Friday, June 3, 2011

the problem with optimism

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would entitle a blog post (or anything else for that matter) "the PROBLEM" with optimism. I have been described as "pollyanaish" more than once and am a self-proclaimed rose-colored lense type of guy. I thrive on optimism...and yet this past week I think I encountered its "dark side."

Now I may be wrong (and I will be the first to rejoice if I am wrong) but I think we as an organization made a decision this week based more on optimism than fact. The "we can do this" mantra I kept hearing made me a little nervous as I looked at what I knew to be true at this point and thought to myself "it can't be done." I wondered to myself what led to this type of optimisim (and alternately why I was not as optimistic as the others). Here are a few of the thoughts that came to my mind:

  • this is the first time they are going through this experience - it is easier to be optimistic when you have not encountered the ups and downs of a particular project

  • it's a brand new shiny toy...and they want to play with it - the thrill of something new brings about an optimism that may or may not be founded on fact

  • they feel their reputation/job is on the line - if they are not optimistic, they would be admitting failure and that does not seem like an option

  • they want it so badly - when the only thing left is optimism, you pour it on heavy. As I remarked to a colleague of mine, "How can you argue with so much positivity?"

  • it's always worked before - type A personalities who have seldom failed in their lives cannot see failure as an option and see everything they touch as golden, so of course it will work!

  • give me a little more time - optimistic people beleive that given enough time...enough people...enough resources...enough ???? they can make anything happen. Again, I applaud these efforts (heck, I invented these efforts) but what are the facts telling us?

So how does an organization and its leadership mitigate against blind optimism while encouraging an optimistic spirit in its people? Again, here are a few random thoughts off the cuff on this beautiful Friday morning in Dallas):

  • demand facts

  • put together timelines (and stick to them)

  • listen to the opposing voices (and make them state their facts as well)

  • ask lots of questions

  • ask how past experiences (of the individual and the organization) support the efforts - or not

  • celebrate and reward optimistic behavior (and from time to time celebrate and reward pessimistic behavior)

  • begin to know what blind optimism looks and sounds like (as opposed to having an optimistic attitude and outlook)

  • make sure that people know its okay to fail (both in the front end and back end of any project)

  • be aggresive with the facts

  • do a lot of "what if..." scenarios

  • listen to the gut...and listen to the head

Given the alternative (pessimism) I still vote for optimism within individuals and oprganizations. Having a postive outlook will create so many more opportunities than having the alternative outlook. I would much rather hang out and work with optimistic people than pessimistic people. My goal as a leader is to help optimistic people live out their goals and dreams - but to do so with some good grounding. I know that is what my coaches, bosses, and mentors have done for me over the years...I hope I can keep doing it for others.


Carrie said...

Great article, but I wouldn't pick on the Type A folks, as they're the ones who usually question the facts, have timelines and stick to the plan. But, yes, it's hard to get a Type A to admit failure or struggles...the people who are overly optimistic are those who never take a deep look at their own style and instead find blame...on something vaguely external (it's the economy, it's bad timing, it's the recent tragedy in Japan, Joplin or Just North of us). Again, great article and very helpful for this Type A personality!

Don Christian said...

didn't mean to single out you Type A's the combination of Type A and overly optimistic that I was thinking about. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Bethany Dougherty Meinke said...

Thank you Dr. Christian.... this offered me some valuable insight today :)