Department: Leadership Q&A
Q I tend to be a “glass half full” kind of person and I'm now in a department with peers who are decidedly more pessimistic by nature. What coping strategies can you recommend to help me regain my balance?
Your question reflects an effort to be intentional about the need for optimism. This is key because the emerging science of neuroplasticity indicates that our brains are more sensitive to the negative (known as negativity bias).1 Your natural predisposition for optimism will serve you well, but you need a clear sense of why this is important to you. “Your what needs a why” if you're going to sustain your efforts, especially with the pressures of our profession.
As you do the inner work to be intentional, you can catch yourself and adjust, recognize self-defeating patterns, and make better choices. For example:
- manage your self-talk and minimize negativity. As soon as you recognize that you're getting hijacked by the drain of negativity, change your inner dialog in a way that leaves you with energy. Use “and” rather than “but” in conversations to keep a more positive tone and think in terms of “both/and” instead of being trapped in “either/or” thinking. Consider using the ground rule for your team to note two positive things before criticizing an idea.
- stay focused on the things you can influence. Keeping attention on what you can do something about fosters energy.2 A friend of mine once noted that coming into work and getting caught up in the drama was like grabbing onto a vibrating pole. Let go of the vibrating pole and put your energy into the things that really matter to you.
- engage in problem solving rather than problem processing. Use a simple four-step process (identify the issue, ask how you're helping it happen, brainstorm options, and develop an action plan), which can be completed in less than an hour.3 This is a useful mental model, as well as a group problem-solving model.
The optimism you gain by being proactive rather than reactive will help you determine what gives you energy, “warms your heart,” or makes you more effective. Daily strokes of effort may include:
- cultivating the attitude of gratitude. Ponder the things you're grateful for as you wake up, begin your day with an email of appreciation, or start meetings with positive anecdotes.
- making daily time for reflection. Mindfulness practice can help us be less reactive and judgmental and more compassionate. Also consider journaling or inspirational reading.
- prioritizing self-care. To be at our best, we need healthy food, rest, and exercise; regular time away from work and interests outside of work; and time spent with people who recharge our batteries.
- using laughter. A smile relaxes the nervous system and laughter is an energy boost.
- celebrating progress. Notice the good things, keep things in perspective, and redefine success.4
- practicing kindness. Valuing a heartfelt “thank you” hardwires the brain for positivity.
Barbara Fredrickson, an authority on mindfulness, reminds us that “positivity doesn't just change the contents of your mind...it widens the span of possibilities that you see.”5 By choosing to be optimistic, you lower stress, improve your immune system, live longer, and are less likely to develop dementia.6
Optimism isn't just a predisposition; it can be learned.7 And it isn't a form of self-delusion or a pair of “rose-colored glasses.” Being optimistic is a much deeper choice about the lens through which you choose to see life and how you're present for those around you. Enjoy this learning experience and feeling like yourself again.
1. Cameron LJ. The Mindful Day: Practical Ways to Find Focus, Calm, and Joy from Morning to Evening
. Washington, DC: National Geographic Partners; 2018.
2. Covey SR. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 25th Anniversary Edition
. New York, NY: Simon and Shuster; 2013.
4. Amabile T, Kramer S. The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work
. Boston, MA: Harvard Press; 2011.
5. Fredrickson B. Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive
. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications; 2009.
6. Smookler E. Look on the bright side. Mindful Magazine
. June 2018.
7. Seligman M. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
. New York, NY: Random House; 2016.