Optimism: not embarrassing, essential

It’s a happy time to be in business, isn’t it? It appears not. According to data from the Recruitment and Employment Foundation, optimism amongst employers is 54% lower than before the EU referendum, while a Deloitte study shows, half (49%) of CFOs are expecting to reduce their capital expenditure and even more (53%) plan to reduce hiring staff in the coming months.

Why does this matter? Being optimistic is underrated: it is vital for creating momentum, and turbo-charging creativity and productivity. Scientific studies shows optimism is associated with high levels of exploration and career planning – both invaluable in today’s workplace, requiring as it does both innovative ideas and motivated employees who can bring them to life. 

Last year, we conducted a psychological study with a large national broadcaster. It established causal links between how innovative people felt able to be, their level of optimism about the future, and their employee Net Promoter Score. The emotional descriptor ‘inspiring’ correlated to an 8.1 score on NPS (the highest in the study), and to an above-average tenure of over five years. The implications were clear: people were more likely to stay working for that organisation and be more productive, if they believed it had a clear and confident sense about the future. 

CEOs are often surprised when we ask them to talk about how optimistic they feel about their role and organisations. Examination of our own emotional state is not something that many of us in business lean into. Indeed, we can find doing so a bit woo-woo for the often braying world of work. But a leader in the doldrums is rarely resilient, resourceful and responsive. The good news: optimism is a way of thinking, not a characteristic you’re born with. So how can you be more optimistic and inspire it in others?

Five things you can do

  1. Get some perspective. In his book Unshakeable, Tony Robbins points out that market corrections happen every year on average. 80% of corrections don’t become bear markets. Bear markets happen about every three to five years, and only last about a year. Negative events more than likely do not matter on a 10-year timescale, or even a 2-year one.
  2. Remind yourself that every time someone is losing money, someone else is making it. A quick look at hedge fund industry performance at times of major currency fluctuations should prove that point. (This is not to be apologists for the often questionable behaviour of hedge funds.)
  3. Start understanding what motivates your employees. Dog-eared posters, poor training and crappy intranet sites inspire no one. And nobody ever got out of bed feeling good about creating shareholder value. Instead, people have deep-seated wants, needs and values. When businesses meet these, their people will feel good about the future. But most employers need to spend time getting closer to their employees.
  4. Stop delegating to HR. They’re doing a great job but the cultivation of true optimism is not a business goal that you can palm-off. The responsibility to create optimism sits across the entire senior team. That includes you.
  5. Filter the news. Yes, staying informed is a prerequisite of good performance. But there is no such thing as ‘all of a sudden’ in business. There is a marked difference between things that happen and speculation about what might happen. The former matters, whereas the latter often exists to keep visitor numbers high. Refocusing on positive action can make a huge difference to your optimism and productivity.

What might positive action involve? Start with the simple. Working with a team recently, we implemented a ‘Win Of The Week’ competition. Everyone coming to the weekly team meeting had to report on their biggest single success of the previous week. This engendered significant optimism that things were moving in the right direction. It also forced everyone to up their game through the power of social pressure. 

We also encouraged the leader to reframe his conversational approach from ‘What’s happening to us?’ to ‘What are we making happen?’.

Positive action drives momentum. Momentum drives optimism.