What story do you tell yourself? About learned optimism and success

Marcella Bremer Leadership, Reflection 0 Comments

m_coverWhy do some people walk so much easier through life than others? And why do others attract bad luck, time and again? Maybe some people are born under a lucky star. Is the universe unfair? Is life a random sequence of events? Or is there some correlation between cause and effect? What if good fortune is the result of an optimistic outlook on life? And what has that to do with positive leadership, culture, and change?

Well, a lot. Since we are going to explore positive leadership, we have to learn from Martin Seligman, the father of the Positive Psychology movement. He started with an experiment about “learned helplessness” that wasn’t too kind to the dogs used but proved to be very insightful.

They administered electric shocks to dogs and some could put a stop them by touching a button with their nose while others couldn’t stop the shocks no matter what they did. As it turned out, the dogs who couldn’t change their fate in this experiment, would not even attempt to do anything about any future situation either. They had learned to be helpless: a victim.

Different stories, different outcomes

This goes for people, too. While it is normal to feel helpless in a situation of defeat our “explanatory style” determines whether we “bounce back” or not. It is the narrative we tell ourselves to explain negative events: whether we are an optimist or a pessimist.

Optimists and pessimists have different explanatory styles. This counts for individuals as well as teams: this narrative style is a predictor of the success and failure of teams…

The narrative style is a predictor of success and failure of teams Click To Tweet

m_yes we canPessimism and optimism are thinking habits – and the good news is that you can change they way you think and the story you tell yourself. If you want to apply positive leadership, or create a healthy workplace culture, or lead positive change, I recommend you check your self-talk.

Always and Never

Do you say things like: “My direct reports never listen to me.” Or: “I’m always the one who’s overlooked for a higher position.” “Always” and “never” are big words. What are the chances of something eternally happening in that very same way? Whenever you hear “always” and “never” enter the conversation, beware. Go back to reality and see the palpable facts for what they are.

A pessimistic mindset considers problems to be permanent while optimists consider them only temporary. If you lose a client, what do you tell yourself? “I always blow it because I’m not good at acquiring and keeping consulting projects.” Thinking this way, what’s the point in trying to land another project? You’ll feel discouraged and insecure.

If your style is optimistic, you could think: “Too bad I lost this client. But I have learned from the process and will do things differently next time.”

Always and Never are way too eternal Click To Tweet

m_snowI taught myself to think along these lines, to better handle rejection when acquiring projects: “I may have lost this project, but I probably saved myself a lot of future troubles. Their hiring process showed me that we were not a match made in heaven. It’s for the best that we don’t engage in a project. Now I can save my effort to make a real difference somewhere else.”

The interesting thing is that since I adopted this line of thinking I have never really regretted a rejection. I could accept it with a “So be it – it is probably for the best”. It may sound like a naive belief “Everything happens for a reason, and everything is as it should be”, but it surely has proved to be a helpful belief for me.

Everyone in all situations

In addition to the permanence of always and never, pessimists also tend to generalize. If your team has failed to achieve an important performance target, you may conclude that your whole team consists of slackers. Everyone fails you in all situations, is what it boils down to. You’ll find it harder to motivate them and give them the benefit of the doubt. You may feel discouraged yourself, thinking that you and your team will never earn that bonus and it’s all downhill from now on. This performance target was SO important – but your team doesn’t see it – apparently. If they would, they would have turned heaven and earth to make it. The slackers!

Thinking in an optimistic style means staying specific. Correct: your team did not make this important target. But it was not your whole team and it was only this target – for the first time. John and Amy missed their deadline and forgot to inform the rest of the team – with these consequences. You’re going to call a team meeting to discuss what happened and more importantly, to brainstorm ideas to prevent this from happening again. Meanwhile, you’ll try to make up for the missed target. Tackling the issue together, as a team, motivates everyone and you catch yourself actually enjoying the challenge to make things right… No blaming, no energy draining – but “gung ho” toward the future.

I can’t do anything about this

Last but not least, optimists tell themselves that negative events are externally caused, and positive events internally. Pessimists think the other way around.

Let’s assume that your client organization stops their change program – and they fire you. You can think: “I wasn’t good enough. I am such a failure in large-scale change projects. I can’t do anything about this.” You’ll feel miserable and will damage your confidence.
Or you can think: “They weren’t ready for this commitment – I have seen the signs and hoped I could turn them around. What can I do differently next time to gauge their commitment? To inform them better about the effort that real change requires?”

You get to choose what is true Click To Tweet

What intrigues me is that you regularly can’t tell which explanation is “true”. The reality is so infinitely more complex than we can grasp. There are so many facts, information, connections and influences that we are unaware of, that you can’t always predict which way a particular cookie will crumble. Both the positive and the negative narrative may hold some truth. Plus, you’re never in complete control of reality. So, if reality is as elusive as this, why not choose the explanation or the story that is most empowering to you? That is what I do, being a “positive pragmatist”. It works for me.

These explanatory styles stem from our individual experience and were role-modeled by our parents and teachers – we have copied them unconsciously and we accepted what they said to us.
Did you have bad school grades? Did the adults tell you that it was because you did not pay attention or did they tell you that you were a bit dumb? In other words, did you learn that you could DO something about your grades, or that you couldn’t? That belief influences your current life and work. When it’s not helpful, it’s worth to change it. That counts for your team members as well.

Optimists have all the fun

It is really not fair when you read about Seligman’s research. Optimists have all the fun.
Optimists often have a stronger immune system and because they believe that their actions have a positive effect, they’re more likely to adhere to a health care regimen.

