Do Leaders need to be optimists?

Are you a glass half full or glass half empty person? Most of the leaders I talk to seem to be the former. In fact, when I reflect on the various leaders I’ve worked with over the past 25 years, the good ones have been optimists. Not ‘Rose coloured glasses’ optimists, but energetic, positive, achieving. Grant O’Brien, Managing Director and CEO of Woolworths, Australia’s largest retailer, recently suggested to me that to create high performing teams, leaders needed to bring a sense of optimism and positive energy to their teams.

“I think the role of a leader in a high performance environment, at least in the early stages when Chicken Little is saying “the sky is falling” is to say “no it’s not”. That’s your job as a leader. You need to give people faith and give people confidence about what’s coming. If people are confident energy comes. If people are not confident energy is a mile away, so it’s largely about building confidence. Lots of things come into play in terms of building confidence, but being optimistic is definitely one of them.”

Grant’s words bring to mind the positive psychology of Shawn Achor and his research into the link between happiness and success.  Most people believe that they will be happy if they are successful.  Achor’s work demonstrates that it works the other way round. People who are happy and have a positive mindset perform better in the face of a challenge and so become successful.  Research in the workplace shows that being positive leads to increased productivity, sales, creativity and resilience while reducing burnout and turnover.  Make an effort to watch Achor’s TED talk at:

Achor says that training your brain to be positive is much the same as training your muscles at the gym.  It’s about developing new habits, and you can achieve these by engaging in brief positive exercises each day.  For example, he suggests that managers should take a minute or two each day to think about the things that have gone well and share their positive reflections with their people. The key is to get better at recognising all the good stuff rather than focusing on challenges and problems all the time.

The value of thinking positively is further demonstrated by Judith and Richard Glaser in some interesting research on the Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations.  They showed that that positive comments and conversations produce a chemical in the brain that elevates our ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others.  In contrast, negative comments produce a different chemical that activates conflict aversion and defensive behaviours. In short, positive comments energise, negative comments de-energise.  The Glaser research also shows that the de-energising chemicals stay in the body longer and embed negative experiences in memory. Hence we are far more likely to recall criticism than praise.

Both strands of research reinforce what we all probably know – as Leaders, we need to be mindful of our interactions in the workplace for they can have a huge impact on performance and productivity. The research identifies a number of energising and de-energising behaviours and I have put them together to create some guidelines:

Positive – Energising

Negative   – De-energising

  •   Showing concern for others
  •   Being truthful and transparent
  •   Stimulating discussion and demonstrating   curiosity with open questions
  •   Genuinely listening
  •   Painting a picture of mutual success
  •   Being open to alternative views on important   issues
  •   Praising good performance
  •   Unfairly criticising others
  •   Not trusting other’s intentions
  •   Pretending to listen or getting distracted     when listening
  •   Focusing on telling and onvincing others  to  go along with your views
  •   Suggesting that others “don’t understand”
  •   Interrupting and closing people down
  •   Being inconsistent

Being positive, like being negative, is contagious.

Have a great weekend.

Mark Rosenberg

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