Even before it became stale and overused, the glass half full/glass half empty metaphor was a terrible way to think about optimism. The problem: it disguises the very feature that makes optimism so powerful in our workplaces (and elsewhere for that matter).
Explaining why requires a brief detour into Greek mythology (but only a brief one, so stick with me). Here’s one version of the story of Perseus: Perseus hears a prophecy that he will kill his grandfather so he flees to a city that is so far away that he can be sure he will never run into his grandfather there. Once in the city, he enters a series of warrior games and spears and kills one of his opponents who, once his helmet is removed, is revealed to be his grandfather.
What’s interesting about this myth? The prophecy that Perseus heard was self-fulfilling: because Perseus heard the prophecy he acted in a way that made the prophecy come true. And what’s the relevance of this myth? The myth is relevant because optimism too is a self-fulfilling prophecy: optimistic people expect success and this expectation itself makes success more likely. This is what the glass metaphor misses: optimism isn’t just a view on how much water is in the glass but is also a viewpoint that can change the amount of water in the glass. It is this feature that makes optimism so important in the workplace and it is this feature that the standard metaphor misses.
Optimism as a self-fulfilling prophecy
The importance of optimism raises the question of how we can make our workplaces more optimistic. But before answer this question, it’s worth saying a bit more about what it means to say that optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sure, it means that expectations of success create success but that’s all a little vague and it’s a bit hard to see how it applies in the workplace. So how about some examples?
Example #1: Optimists Stress Less
There’s evidence out there to suggest that optimistic people stress less. And there’s further evidence suggesting that people who stress less have a whole range of better life outcomes (including better physical health). So optimists envision a healthier future than pessimists and this attitude actually creates a healthier future (a self-fulfilling prophecy). Aside from caring about employee well-being, the benefits of a healthier workforce are obviously substantial.
Example #2: Optimists Set (and Achieve) Goals
There’s also evidence that optimists are more likely to set goals and more likely to achieve them than pessimists. So optimists picture a future of achievement and then their optimism leads them to actually be more likely to achieve this future (in this case too, optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy). As with physical health, goal setting and achievement is of clear benefit in the workplace.
Example #3: Optimists are Solutions-focused
Why are optimists more likely to achieve their goals? Perhaps because when things go wrong they’re more likely to persist, more likely to seek assistance and they tend to be more solutions-focused than pessimists. Again, these are all traits that lead to success and so help optimism to be a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to the positive future that the optimist envisions. And again, the benefits in the workplace are clear.
So because optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, optimistic employees have a whole range of benefits that they bring to a workplace. Which brings us back to the key question: aside from hiring already optimistic employees, is there anything that can be done to make a workplace more optimistic? The short answer is, “Yes”: a technique developed by Martin Seligman called “learned optimism” can help to achieve this.
While the details of the technique are worth reading about in more detail (see the excellent book Learn Optimism) the basic approach follows the A, B, C, D, E model:
A (Adverse Situation): The first step involves identifying the adverse situations that one regularly faces.
B (Beliefs): The second step is to become more aware of your beliefs in the circumstance (perhaps you believe you aren’t good enough to do the job or maybe you believe that you need more management support to succeed).
C (Consequences): Follow this up by increasing your mindfulness regarding the consequences of these beliefs (perhaps a consequence of thinking you aren’t good enough is that you give up quickly or don’t take the lead when you can).
D (Dispute): Now you should attempt to dispute the beliefs that you identified in the second step, by using logic, facts and the consideration of alternative possibilities to dispute the accuracy of those beliefs.
E (Energization): Finally, you should develop mindfulness of how your energy is impacted when you dispute the beliefs. Seeing your energy levels rise when you dispute your negative beliefs encourages you to abandon those beliefs in the future.
And that’s all there is to the basic approach. Using the A, B, C, D, E model consistently can often increase the level of a person’s optimism.
Choosing the right prophecy
But forget details for a moment and return to the question of self-fulfilling prophecies. This is the big picture I want to end on. Because not only is optimism a self-fulfilling prophecy but so is pessimism. Optimists picture a bright future and this helps to bring about such a future. Pessimists predict a dark one and this attitude works to limit the future.
In the workplace, the question we’re left with is simple: which prophecy do we want our employees to prove right? Would we prefer to be part of a workplace where people believe that they can succeed and then make this prophecy true or part of a workplace where people have no belief in their own abilities and then they make this prophecy true. This is the challenge: choose your prophecy.