on the bottom line”.
Our brains are hardwired for the negativity bias. The good news is that optimism can be learned by anyone who wants to develop this skill. Martin Seligman introduced the term learned optimism. It is a theory of positive psychology that suggests positivity is a skill that can be developed. Regardless of whether you are a professional, manager or business owner, learned optimism will help you gain greater professional, team and business success. I have outlined three ways to develop learned optimism.
3 Ways to Develop Learned Optimism
One way to develop learned optimism is to have a daily gratitude practice. The easiest way to implement a gratitude practice is to have a gratitude journal. This journal will make it easy to be consistent and to develop a long term habit. By being grateful for your blessings and by identifying your achievements on a daily basis, you are training your mind to start to identify what is going well in your life and in your career. As a leader, it can be easy to forget to acknowledge your own wins and successes, so establishing this practice will help you to develop learned optimism. Try this exercise for two weeks and write your answers in your gratitude journal.
Just before sleep, ask yourself:
- What are three things that went well today?
- What was my role in making them happen?
2. Cognitive Distortions – 3P’s
Another way to develop learned optimism is to become conscious of the thoughts that you have about yourself and your experiences. There are three common cognitive distortions (also known as 3P’s) to be aware of: personalisation, pervasiveness and permanence.
Personalisation is a thinking pattern that is different between a learned optimist and a pessimist. Optimists don’t internalise and blame themselves entirely when something bad happens. They identify their role in the situation but they accept that it wasn’t 100% their fault. They don’t dwell on their own shortcomings like a pessimist would, but instead they identify how they can learn and improve from the situation. An optimist understands that there is no guarantee for success and as a result they don’t attach their own self-worth to the outcome. As a leader try to avoid personalisation and you will find that you will become more innovative and open to trying new things as you won’t fear failure as much.
Some questions to help you avoid personalisation:
- What was the learning from this situation?
- What will I do differently the next time?
The second thought pattern to be aware of is pervasiveness. Optimists keep things in perspective. If something does not work out the way they intended it to in a work situation, they accept that it is what it is. They are able to look at this situation objectively. They know that they still have lots of strengths and are still valuable to the organisation, despite this error. This is in contrast to how a person with a pessimistic outlook would view it. If they made a mistake, this would undermine their confidence entirely and they would ruminate over it to the point that they think they will get fired. As a leader, it is important to be aware of your own mindset, but also the mindset of the members in your team in relation to pervasiveness.
If you see yourself falling into this thinking error, ask yourself:
- What is going well for me in work at the moment?
- What are my key strengths?
Permanence is the third thinking error to consider if you want to develop learned optimism. An optimist understands that no situation or circumstance is fixed and unchangeable. This is an extremely helpful way to think if things are not going very well. They know that everything is temporary and the situation will pass eventually. Instead of focusing on the situation like a pessimist would, they are focused on what they can do to help and change the situation. As a leader adopt the learned optimistic viewpoint as it allows you to be more fluid in your thinking and as a result allows you and your team to take more risks.
Some questions to consider:
- What can I do now that will help improve this situation?
- Am I being objective about how I am looking at this situation?
3. Cultivate Positive Relationships
The last way to develop learned optimism is to build and maintain positive relationships. It is well known that relationships help us with our wellness and health. Cultivating effective relationships in work helps us to cope and deal with stressful situations. These relationships with colleagues are naturally built over time and there is a correlation between having effective relationships in work and being happier in work. If you are working remotely, maintaining effective relationships with your colleagues might have been neglected. As a leader you could encourage your team to connect with each other for a remote lunch or remote coffee breaks to help maintain these important relationships.
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