Optimism is an essential ingredient of leadership, however not all forms of optimism are created equal. In this episode Bridgette and Irvine explore how to get optimism right.
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Bridgette: Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Resilient Leadership Podcast, where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you to lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction, even in anxious times. And I am excited, as always, to be joined by my co-host and collaborator, Irvine Nugent. Irvine, how the heck are you today?
Irvine: I am doing wonderful, Bridgette, thank you so much. I had this wonderful weekend up in Deep Creek, which is in the Northwest part of Maryland. I’d never, really spent some time up there, and so it was beautiful; the weather was perfection, it was, wonderfully, relaxing, and so I came back recharge for the end of summer. And how about yourself?
Bridgette: Same had a, well, I didn’t go to Deep Creek, but I had a great weekend, but I do know that area well, I love it. So, I’m delighted you had such a good time there.
Bridgette: And, yeah, the sun is shining and it’s a good day and I am excited to get into our topic for today.
Irvine: That’s a good question. What is our topic for today?
Bridgette: Well, the topic is the right, kind of, optimism. And our leaders, I mean our listeners, excuse me, are pretty savvy. And so, they already know that optimism is an essential part of leadership, that, kind of, goes without saying, but it’s not as clear-cut as one might think, right? So, one of the ways I define leadership is that it’s about creating this shared future that people care about, right? So, you have to inspire and galvanize and mobilize, and, of course, you have to have a little optimism to do that, or why would anybody follow you, right?
Irvine: Especially, over the last two years, come on.
Bridgette: Exactly. And yet as we are going to explore together, it’s just not as straightforward as one might think, because, as it turns out, the right, kind of, optimist takes a page or two from the pessimist playbook. So, we’re going to talk a little bit about how that is so. But first I’m curious, Irvine, my question for you is, are you, naturally, more of an optimist or a pessimist and how does that impact you?
Irvine: Yeah, it’s an interesting question, for me. I would say my gut is, I’m definitely much more of an optimist, however, what’s interesting, for me, is how I got there. And I think listeners already know my story. I grew up in the north of Ireland; I grew up in the conflict, which we call the troubles. So, I grew up, actually, with a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear, and one would think that would be the ingredients for pessimism, and yet, I have to say, I also grew up with wonderful examples; especially from my father, of no matter what happens you get on and you rebuild. And so, there is within me, this optimistic frame for anything that I’m in, no matter what happens, it will work out, and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll make sure we recreate it so it will work out.
So, it’s interesting, there’s definitely an optimism, and, at times, I have noticed, as well, that I can maybe get a little Pollyannish and not, really, look; I’m so ingrained within me that things will work out, that I’m not fully prepared to look at the downside. But, yeah, I’m, certainly, in that spectrum, I’m at the optimism side. How about you, where are you in the spectrum?
Bridgette: Well, first of all, I’m not surprised. I asked you the question, but I, kind of, knew the answer just from working with you and being around you. But, to me, what’s so fascinating is how you got there, right? Now, I would say I’m more of a blend. I can relate to both optimists and pessimists. I love brainstorming and creating new possibilities. I’m always excited about the future, I think a lot about the future, so that’s my optimistic side. I’m very optimistic about people and humanity.
I always expect the best of people. However, probably, due to some of my own life experiences early on, losing both parents when I was young and so forth. I think I spent a fair amount of my life waiting for the other shoe to drop and, kind of, developed a worrying, kind of, a habit, shall we say? So, I guess in some ways, maybe, my lived philosophy around this has been that I hope for the best, but I expect the worst, or I plan for the worst.
Irvine: Right. Yeah. I love that. I love that idea of the blended as well, because I can, really, relate to trusting in people, I think that’s one of my basic beliefs; that people are inherently good and you have to trust and give them time and patience, so I love that idea. But I love this idea of the blend and I can, really, see in leadership, there has been a real advantage to that blend, so, maybe, speak to that a little bit more, Bridgette, how do you see, kind of, that blend of optimism and pessimism being built into leadership?
Bridgette: Yeah. Because as we’re saying, not all forms or expressions of optimism are created equal, right?
Bridgette: So, kind of, have this spectrum or range, where on the very low side, you have, really, dark pessimists, and then, you go all the way to the other side and you use that word Pollyannish, right? You can have a form of optimism that, sort of, detached from reality.
Bridgette: And, really, what works best is something that’s more toward the middle, right?
Bridgette: And so, one of the things I found, really, interesting is when I read this book called, ‘Better Under Pressure‘ by Justin Menkes. He cited a study and, actually, he was the one who did the study; it was an eight-year study of CEOs who were facing economic turmoil and challenge in their industry and their businesses. And he wanted to ferret out what was the difference between the successful ones who prevailed and the ones that faltered and failed. And he cites three main characteristics, but the top one was that they possessed what he called realistic optimism. And that, really, stood out to me because in the book, ‘Missing Conversations’, that I co-wrote with my colleague, Heather Jelks, we talked about grounded optimism.
Bridgette: So, he was using a different term.
