People & Human Resources

Glass half full?: Optimism and pessimism in the workplace

Eve Ash /

Glass half full or glass half empty? Why, glass half full, according to some. 

Norman Vincent Peale and before him Dale Carnegie made their fortunes extolling the power of positive thinking many years ago, and their influence has pervaded workplaces all across the world. Carnegie’s philosophy went beyond simplistic “don’t worry, be happy” mantras — his Depression-era book How to win friends and influence people has sold 30 million copies and still sells today.

The positive psychology industry has its detractors. Some argue if you take a positive approach to a wrong course of action, you only arrive at the wrong destination more quickly. Norman Vincent Peale is even blamed for Donald Trump’s relentless self-confidence.

In this vein, Gabriele Oettingen, psychologist and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation conducted a study of obese women and found those who envisaged losing lots of weight actually lost less than those who were realistic. She likewise found that students who positively envisaged exam results didn’t necessarily do better than those who didn’t — if only because what mattered more was the energy expended in achieving better outcomes, not simply day-dreaming. 

So, assuming you bring dedication and effort to your job, which is the most constructive approach? 

Being optimistic — this doesn’t mean mindlessly chirpy, or pointless pep-talks intended to rev up a team. A thoughtful optimist sees hope where others don’t and estimable qualities that otherwise go unrecognised. A thoughtful optimist discerns the moods of others and intervenes only when asked. A friendly smile and considerate, consistent behaviour makes a difference, especially when life is tough and the world doesn’t seem to care. Sound advice, delivered with warmth and insight, restores a person’s wounded morale and self-esteem. Optimism of this variety is priceless. 

Being pessimistic — provided a person is not pouring doom and gloom over everyone or admonishing “we’ll all be rooned“, a sceptical take (meaning inquiry or doubt) on what’s happening can be necessary. A pessimist calls it as it really is, and it’s often a good idea to listen to what they say. Their perspective is good for risk management and valuable if they are experienced in both their area of expertise and in life. When it tips into cynicism or defeat, however, it’s time to put on the brakes — negativity is definitely more contagious than optimism.

Positive and negative scripts

I’ve had success with helping teams analyse their positive and negative attitudes and underlying thinking patterns. I help people get out of unhelpful negative mindsets that are linked to low confidence and low persistence. To accomplish this, I utilise ‘scripts’. The visualisation of a box in your mind, like a black box flight recorder, helps people imagine their scripts in that box, and the need to rewrite negative scripts to help them overcome procrastination, anger, fear and being stuck. Even children have been able to learn about ‘me messages’ and how to use a little box to keep adding positive ‘me messages’.

Optimism and pessimism are both needed

Optimism and pessimism are both essential, especially in our daily work lives. This hybrid approach is called ‘mental contrasting’ and combines positive thinking with realism.

According to Gabriele Oettingen, it works like this: Think of a wish. Imagine for a few minutes it comes true and let your mind wander and drift where it will. Now shift gears. Spend a few additional minutes imagining the obstacles or challenges that stand in the way of realising your wish.

The value of mental contrasting is that in having done this, we then decide which goals to pursue and which can be discarded as unrealistic (for the time being). You can see how optimism and pessimism are usefully deployed.

Is it better to be an introvert or an extrovert?

To those who wonder if it’s better to be an introvert or extrovert, the answer is neither, because workplaces and societies require both. For example, many introverts work in radio — they are hidden yet heard behind the microphone. Extroverts draw energy from being surrounded by people, which is why they love networking and marketing. On the spectrum between extroversion and introversion, most of us lie somewhere in between, which is valuable because different situations require different responses. The astute senior manager or HR person doesn’t privilege one personality type over another but recognises an effective team consists of a variety of styles and strengths. As long as conversations are conducted and chaired civilly, permitting individual forms of expression, it soon becomes apparent a balance of traits is indispensable.

The late John Cacioppo, a pioneer of social neuroscience, conducted numerous studies on loneliness and its effect on human mortality, concluding social connection by far benefits the majority of human beings. 

Whether optimist or pessimist, extrovert or introvert, we benefit from human contact and perhaps all the more so if our approach to situations and each other is nuanced. In this way, adaptability grows, and we continually discover new ways of living and thriving.

NOW READ: Why leadership is vital for tackling workplace mental health

NOW READ: How to get staff to do what you want

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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