Optimism for Fun and Profit

It took me a few years to figure out why people sometimes think I’m grumpier than I think I am.

Earlier in my consulting career I was trying really hard to pay attention and listen to a new-to-me client. I leaned forward, I maintained eye contact, I asked peppered her with follow-up questions around the issue we were discussing.

Instead of showing I was interested and invested in her issue I creeped her out. I came across as “scary”.

Part of the problem is that if I’m interested in an issue I ask a lot of questions about it. If I don’t like an idea I have no problem saying so and moving on. If I think an idea or solution isn’t going to work I don’t want to spend any more time on it. If I’m interested in an idea or solution, and think it has merit, my brain kicks in and asks all sorts of questions about it. “Why this way and not that way? Did you think of this? What if that happens? When, where, why, why, why?”

What I didn’t realize was that if somebody has a good idea, they usually don’t need me to perfect it for them. Which is what it sounds like when we start asking a lot of questions. Especially “why” questions. They come across as aggressive and sceptical.

So when I think an idea is a good one I’ve learned to say so. I’ve also learned to sit back and smile, trying not to interrupt while somebody explains something to me. That makes it easier for people to share ideas without me having to ask quite so many questions. I get more good information with less effort.

Focusing on the positive when giving our staff feedback also has huge advantages. As managers and leaders it’s a part of our job to let people know when they’ve gone off track. The problem is most of our experience with feedback is that it’s poorly delivered and ineffective. If I catch my 14-year-old daughter playing her Nintendo at midnight on a school night, for example, she only gets better at hiding it the next time. This way she avoids the punishment. Technically I’ve been able to change her behaviour, but not in the way I wanted.

It’s different if we catch people doing things right and give them encouragement to keep doing that in the future. We are reinforcing the behaviour we want. People as a rule like praise which means repeating the good behaviour. At first it’ll a feel a bit awkward. The people we’re giving praise to might even wonder what we’re up to if that’s not our usual pattern, but after a while they’ll be anticipating it. Reinforcing the behaviour we want with praise is the most effective way to change people’s behaviour.

It seems that people are programmed by evolution to be pessimistic. If we jump at the rustle in the grass and it was just the wind, no harm done. If the rustle in the grass was a man-eating beast, however, and we ignore it – that’s the end of our genetic line. Overcoming this is hard for some of us, but leading with optimism differentiates us for the mediocre managers.

Acknowledge the good before diving into the bad. This tells others around us that we honour and respect them as people. Which makes them more likely to want to work with and trust us. It makes us better leaders and human beings.

It’s also much more enjoyable and effective way to go through life. In spite of the tigers.

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