Management by Optimism

When MetLife studied the production of new sales people, they found that those who had the habit and skill of optimistic thinking outsold their equally bright, equally well trained, but pessimistic counterparts - by 29% in their first year and a whopping 130% in their second year. MetLife now measures sales candidates with regard to optimism. American Express found that a training program in optimistic thinking produced such a large increase in sales that it became a permanent part of their training program.

Once we stop to think about the issue of optimism versus pessimism, the results of such studies are not particularly surprising. Who are you more likely to buy from, someone with the confidence that comes from reasonable expectations of success, or Mr. Doom and Gloom? Yet, in the press of daily business, we may forget to stop to think about our own attitude.

Optimism affects your success whether you are formally “in sales” or not. As professional salespeople like to say, we are all in sales. If you are a manager or leader of others, you are in the business of “selling” your ideas and vision. Even if you have no supervisory responsibilities, you probably get interested in “selling” your ideas to your boss and co-workers from time to time. When your relationships with vendors involve negotiation, you are selling. Your success in sales, formal and informal, begins with your attitude. If, within your own mind, you maintain a realistically optimistic frame of mind, your rate of “sales success” is going to be much higher than if you usually anticipate rejection.

We can’t just pretend to be optimistic. We have to mean it. Optimistic sounding words, delivered by someone with a pessimistic attitude, still come across with the message “You’re not going to like my idea no matter what I say.” Sure enough, people don’t. In this way, our expectations have a way of creating our reality.

Hard Times: It is easy to be optimistic when things are going well. That does not take much skill. The real test comes when we have a set back or serious disappointment. And, of course, sooner or later, we will. Fortunately, we can learn to think like an optimist even in the face of misfortune.

In order to think optimistically, avoid the three P’s of pessimism - permanence, pervasiveness, and personalizing. Here’s how:

1) Permanence: Pessimists respond to set backs with such phrases as “I knew it!” “It’s just my luck.” “This is what always happens to me.” Such thoughts are natural at moments of despair, but they are also poison.

The optimistic alternative to permanence is to remind yourself, when you do suffer a disappointment, that bad times are not permanent. And they aren’t, unless you convince yourself that a particular disappointment has ruined your whole life. Optimists certainly experience disappointment. They feel bad for a bit. The difference is that they don’t stay stuck there. Instead, they think of a setback as a delay in their ultimate success. “I had hoped to be on the Management Team this year, but I will have to wait for a while longer.”

In addition, they use disappointment as a chance to learn. “What can I do differently? What do I need to learn to get myself ready? How do I let my superiors know that I have mastered what I need to master?” Such thinking creates hope. Without hope, we are truly lost. We can endure almost any set back or disappointment as long as we believe that things can be better in the future.

2) Pervasiveness: When faced with a disappointment, pessimists become focused on all that is wrong in their lives. It’s all that they will let themselves see. One pessimistic man missed a coveted promotion. If we could listen to how he talked to himself, we would hear statements such as, “My whole job is awful. My wife is disappointed in me. My children are not doing well. Blah. Blah.”

To move towards optimism, this man must challenge such negative thoughts. In truth, there are many parts of his current job that bring great rewards. His wife was disappointed in him - last night when he was such a sourball about everything! In general, though, she thinks he is terrific. His kids? Well, their grades are not so good this year, but his children are generous, loving, and funny.

To avoid pervasive thinking, it helps to actively count our blessings. Take time to write them down and then review them daily, especially during hard times. The balance of perspective is essential to your health and to your ultimate return to good times.

3) Personalize: Don’t overly personalize a disappointment. Accept some but not necessarily all of the blame. Recognize that external factors outside of your control may also have played a role. Suppose that your sales production is down for the past quarter. There are probably some things you can do differently. Figure out what those are and do them.

However, if the economy is also playing a role, recognize that this is the case. You can’t control the whole nation’s economy. (If you can, would you give me a call?) Excessive self blame is paralyzing. Just the right amount of self blame is empowering because it gives you a part of the problem that you can control and improve.

Leadership: When you challenge the three P’s of pessimism with realistic optimism, you clean the poison of pessimism out of your system. This is true at both an individual and business unit level. If you are a leader, optimism is one of the most important skills you can possess. Your people will look to you to help them set their expectations. Part of your job is to instill realistic hope. To instill hope, you must practice it.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc., which helps companies build optimism to perform at their peak. He can be reached at (540) 774-1927, or by e-mail at

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

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