These are trying times for optimists. Covid deaths remain tragically high. Job growth remains stubbornly low. So many of our colleagues and kids are feeling stressed, exhausted, angry — “hitting the pandemic wall.” It’s important for all of us to get our optimistic groove back. Leaders help their colleagues be realists — and optimists. But whether you’re running a company or managing a team, how do you keep your colleagues upbeat when the whole world is feeling down? How do you keep hope alive when things seem pretty hopeless?
Here are four pieces of advice, drawn from renowned thinkers on organizational life, innovation, even meditation, that will help you shape a more positive future:
- Insist on crisp execution, but make room for “organizational foolishness.” In times as demanding as these, it’s impossible to succeed without embracing the grind, the day-to-day struggle to meet the needs of anxious customers, collaborate with stressed-out colleagues, balance work and family. Achieving that balance has never been more important, not just for the healthy performance of the organization, but for the mental health of your colleagues.
- Invite everyone to become a problem-solver, then give them room to fix things. More than a decade ago, Sara D. Sarasvathy published an influential studyof how innovators and entrepreneurs actually get stuff done. The mythology, she argued, is that successful innovators predict a future, others can’t see, develop a finely tuned plan to turn that future into reality, and attract the financial and human resources to back their efforts. In reality, most change agents start with “who they are” (their “traits, tastes, and abilities”); use “what they know” (their “training, expertise, and experience”); and add “whom they know” (their “social and professional networks”). By encouraging your colleagues to do, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “what you an, with what you’ve got, where you are,” leaders create a spirit of agency that leads to optimism.
- Don’t just champion new ideas; strengthen personal relationships. In times of unprecedented turmoil, there is an understandable temptation for leaders to bet the future on game-changing ideas: digital disruption, product reinvention, organizational transformation. All too often, though, leaders who champion futuristic ideas overlook the human and emotional connections that keep colleagues upbeat today. Leaders need to tend first to their “three feet of influence” — the clients, patients, people and teams closest to them.
- To counter so much bad news, share every piece of good news. Experts on human psychology don’t agree on very much, but nearly all agree that people respond more viscerally to bad news than good. To keep people optimistic, they advise, leaders should emphasize (even over-emphasize) hopeful stories and positive developments. Research psychologist Robert F. Baumeister estimatesthat it “takes four good things to overcome one bad thing.” So pop a (virtual) cork whenever a team hits an important milestone. Hold a department-wide Zoom bash when you land a new client. Distribute a newsletter that highlights what’s going well, to help people compensate for what’s gone poorly.
Taylor, B. (2021, February). How to Stay Optimistic (When Everything Is Awful). Harvard Business Review.