Bridgette: But they’re very similar, and so let me speak to like, what are the ingredients of grounded optimism? So, here’s the first thing; a propensity to believe in possibilities and positive outcomes. And you have that in spades; I just know that about you, right? And, of course, that’s the part of optimism that we think about when we think about optimism, right?
Irvine: Sure. Yeah.
Bridgette: But here’s the second ingredient. It is an unvarnished, unflinching view of the real challenges and obstacles that you’re going to have to overcome to get to that new possibility, right? And I mean unflinching, like I’m going to face down those harsh realities and, actually, I’m going to speak about them and I’m not even going to sugarcoat them.
Bridgette: That is, actually, part of grounded optimism. And then, the third ingredient, is having a concrete plan for getting there, right? So, the optimism is grounded.
Bridgette: In a view of reality that considers the true obstacles, and then, the plan to get there, because a lot of times people have rah-rah ideas, but there’s no plan, right?
Irvine: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Bridgette: Okay. So, I want to hear your thinking on this, but I want to share, with listeners, one other study that I thought was so interesting; that shows the difference between, maybe, that Pollyannish view of optimism and the more grounded view and how it affects us personally. So, this was a weight loss study. And one group said that they were confident that they could lose the weight, but they also said it isn’t going to be a walk in the park. This is going to be challenging. And in that group, they lost 26 more pounds than self-doubters. And then, there was another group who said, yeah, I’m going to succeed and I’m going to succeed easily. And guess what? They lost 24 less pounds. So, it makes a difference, right?
Bridgette: How we’re coming at this.
Irvine: Absolutely. Yeah.
Bridgette: Okay. So, Irvine, I’m, really, wanting to know, well, one, what’s landing with you, but also have you coached any clients that you felt were, really, good at balancing this and striking that grounded optimism balance?
Irvine: Yeah. So, just an observation for myself, personally. So, I definitely am on the optimist side. So, when you were going through those three different qualities of what grounded optimism, so I could relate to that first, and then, there was an emotional reaction; when you started talking about unvarnished, hard, the reality, and I could just feel my body, that landing, a little bit of tension. And I think for both sides, with one or two, so if our natural propensity is to be very, very optimistic. When we’re in the face of someone and people who are, not in a negative way, but just, really, be hard, honest with challenges, it’s tough to listen to, for me, and so, therefore, my tendency is to, kind of, want to move back from it.
And then, I’m thinking then, as well, perhaps the other way around, if you’re very comfortable with the unvarnished truth and all the things that, possibly, could go wrong, maybe it would be difficult to listen to someone who says, this is going to work out and we have to be positive about this, et cetera. So, there is that default tendency, there’s a challenge there to notice within you, how is it landing and to know you’re almost your default. And then, the question about a leader; one comes to mind.
There was a leader who I worked with, who was in a business partnership that, really, wasn’t optimal, it was not going well. And I think the long-term plan was my client would buy the partner out. And I, really, admired the way that they went around it, because, I think, first of all, they, really, believed in the company, they believed in the company’s potential. They believed in the future vision for it, and they were very optimistic about that.
But boy, was he so realistic about the present problems and, really, was, talk about not coating something in varnish, really, laid out the problems in their relationship; how that impacted the company, how it impacts employees and, really, was realistic about, eventually, him buying the other partner out was going to be a difficult road and prepared for that. And I think the one thing that hasn’t been mentioned so far that I thought that he did so well, was that there was a resilience for the longer term. That there was a preparedness to realize that this was going to take a long time, and I think in his mind, he thought, initially, 18 months; it turned out to be a four-year journey.
And what I loved about that was there were moments of reevaluation; that, at times, perhaps, I was too optimistic thinking this could be done with 18 months, but this is okay, let me reevaluate this. And then, where are we at with this and what do I need to learn? So, this is a constant, it’s not just a one-off process, it’s this constant, kind of, rebalancing and reevaluating, where is this? And, maybe, add being too optimistic. That’s okay. And then, now, I just need to rebalance a little bit in where are we at?
Bridgette: I love the fact that you’re mentioning preparedness, right? So, I think that we often believe, well, optimists succeed because they’re optimistic, but really?
Bridgette: Yes-and. They succeed through persistence and preparedness, right? And what it’s bringing to mind, for me, right now is a client that I’ve worked with for many years, and he’s an elite athlete, he trains for marathons and triathlons and all that, kind of, stuff. Okay, get this. So, he signed up for quite an adventure, seven marathons in seven days on seven continents. On seven continents!
Irvine: Oh my God.
Bridgette: Okay. So, me being the blended pessimist and optimist, I was like, what are you doing? Are we ever going to see you again? And what he explained to me is, this is all about preparation. He’s like, you can do almost anything if you prepare hard enough, long enough, and thoroughly enough. And, as it turned out, he did the whole thing.
Bridgette: He, actually, found that he was more prepared than some of the other elite athletes on the journey, and that made all the difference. Isn’t that interesting?
Irvine: Very interesting.
Bridgette: Okay. So, I think it would be great if we could share with the listeners a little bit about the neuroscience behind optimism and the brain, because there are a lot of studies out there that help us understand how optimism shows up in the brain. So, Irvine, what would you like to share with folks about that?
