It is all too easy to get focused on the negative in our professional lives. The problem is that negative focus, in particular if it influences how you think about yourself, can be quite detrimental. Here’s a bit of executive coaching on how to be more of an optimist and reap the benefits that come from it.
Optimism has been linked to professional success and personal happiness. In fact, optimistic salespeople have been shown to significantly outperform their more pessimistic counterparts by as much as 50%.*
In many ways optimism is a function of your explanatory style and how you choose to explain the negative and positive things that happen in your life in terms of their permanence, pervasiveness, and whether they are personal or not in nature.
Permanence (permanent vs. temporary): do you believe that what caused the event will change over time?
Pervasiveness (specific vs. universal): is the event unique to the area that caused it or more global in nature?
Personalization (internal vs. external): do you blame/credit yourself or others/circumstances for the event?
Here is an example:
You have an important meeting and it does not go well, delaying a potential promotion. Imagine how you might explain what occurred to an executive coach. A pessimist might say:
I’m not smart enough to perform at this level. I’ll never get promoted.”
Note that this thought is permanent (I’ll never get promoted), pervasive (applies to all meetings of this type), and internal (it’s my lack of intelligence that caused me to fail).
An optimist might say:
This meeting did not go well, but I can do better next time if I am more prepared. Plus, the CFO is a tough customer and asked me about things I wasn’t prepared for.”
Note that the thoughts are temporary (I can do better next time), specific (limited to this meeting), and external (the CFO asked tough questions). It is worth mentioning that while an external explanatory style frequently blames an outside cause (i.e. the CFO), the intention is not to remove personal accountability to increase optimism. In the example given, the person admits they need to study more next time.
Here is another example based on a positive event:
You have a big presentation and it goes flawlessly.
The pessimist may say:
Well, I did well this time, but the CFO likes me, and I’m worried the next times things won’t go as well.”
Note that pessimist uses the exact opposite explanatory style as for the negative event. He explains that passing the test is temporary and specific (only applies to this meeting), and that the source of the success is external (the CFO likes me).
The optimist may say:
I am a great presenter. Another win for me!”
Note that the comment is permanent, pervasive and internal (I am a great presenter).
Here’s an exercise to cement the lesson:
Explain a time when you experienced a setback:
How can you reframe the story in an optimistic way so that it is more temporary, specific and external?
Explain a time when you experienced success:
How can you reframe that story so that it is more permanent, universal and internal?
Try reframing the events that happen in your life using these principles. Over time you will develop a more optimistic you.
*Seligman, Martin. Learned Optimism. 1991