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Optimism: The Foundation of Success

For each season 'The Apprentice" has been on television, an ensemble of producers, doctors, psychologists and casting directors has descended on a normally quiet hotel to conduct a final round of interviews to choose the characters who will appear on the show. The group of hopefuls submit to all sorts of poking and prodding, as every nook and cranny of their lives is examined in an attempt to select the right individuals.

The applicants, most of them energetic extroverts, are happy to recount their childhood, family, and high school experiences. The pattern that has emerged in these interviews—and what is most strikingly uniform about their outlook—is the positive light they cast on their varied life experiences, both good and bad. Looking back, they remember their disappointments and setbacks with the conclusion that things always worked out for the best. For the most part, I have found that this cheerful outlook holds up under the rigors of filming and public scrutiny that constitute this reality-show experience.

Let's take a look at the effects of optimism on both the group and the individual level and see the remarkable impact created by a positive frame of mind.

Leading Calls for Optimism About People

On the first season of "The Apprentice," Nick Warnock took the lead on a particular task after nearly being fired for work on a previous task. Trump said he wanted to see Nick in action because he was curious to observe his leadership skills. Early in the morning the two teams listened as their next assignment was explained: their mission was to feature an artist's work in a gallery exhibit, and the team with the most paintings sold would win a reward and an exemption from the boardroom.

With his poise and public-speaking skills, Nick is the consummate salesman, but the world of fine art was unfamiliar territory for him. Even so, he kept his cool smile when the assignment was announced. Each team visited four artists to preview their work and ultimately choose one artist to feature. Whereas the other team made what seemed to be a logical decision based on high price potential, Nick went with his gut: he was convinced that the artist he liked was the best choice for the assignment. Half of his team adamantly opposed his choice and were quick to point out that art appreciation was not Nick's forte, but he stuck with his decision. Although his team had strong opinions, they needed Nick to stay confident and self-assured while respecting their input, and that is exactly what Nick did.

Nick directed the team to work quickly to set up a wine and cheese table and print flyers for the gallery opening. Nick moved through the gallery with ease, never getting flustered and surveying every detail, from the platters of fruit and cheese to the soft lighting on the artwork against the weathered brick background. Every time a team member would catch his eye, Nick would break into a warm smile, looking every inch the winner even before a patron entered the gallery. Nick selected two more experienced team members to explain the artwork to the visitors, while he introduced patrons to the artist. Nick was reassuring when a team member had doubts that night and said in an even and relaxed voice, “We're gonna be all right.” True to his words, the team achieved an overwhelming victory by selling more paintings and earning more money.

Optimism can truly outweigh lack of experience, and with Nick's positive attitude, the absence of an art background couldn't get in the way. Regardless of his lack of expertise, team members looked to their leader to set the tone, to give the task meaning and direction, and to gain trust and a sense of hope. Nick won the task with an assuring smile and the belief that they could win. He recognized that the task was just as much about working together confidently as a team as it was about selling art.

The Guide for Optimistic Leadership

Initial Steps:

Spend some time each day reviewing any setbacks you have encountered. Write down the negative thoughts that come to mind. They usually take the form of thoughts like this:

I have failed.
These things always happen to me.
This is so unfair. Why can't life be easier for me?

Now, have a good argument with yourself. Rewrite each thought from an optimistic viewpoint. By doing so, you are challenging the automatic, gloomy thoughts that habitually come to mind. Eventually, you will be able to practice thinking this way without having to write it down, but for now invest the time in a good pen and notebook.

Then go over the list in these ways:

Edit the list, watching out for personalizations, “fortune-telling” or “all or nothing” statements. For example, “I am never going to get over this sales slump” is an example of “fortune telling.” “I didn't make this sale so my career is over” is an example of “all or nothing” thinking.

Rewrite the statement to reflect a more positive approach wherever you find one of these “cognitive distortions.” For example, “This was a tough organization to make the sale to, but there is a better market I can find,” or “The audience wasn't in the proper mood for that particular presentation.”

Argue with yourself over the particularly troubling beliefs on the list by writing down answers to the following. For example, if your first reaction to a mistake is to think “After the mistake I made, the boss doesn't have confidence in me anymore,” ask yourself the following questions:

• What is the evidence? (“He ignored me when I made a suggestion about finding new accounts.”)
• Are there any alternative explanations? (“He has been really preoccupied lately with a new proposal.”)
• If this is true, what is the worst that could happen? (“He might replace me.”)
• What is the effect of the thought? (For example, “It makes me angry or sad,"  will probably lead to not working as efficiently.)
• What could I do about it? (“Send him a written proposal so he has time to think about it.")
• What would I tell a friend who faced this same problem? (“I would tell her that she has always done a great job, and it is more likely that the boss is just not himself.”)

Take action steps. Rewrite an explanation—a nonpersonal, specific, and temporary explanation for what happened. For example: “The boss has been preoccupied (nonpersonal), and it this is the first time he hasn't really considered one of my suggestions (specific), and when he isn't so preoccupied I can present it again (temporary).”

Remember that this is a new skill and getting used to it will take some practice, so be patient and don't expect to change your automatic thoughts overnight. If you take the time to write things down, however, you can speed up the process.

Adapted with permission of the publisher from Suite Success by Liza Siegel. Copyright 2006, Liza Siegel. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association. Click here for more information about this title. For information about other AMACOM books, visit www.amanet.org/books