Were it not for his humanity, Ted Lasso’s optimism might be irritating. The fictional football coach lives 4,500 miles from the family he longs for. His wife no longer loves him, and he is in a leadership position fraught with challenges. Amid curve balls, disappointments and losses, he remains optimistic because he believes that things will work out in the end.
As it is in real life, attitudes are contagious. The divisions among Lasso’s team are harnessed by his genuine optimism, and slowly they rally and succeed. While this makes for a good story, the question in real life is what place does optimism hold for leaders, and does it confer the same positive outcomes conveyed in the show?
Optimism and the workplace
As a leader, mindset matters. I spoke with Phil Waugh, newly appointed CEO of Rugby Australia, about his plans for the organization and his style of leadership.
“I think it’s healthy… to be vulnerable at certain times, and then it’s about focus and vision and positivity,” Waugh says. “I think you want to be one of those people whom others get energy from instead of sapping energy from others.”
This attitude translates to success as a leader.
“I think you want to be one of those people whom others get energy from instead of sapping energy from others.” – Phil Waugh
“The research tells us that people who have high levels of hope and optimism seek out more options, they try more solutions to resolve … and that enhances their chances,” says positivity psychologist Suzy Green.
Research has found that when leaders implemented a positive psychology intervention guided by optimism, the percentage of employees who reported that they were happy at work rose from 43 percent to 62 percent. Individuals feeling burned out often dropped from 11 percent to six percent, and individuals reporting high stress at work dropped by 30 percent.
Further research suggests optimistic employees are 103 percent more inspired to give their best effort at work.
The science supporting optimism
The above statistics are particularly important as we discover just how much people are drained following the physically and psychologically challenging years since the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering Australian workers are reporting some of the highest levels of burnout globally, leading with optimism is more important than ever.
Optimism has the highest relation to life satisfaction scores.
A 2017 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study found that emotional stability skills, including stress resistance, optimism and emotional control, are the most predictive of mental health. Optimism has the highest relation to life satisfaction scores, while emotional control and resilience are other important correlates of personal wellbeing.
“Optimists are more likely to engage in active problem-focused coping and to interpret stressful events in more positive ways, reducing worry and ruminative thoughts when they’re falling asleep and throughout their sleep cycle,” according to another 2019 study.
Five strategies to be more optimistic
Research suggests that one of the most effective ways to build optimism in the workplace is to work with purpose. Meaning and purpose help build a sense of fulfillment and self-efficacy and better equips employees to envisage a positive future.
Luckily, its suggested that optimism is about 25 percent inheritable. Some people are optimistic by nature, but many of us learn to be optimistic. Here’s how:
1. Find purpose in work and life
A sense of purpose provides optimism that fuels our sense of purpose. “When we work with purpose or live with purpose, we feel more fulfilled and better equipped to see the glass half full,” says Leah Weiss, a Stanford professor specializing in mindfulness in the workplace.
2. Mind the pessimistic thoughts
Richard Davidson, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin and Founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, conducted an experiment where participants were taught mindfulness meditation for three hours a week for two months. At the end of the eight weeks, the participants reported feeling less anxiety and more energized and positive.
3. Spend time with positive people
Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard Medical School professor who has researched the contagion of emotions within large social networks, has found that a person’s happiness and outlook depend on the happiness and outlook of those around them.
4. Do the ABC
Martin Seligman describes a variation of a cognitive therapy model called the ABC (Adversity, Beliefs, Consequences) Technique. Whether you frame your experiences in an optimistic or a pessimistic way determines your A, B and C, and this is what Seligman argues we can learn to change. Rewiring your ABC Technique involves confronting your pessimistic thoughts and replacing them with optimistic and adaptive alternatives.
5. Be a realistic optimist
Albert Bandura, an influential psychologist from Stanford, drew a clear line between realistic optimists and unrealistic optimists. In an article for Harvard Business Review, social psychologist Heidi Grant explained Bandura’s delineation nicely: “Realistic optimists believe they will succeed but also believe they have to make success happen through things like effort, careful planning, persistence and choosing the right strategies. Unrealistic optimists, on the other hand, believe that success will happen to them.”
Optimism does not exist in a vacuum. It helps us to proactively navigate the challenges we face in life. Nor is optimism ‘pie in the sky’ thinking or the domain of those who have never experienced adversity. It is an attitude, and it is one we can all cultivate.
Andrew May is recognized as one of the world’s leading mental skills coaches, with clients including elite athletes, CEOs and organizations. He is the host of the Performance Intelligence podcast, a leading speaker, best-selling author and a regular on ABC-TV’s News Breakfast. May is the Founder and CEO of StriveStronger, a digital physical and psychological well-being consultancy and is on a mission to wake people up to a better way of living, working and leading. Find out more at www.andrewmay.com.