They even encounter fewer negative life events than pessimists. Researchers explain this by a pessimist’s passivity due to their conviction that they can’t change anything. It’s also easier to sustain friendships when you are optimistic.m_woman autumn

Pessimism, on the other hand, promotes depression. As one experiment has shown, people can learn helplessness by giving them a task that’s impossible to fulfill, no matter what they do. People sat in a room in front of a panel with buttons. They had to stop the noise in the room by pressing the buttons. However, for some people the noise continued, no matter what they did. These people learned to be helpless in this situation and they showed some symptoms of depression after the experiment.

Seligman’s model of depression is “the belief that your actions will be futile.” Loss and failure can cause depression, but only if you believe that you are a victim of these circumstances.

Optimists perform better

m_holding handsOptimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles also influence performance. An optimistic sports team will always outperform the otherwise equal, pessimistic team, especially after a prior defeat.

Seligman and colleagues rated the optimism of baseball teams during two seasons. They found that the New York Mets had the most optimistic style of all the National League teams in 1985. The St. Louis Cardinals had a pessimistic way of explaining their failures. An optimistic team would explain losing like this: “We lost against this one team, just this one time, and it’s not really our fault.” A pessimistic team would think they would probably lose again next time because they are not good enough.

Seligman and colleagues predicted that the Mets would enjoy an even more successful season in 1986 and that the Cardinals would lose ground. As it turned out, this is what happened.

Optimists have all the fun. Click To Tweet

Seligman also found that optimistic students achieve better grades in college than their scores predict. The University of Pennsylvania selects students according to their high school grades, their college board scores, and their achievement tests. But certain freshmen do worse than expected from these scores, and some do much better.
Seligman assessed the freshmen students for their optimism and found that optimistic students performed better than predicted.

Likewise, optimism helps people perform better at work. For example, the selection process of the insurance company Metropolitan is extremely thorough since it costs them more than $30,000 to select and train a new agent. Nevertheless, after a 4-year period, 80% usually quits. Sales agents do a lot of cold calling and thus experience rejection. Seligman measured the optimism of prospective sales agents and hired candidates that underperformed slightly on the standard industry tests, but scored very highly in optimism. It turned out that they performed better than those selected based on skills alone.

How to change your self-talk?

Even though the advantages of optimism may be well known, I still enjoy the compelling evidence that underlines its importance. Positive thinking is an indispensable life skill. It’s not just happy hippy talk. It helps you stay healthy, happy and contribute your best to make a difference. It helps you “infect” your team to develop a kind, positive culture in which people can thrive. It helps your organization become a positive source in the world.
So, how do you adopt this optimistic mindset? You can become an optimist by questioning and analyzing your beliefs.

Psychologist Albert Ellis developed this ABC technique with three steps: adversity, belief, and consequence. First, observe yourself to find the link between adversity, belief, and consequence in your life. For instance:

Adversity: The Vice-President doesn’t return your phone calls.
Belief:She doesn’t like me. She is preparing to fire me. I knew it: I am not good enough and I never fit in. I’m a loner. Just like in school.
Consequence:You feel depressed, excluded, alone and scared.

m_girlIt may not be easy to recognize these ABCs as most self-talk is unconscious. Nevertheless, try to find the adversity or the stressful situation that triggers you.

Belief is how you interpret such situations. Distinguish thoughts from feelings, as feelings are consequences. A consequence is what you did as a result of A and B, and how you felt.

Optimists see set-backs as temporary and externally caused Click To Tweet

Once you found your ABC, you can dispute your beliefs. Ask and answer these questions:

Is the belief actually true? If so, what evidence is there? For example, if the VP does not call you back, does that undeniably prove that she prepares to fire you? Why then, did she award you that prestigious project?

Is there an alternative explanation? Well, she had the Toronto conference last week – she must have been really busy.

What are the implications of your belief, if it were true? I would lose my job – and my honor. I would feel so ashamed – especially since she trusted me with that big project.

How probable are these implications and are they really that bad? She would not fire me out of the blue – since the project is going steady. There are no indications of trouble anywhere. Suddenly firing people is not her style. She even gave Pete a second chance and he really blew it.

Finally, ask yourself: is what I’m thinking useful to me? It is not – I spend time and energy worrying and making myself insecure instead of making the project even more successful. Hmmm…. but it does signify that I feel too alone with this project. And that I’d like to have more contact with the VP to check how she feels about the direction I’m taking.

The next step is even more powerful: you can externalize these critical, undermining voices. Ask a friend to do this exercise with you. They attack you as you do yourself, using your negative self-beliefs. Your task is to defend yourself out loud. This can be really empowering and liberating.

You have work to do

m_learned optimismSo, to conclude, why do some people walk so much easier through life than others? They must have learned optimism.

Why do others attract bad luck, time and again? We can’t be sure – but if it happens often, it can be an indication of learned helplessness.

Maybe some people are born under a lucky star. Maybe. Is the universe unfair? Maybe sometimes. Is life a random sequence of events? It could be – but I believe it is not, because we can influence more than we think, especially with an optimistic mindset.

Is there some correlation between cause and effect? Yes, even though you don’t always see what correlation between which causes and which effects exactly.

What if good fortune is the result of an optimistic outlook on life? It is not completely controlled by your mindset – but optimism definitely helps as Seligman has shown!

That means you have work to do. For yourself, your team and organization, your family, community, and neighborhood. Keep working that optimistic mindset so you can amplify your positive impact.

Check out, if you like: Martin Seligman – Learned Optimism, How to Change your Mind and Your Life. Seligman also wrote Authentic Happiness, and Flourish.

If you want to watch Seligman’s TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology?language=en
Nice check: do you have a pleasant life, a good life, or a meaningful life? (according to Aristotle)

Copyright © Marcella Bremer 2016. All rights reserved.

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Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this Leadership & Change Blog and OCAI-online.com.


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