Leading with optimism

We continue to operate in challenging times, with the lingering impact of COVID-19 and associated snap lockdowns. One of my articles in an earlier publication spoke of pandemic fatigue, and this is certainly something we are all facing again. But as the business world continues to navigate the challenges, you have the opportunity to be a beacon of hope for your employees and clients by considering the merits of optimistic leadership.

I personally love the quote below, from the eminently quotable, Winston Churchill. He was far from being a perfect leader, but certainly a leader for his times. (As an aside, Boris Johnson’s biography on Churchill is excellent.)

Reap the benefits of optimistic leadership

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity;
an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
~ Winston Churchill

At its base form, optimism centres on expecting good outcomes in the future. In a business sense, optimistic leadership is not about flying blindly in the face of reality. Rather, it shifts the focus to finding the positive – even in the most negative – helping you uncover action-based solutions and avoid fear-based stagnation.

Victor Perton, the Director of The Centre for Optimism and Founder of the Australian Leadership project, has undertaken extensive research in the area of optimism and leadership. What he has gleaned from thousands of interviews with Australian and international leaders is that the very best in the field are able to strike the right balance of infectious optimism and realism. The result is that their teams enjoy higher levels of resilience and self-mastery.

Aside from some truly outstanding health benefits (optimists appear to have a 35 per cent lower risk of heart disease and live a longer, healthier life), optimistic thinking can also lead to better business outcomes. As Churchill says, see the opportunity in the difficulty. Approach overcoming it with confidence.

When presented with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, an optimist views it as a challenge, doubling-down their efforts to tackle it. Instead of getting mired in the negative emotions the event produces (as a pessimist does), the optimist hones in on finding a solution to the problem. This automatically gives them a greater sense of control over the situation and eventual outcome. It’s certainly a trait you want to foster amongst your employees, and within yourself.

Another vital aspect of optimistic leadership is the power it holds for innovation. An exemplary example is Intel, founded in 1968 at the height of one of the worst economic crises in American history. Up against what seemed like insuperable odds, the company still managed to create the world’s first commercial microprocessor chip (an essential component in personal computers). Today, they are the world’s largest manufacturer of computer processors. It’s no wonder co-founder, Robert Noyce, famously said:

“Optimism is an essential ingredient of innovation. How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in safe places?”

Practical ways to implement optimism in your workplace

The benefits that optimism breeds within a business are clear. Creating an optimistic workplace culture takes considerable time and effort, and is a strategic process that needs adoption at all levels of management.

However, the positive news is you can start implementing it in small ways immediately. Simple things like smiling more often at work, or committing to thanking employees each day for tasks completed, no matter how big or small.

As you ponder other small ways you can introduce daily optimism into your workspace, here are seven more suggestions for larger actions you might like to consider for your overall optimism strategy.

1. Introspection first

Self-reflection is an important first step in honing your optimistic leadership skills. This involves identifying your leadership purpose and values, and then aligning your actions with those, essentially ‘walking your talk’. It goes a long way towards inspiring confidence in employees as they can see you have a clear purpose and pathway in leading them.

The Centre for Optimism also provides some useful suggestions to help you utilise the power of optimism, from simple things such as practising gratitude, to larger endeavours like reframing negative events.

2. Regular one-on-one employee meetings

To instil optimism, it is important to understand your staff as whole people. One of the most effective methods is to regularly meet with employees individually, using the time to uncover their daily experiences (a key question should be ‘do you find your work meaningful?’), along with their future goals and desires.

While some of their goals may be work-related – such as mastering a new skill or understanding another area of the business – it’s also important to make space to learn about them personally (while being mindful of what is and is not appropriate to discuss in a working relationship). Once you have the bigger picture, you can suggest ways of supporting them, as professional and personal development is paramount in helping staff feel optimistic at work (and the bonus is this may have flow-on effects at home too.)

3. Ensure staff understand the value of their individual work

As a leader, you are responsible for ‘birds eye view’ thinking – knowing where you have come from and drawing up a blueprint for where you will go. But part of optimistic leadership involves communicating how each employee fits into your road map, how the individual work they do matters through demonstrating the impact it has.

There are many ways to communicate this, but it requires consistency to be truly effective. Staff can often get overwhelmed by looming deadlines, or too many projects in the pipeline and quickly lose sight of the end goal. Your timely reminder can give them a vital boost of confidence to remain on track, and optimistic about meeting their goal.

4. Regularly recognise achievements

We all appreciate recognition for our endeavours at work, and it exponentially increases our happiness stores. There are innumerable ways to recognise staff for a job well done, and all involve giving thanks. It might be a casual thank you for sharing an interesting idea at the team meeting, or a formal company-wide email highlighting the good work of an individual or team.

5. Devote time to team building

It is rare to encounter an employee that truly enjoys working in a silo. It’s human nature to crave connection, so fostering a sense of belonging at work is crucial. While the pandemic has shifted the way we interact socially, there are still many ways to nurture a spirit of teamwork in person and virtually, from encouraging teams to collaborate, to formal team building activities, to making time for social events during the work day.

6. Encourage input

Feeling empowered to do your best work requires some form of ownership. As a leader, you are in a prime position to offer this to your staff by inviting their input into issues that matter to them. It may relate directly to their work tasks, or company-wide matters such as development of incentive or leave policies.

7. Acknowledge the pessimists

No matter how optimistic you are, you will face pessimists who are not able to share your point of view. But there is a way to potentially imbue such pessimists with a modicum of optimism.

Demonstrate your willingness to actively listen to (and consider) the issues they raise. Let them know you can support them by putting contingencies in place to deal with their worries, thereby giving them the buffer they need. In doing this, they will likely feel increased positivity about the situation and shift into an improved mindset, and boost their chances of success. In the process, you may succeed in turning an eternal pessimist into a ‘sometimes’ optimist.

Further support

Those are merely a selection of practical suggestions you can implement to foster a sense of optimism in your business. Here, at Bentleys, we specialise in supporting businesses and entrepreneurs with tailored strategic and practical advice in a range of markets that can assist you to optimistically approach your future with confidence. Contact your local Bentleys advisor for assistance with planning a positive future for your business.

Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and should not be relied on as advice. It does not take into account the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular person. You need to consider your financial situation and needs and seek professional advice before making any decisions based on this information.

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