Can the eternal optimist be bad for business?

Photo credit: PromesaArtStudio, Shutterstock
Photo credit: PromesaArtStudio, Shutterstock

Of course, optimists would consider their outlook on life a good thing. But can that positive attitude actually hurt others in the workplace? On Harvard Business Review, management consultant Liz Wiseman tells a story about how her optimism—constantly saying, ‘We can do this! How hard could it be?’—was having a negative impact on her colleague’s work.

He wasn’t opposed to the idea that our enormous task was doable; he simply wanted me to acknowledge the reality of the challenge and recognize his struggle. He didn’t want me glossing over the challenge with my coat of optimism. So I did admit, “Yes, what we are doing is hard. It is really, really difficult.” I then assured him that I would do my best to stop saying that thing. Meanwhile, in the back of my mind I told myself “Sure, I can stop saying that. After all, how hard can it be?”

Is it possible that a can-do attitude that worked so well for you as an individual contributor may actually work against you as a leader? When you play the role of the optimist, you may undervalue the struggle the team is experiencing or their hard-fought learning and work (or give the impression that you do). Your staff may wonder if you have lost your tether to reality. And, when a leader seldom focuses on the problems, it leaves more junior managers to worry about those risks. In fact, by being too optimistic, you may actually be putting your employees in the role of having to play the “sensible pessimist.” Or worse, you might be sending a message that mistakes and failure are not an option because, after all, “How hard can it be?” And yet wise managers know that mistakes are inevitable, and that failure is just the price of creativity.

This was an interesting article for me because I also consider myself to be an optimist. But when dealing with a job-related challenge recently, I found that a close friend’s positive attitude made me feel worse. It was a tough road and I wanted acknowledgment of that. Also hearing the same “You can do it!” phrases seemed empty and glossed over the real problems, I thought. Luckily, we were able to talk honestly and realistically about that and everything did work out.

Are you an optimist? Have you ever felt awkward about an optimists’ constant upbeat attitude?

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