We need our leaders to be realistically optimistic right now.
These are challenging times, to put it mildly. Our organizations are facing massive, historical change at a time when we all as individuals are stressed, stretched thin, and worn down by a full year of living through a pandemic.
Are you an optimistic leader?Gut Check for Leaders
But nobody ever said being a leader was easy. And in fact, in challenging times even more than at any other time, we need our leaders to express and model optimism about the future.
Noam Chomsky, American linguist, philosopher and cognitive scientist sums it up best when he says,
“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”Noam Chomsky
Based on his words, optimism and accountability are closely connected. You cannot create a better future unless you believe it is possible for the future to be better than today. Many teams and companies will need to transform to succeed in the coming years, and you cannot drive transformation if you do not believe that it is possible for things to change for the better.
WHY IT MATTERS:
If leaders aren’t excited about the future of their organizations, employees won’t be.
As a leader, if you don’t express optimism about the future, your employees won’t feel it, either. In my book, Accountable Leaders, I share the findings of my global research into what sets accountable leaders apart. Expressing optimism is one of the 5 core behaviors that distinguish accountable leaders from unaccountable leaders.
Unaccountable leaders are often disengaged, or just going through the motions. They don’t truly believe the messages they’re passing on to their teams. Accountable leaders, in contrast, are engaged and excited about the team’s goals, and they communicate that enthusiasm to their teams.
Unfortunately, you can’t fake this kind of enthusiasm. Even if they’re only seeing you for a couple hours a week on Zoom, people will see through you if you’re just trying to put on a happy face or hype up a strategy you don’t truly believe in.
Your goal shouldn’t be to be a “rah-rah cheerleader”, either. They’ll know if you’re presenting an overly rosy picture and one that may be detached from their own realities. Employees are the closest to the customer, and they carry much of the burden when teams are stretched thin.
The challenge for leaders is to be realistic, yet optimistic—and to believe your positive message. Take a look at President Joe Biden’s inaugural address. He didn’t mince words about the challenges America is facing. He didn’t promise that change would be easy. But he did express a sincere belief that things would get better if the nation came together and worked hard to meet the moment.
That’s the kind of grounded, yet optimistic tone you’re aiming for as a leader in difficult times.
Research shows that an optimistic work culture not only improves workers’ lives, it can even increase profits.
Genesis Health System was struggling. The five-hospital system was losing money, and was not only going through layoffs, it was also asking staff who were staying to reduce their hours. It might have seemed like an odd time to begin a positive psychology experiment, but nevertheless the president of one of the medical centers began an initiative designed to encourage gratitude, kindness, praise, and recognition.
The number of employees who reported feeling happy at work jumped from 43% to 62%. Despite the layoffs and financial challenges, the initiative decreased burnout, decreased stress, and increased feelings of connection among colleagues. Patient experiences also improved. And the hospital turned around and not only became profitable, it set new records for revenue, at a time when the industry as a whole was contracting.
WHAT TO PAY ATTENTION TO:
Put optimism into action.
Optimism isn’t just an attitude, although as a leader you’ll need to focus on your mental game to ensure you’re expressing genuine hope for the future. Here are a few strategies for putting optimism into action:
- Look for ways to work optimism, positivity, and celebration into your daily routines. At Genesis Health System, they tried things like starting meetings with three positive thoughts, creating spaces to share positive patient interaction stories, and sharing words of appreciation with colleagues.
- Create a sense of team spirit. New Zealand has had enormous success dealing with the pandemic. There are many reasons for this success, but it’s worth noting that they created a clear public messaging campaign around the theme “Unite Against Covid,” which emphasized pulling together and taking action. Rather than focusing on the threat, the campaign focused on daily things individuals could do to help the community achieve its goals.
- Focus on results. Remember, you’re not expressing optimism just to be a cheerleader or put a happy face on a tough situation. Your goal is to inspire your team to dive in, work hard, and drive results.
- Track outcomes to reinforce the value of optimism. This is another strategy the Genesis Health System team used—they tracked outcomes, including ‘soft’ data like feelings of connection and ‘hard’ data like patient experience, as they went through their optimism experiment. This helped to create a virtuous cycle, where employees could see how their efforts were paying off, which no doubt made them feel more and more optimistic about the future.
Are you an optimistic leader?Gut Check for Leaders