It Pays to be an Optimist

‘An optimist is just a pessimist who is not yet in possession of all the facts’

No: glass-half-full optimism is just foolishness. A real optimist is someone who is attuned to the advantage and opportunity in every situation. They are realistic about their status and its potential consequences, but they don’t let that distract them from a constant search for resources and solutions.

Consequently, optimists tend to perform better under pressure – not simply because the find their solutions, but because their stress levels are lower, meaning that the think more clearly about their situation, making a more realistic assessment of threats and opportunities. It is no coincidence that professions that frequently expose practitioners to high stress conditions (such as uniformed services), training places a high premium on the capability of remaining calm under pressure.

Project managers and change agents spend much of their working lives under pressure. We have one powerful response to address this: control. Stress results from a feeling of not being in control. In my experience, what project managers crave, above all else, is control; so by spending much of our time creating a controlled environment around our projects, we are, at the same time, working to reduce our stress levels.

But what when the control slips? How do we deal with the stress then? I offered some remedial suggestions in a recent post. But I’d like to suggest that you start creating a positive habit in yourself, from today. Get into the habit of framing every project incident as a positive opportunity. This doesn’t mean labelling good news as bad or, worse, hiding it. It does not even mean adopting silly euphemistic language: ‘this isn’t a set-back; it’s an opportunity.’  Yuk.

The ‘so what?’

What I mean is that, when facing a setback, adversity, or an almighty c*ck-up, focus on:

  • Resources: what have you got, what can you easily access, what do you need and how can you secure them?
  • The end goal: frame your problem as ‘how to…’ – rather than ‘the problem is…’
  • Options: what are they, what criteria can you apply, how will you evaluate them, and whose opinions do you value?
  • Building: when ideas and options emerge, initially focus on how your team can make them work, rather than why they won’t work. There will be time for risk assessment later, but if you poison the well from the start…
  • Believe: that you can overcome your setback. Belief is not evidence based so, until there is evidence one way or the other, you can believe what you like: you will succeed or you will fail. You choose: I choose ‘succeed’.

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