While it’s too early to tell when businesses will reopen or in-office work will resume, the way we picture the ending can tell us a lot about leadership. As we grapple with sobering unemployment numbers and hear of economic woes in nearly every industry, leaders face a balancing act of staying calm and reassuring, while also being realists about the state of their business.
The question is what role optimism plays in maintaining the health and productivity of a team. Is the weekly jobs report half-empty or half-full? Positivity improves most aspects of job performance. It’s simply easier to stay productive when you feel a sense of purpose, growth or difference making. And it’s harder to maintain a rosy outlook when it feels like all is lost.
Humans are hard-wired for optimism. It seems most people would prefer a distorted view of reality than one that delivers a cold truth. When Jim Carey’s character in Dumb and Dumber asks about his chances for dating Lauren Holly’s character, she gingerly replies that the odds are about one in a million. Her answer makes him ecstatic, exuberantly proclaiming, “so you’re telling me there’s a chance!”
Many of us are choosing to see the economy through Jim Carey’s eyes. We believe there will be a “v-shaped” recovery. And there’s reason to believe the changes we’re experiencing during these times will have a lasting positive impact. We’ve wanted flexible working hours. We’ve been yearning to work from home. And now that we have these things, we’re unlikely to let them go.
We’re basically biased toward optimism. As Thai Sharo, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, noted, “when it comes to predicting what will happen to us tomorrow, next week, or fifty years from now, we overestimate the likelihood of positive events, and underestimate the likelihood of negative events.” When it comes to seeing how the pandemic will end, our nature compels us to believe that it will all be magnificent. And why not? Reevaluating our conditions of employment in light of rapid change should have a positive effect on society.
The optimists among us have pointed out how pollution levels are way down. The canals of Venice have turned clear. Animals are flourishing in cities. And we’re all suddenly interested in baking bread. When it comes to work, we’re becoming more empathetic, more flexible, and have a newfound appreciation for essential workers. These are all genuine reasons to be optimistic.
Even as we’re grappling with insecurity and rapid change, great leaders can empower us with hope. According to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, ManpowerGroup’s Chief Talent Scientist, the best business leaders combine internal pessimism (in order to see deficiencies and foresee problems and threats), with optimism (exuding a sense of positivity and nurturing hope in others). To be sure, this feels intuitively better than the reverse: being internally overconfident while projecting external insecurities.
The best leaders are the ones rallying their employees to see the best possible outcome. If they work in sports, they’re reminding their employees of how much the world will need them when they come back. If they work in the restaurant business, they’re pointing to the indelible cultural fabric that restaurants provide to our cities and towns. Privately, they’re grappling with the unknowns of whether there will be a baseball or football season, or whether the restaurant customers will be ready when they finally switch on the open sign.
No one can see how this will end. But the best leaders enable their teams to see the happiest ending. Their external optimism is encouraging them to strive for that result. Even if the odds are just one in a million. They’re telling them they have a chance.
To see more on this topic from Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, see here.