Optimism and Results

Most offices have an office pessimist or a person that always thinks that things are the worse that they can be.  You know the person: if the boss calls a meeting, then it must be to downsize.  It is same person that assumes that everything has some secret and inherently negative motive.  The pessimist can find the dark side of any event, no matter how routine or mundane.

As I work with different organizations, I hear employees refer to the “office Eeyore.”   For those of you that have experienced the Winnie the Pooh stories, Eeyore is a pessimistic, gloomy, and depressed donkey who is a good friend to Pooh.  He is typically portrayed with his head lowered and shoulders bowed while his narrative relates to “poor me” coupled with a severe fatalism   Some people feel sorry for people that resemble Eeyore while others develop a dislike for the amount of whining and complaining.  Either way, pessimists have an impact on the workplace.

Although it is important that there are all types of people and personalities, there is empirical support for the advantages of being an optimist.  Studies have shown that:

  • Optimists make more money;
  • Optimists are more engaged as well as satisfied with their jobs;
  • Pessimists are more accurate about reality than optimists;
  • Pessimists are more common that optimists in almost every setting; and
  • Optimists focus more on options and alternatives.

Based on previous research, Metropolitan Life developed a test for screening potential sales people that assessed the level of optimism in the candidate.  As expected, the screening method illustrated a huge difference between optimists and pessimists.  The optimists outsold pessimists by 20 percent the first year and 50 percent in the second.

Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman has conducted more than 600 studies that prove that optimism goes a lot further in helping us get what we want.  In his 1990 book, Learned Optimism, he summarized the benefits of an optimistic outlook as higher achievement, better health, and greater overall success.  Conversely, he finds that although pessimism is much more common, it leads to a higher failure rate, lack of confidence, and even depression.  Some of the other differences he sites include:

  • Permanence: Optimists believe that bad things are temporary and part of life and in time things will improve while pessimists tend to think that once a situation is bad it is destined to stay that way.
  • Pervasiveness: Optimists look at failure as an occurrence and not indicative of all facets of life.  Pessimists commonly consider failure in one area as overall failure in general.
  • Hope: Optimists tend to look at events that impact people instead of life impacting people.
  • Personalization: Optimists focus on things that happen in their environment while pessimists blame themselves for everything that happens to them.

Overall, the optimist sees events as occurrences rather than a lifestyle, punishment, or personal curse.

So, what happens if we need to convert our pessimists to optimists?

Seligman makes the argument that optimism can be learned.  His process creates a new way of responding to adversity.  He argues that we all can talk ourselves through defeat. He builds on the ABC model: Adversity is the event that happens, belief is how that adversity is interpreted, and consequences are the feelings and actions that result from the beliefs.  Seligman proposes the ABCDE model where D is disputation (providing counter-evidence to negative beliefs or feelings overall, causes of the event, or implications) and E or energization (once embracing positive feelings the accomplishment should be celebrated).

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