Have You Smiled in a While? The Role of Optimism in Organizational and Team Performance

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears it is true.”

James Branch Cabell(1879-1958), author of fantasy fiction and belles lettres

If you’ve ever experienced organizational change – and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t, I’ll bet you can identify people who fall into both the optimist and pessimist camps. Is one approach better than the other? Let’s approach this question from an athletic and organizational perspective.

Learned optimism guru Martin Seligman made some interesting predictions for athletes and team sports on this topic. Assuming that all other factors affecting performance are equal:

1.  The athlete with a more optimistic attitude will succeed or win because s/he will try harder
2.  An athletic team with a higher level of optimism will win. 

Seligman says that once an athlete changes his/her attitude from pessimism to optimism, s/he should succeed better or win more, again particularly under pressure. Thus, the optimistic and pessimistic attitude of the whole team may produce either victory or defeat, respectively.

Let’s bring that train of thought into an organization or organizational team. According to Seligman, talent is not always enough – especially in ‘high-defeat’, ‘high-stress’ occupations requiring persistence and initiative. An optimistic employee produces more, and that even an extraordinary talent may amount to nothing unless a firm belief in one’s chances to succeed is present.

On the other hand, team pessimism (general pessimistic attitude among team members which spreads and grows inside the team as an epidemic outbreak, preventing the team from performing to the best of its ability and potential) may be a severe inhibitor of team alignment. For a team to recuperate as a united whole when adversity strikes, team pessimism needs to be addressed properly. The path to optimism should be the clear marching orders.  

Ready for more optimistic news (pardon the pun)? Optimism can be taught – on a personal and team level.

ACTION: Recall a time when you approached an organizational change from an optimistic point of view. Then, recall a time when you approached an organizational change from an pessimistic point of view. Keep thinking: going into these changes, did you perceive the change to be positive, negative, or neutral? How was your / your team’s performance? Were you able to shift your attitude in either a pessimistic or optimistic direction? What was the result?

Follow the link above to take a short quiz and learn where you fall on the learned optimism scale.

Ah – so patience – AND optimism – are both real virtues. 

Adapted from Martin C. Westerlund, Theory of Constraints Revisited – Leveraging Teamwork by Systems Intelligence, 2004

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Sandra Schwan

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