Why You Should Challenge Optimism
There's a thin line between optimism and over-confidence, and part of your role as someone's manager to make sure people do not step over it.
Optimism is the degree to which people view and interpret things in a positive way. And it has been identified as an important element of psychological capital - the inner resources you need to succeed at almost everything.
It may sound a bit fluffy as concepts go, but in roles as varied as sales agents and factory workers, employees with higher levels of optimism have been shown to perform better and have higher levels of resilience. And in terms of behavior change it has been shown that optimists are more likely to adopt and then stick with new behaviors, such as low-fat diets.
Too much optimism, however, can also be a bad thing. People who are over-optimistic often underestimate risks and challenges and so tend not to prepare sufficiently for setbacks. Psychologists call this optimism bias and it more common than you might expect. In fact, the UK Treasury thinks it is so common that it has developed a special five-step approach for factoring-in optimism bias into project planning.
Now a new study from the University of Warsaw, looking at evidence from over one million marathon runners, has suggested that this bias is not just fairly common, but widespread. And the implication for us as managers in helping people develop and change is that we need to make sure that we are challenging people's assumptions about how easy that change will be. "Can you really do that?" "Really?"
There are two things you can do here. First, you can help make the challenges obvious. The one caveat here is that people need to feel that you believe in them and their ability to develop. So remember that its about challenging the goal, not the person.
Second, you can help people plan for how to respond to challenges. The idea is not to discourage someone, of course, but to help them identify and prepare what could go wrong. In the book we go over one of the more well-known techniques for doing this called implementation intentions. You can just google it, and you'll find some clear guides. (Or buy the book, of course...!)
This may sound obvious, but all too often when we sit with someone reviewing their development plan, it can be just too easy to nod our heads and not really challenge just how implementable the plan is. So next time you find yourself in this situation, do the other person a favor, and get skeptical. Be a pessimist.