Irvine: Yeah, it’s, really, interesting, because there has been a lot of research on the brain and optimism, and one of the findings is, really, trying to understand where optimism is generated and which part of the brain it resides. Very often, when it comes to a phenomenon, we’re like, where in the brain is that? And so, what we’ve found is that optimism is more associated with the left-brain hemisphere than the right brain. Now, of course, this is interesting because we know that the right brain is more identified with threats and what can go wrong, it’s activated more when we have a negative evaluation or we interpret things negatively, we know that the right brain is more active.
And what’s interesting too, is that white brain can be very active when it comes to our imagination, and so we know that; there are people like, things happen and all of a sudden, we go down the route of, oh my God, this is frightening, what’s going to go wrong. Everything else will go wrong, and it starts this, kind of, process, this train, which just goes down the negative route, and then, we begin to almost be on the lookout for other negative things; people’s postures, we interpret them, we interpret people’s faces in a negative way. And so, therefore, that right brain hemisphere has this tendency to focus on this negative information.
And, of course, we know from other episodes; that includes the amygdala, the center for emotional processing and when the amygdala is activated, therefore, we go into a whole-body response that we’re under threat. And what’s interesting is that that may be real or not, and it may be something minor, but we’ve worked ourselves into a situation where we feel it is real and, of course, the body will react in that way. Now, if our listeners are saying, oh my God, that’s me, I have no hope, there’s nothing I can do.
Well, the wonderful thing, the other research we know from our brains is this phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Which is that our brains are flexible, they can be rewired, and they can be rewired at any time. And so, one of the things is that there are some practices that we can turn to that have been proven to help us to activate the more optimistic side of the brain. And some of those things are, first of all, the power of play.
Bridgette: Love it.
Irvine: It’s interesting when you think about that, how optimistic young people are.
Irvine: And you wonder, I think we’ve talked about this before, they reach a certain age and all of a sudden, we think we can’t play anymore, so play is very important. Meditation. And meditation in all its forms, from just some nice breathing exercises to being able to go out for a walk-in nature and reconnect with the stillness. Exercise as well has been shown to activate the left hemisphere, and so, I don’t know about you, but I have many clients who will say to me, when I’m feeling in a mood that’s pessimistic, if I can’t think of a way out of something, or I can’t think, how do I solve a problem? I’ll go for a jog, or I’ll go for a brisk walk and I’ll breathe and all of a sudden, woo. Out of nowhere pops solutions that we hadn’t, really, thought of before.
Bridgette: What’s, really, standing out to me about what you said is when you mentioned play, and I think about how you have a very strong playful side to you. And my husband has a very strong playful side and he’s a very strong optimist; borderline Pollyannish, if you ask me, but we balance each other out well. And so, I’m just curious, I don’t know about this, but I wonder if you tend to be more playful, does that lend itself to being more optimistic or is it that you’re more optimistic and that encourages playfulness, I don’t know?
Irvine: Yeah. It’s a, really, interesting question, isn’t it?
Bridgette: Right. Because I’m not as playful. I need playful people around me, and then, I’m there in a heartbeat, you know?
Irvine: Yeah. Yeah.
Bridgette: But the other thing that stands out to me is just that optimism is a state of mind, not a fixed trait, right? Sure, we have propensities one way or the other, but the beauty of all of this is that if we’re not feeling, particularly, optimistic and let’s face it, leaders these days struggle as well. We all struggle. And sometimes you have to lead and you’re not optimistic, so what do you do about that? And the fact is through our own behavior, we can alter which parts of our brain are in the driver’s seat and that is phenomenal, right?
Bridgette: In the book, ‘Rewire Your Anxious Brain’, one of the things I read there that I took away, I love this; a strategy for managing pessimistic tendencies and trying to get into a more optimistic state, is this strategy of not taking your cerebral cortex too seriously. Developing a healthy skepticism of your brain, because the cortex, particularly, the right hemisphere, but, in general, is going to produce thoughts, and, as you said, images and interpretations; it doesn’t mean they’re true.
Bridgette: They might be, they might not be. And so, just when you hear your own thoughts, to be like, okay, let me have a little healthy skepticism here, you know?
Irvine: It brings to mind, Bridgette, one of the things, I didn’t know where I picked this up. I picked it up years ago, and I don’t know the source. So, if you’re the source, let me know. But one of them was saying, whenever you go down that thought process, you should always ask yourself if this was a court of law, is there enough evidence to convict? And I just love that, where is the evidence?
Irvine: What a win. And I think that skepticism is exactly the same thing.
Bridgette: Yeah. That’s lovely. I’m going to remember that. Clearly, since I have both pessimism and optimism, sort of, almost equally balanced, I’m going to tuck that one away. That’s, really, good.
Irvine: I love it. So, Bridgette, it strikes me now, I love this idea of this grounded optimism and I think it’s, really, important, therefore, as leaders or managers, how do we communicate that? So, if you have any tips, observations that you’ve seen about communicating this notion of grounded optimism.
Bridgette: Well, I think that is such an important question, because how we communicate our hopefulness, right? Our sense of possibility, our optimism, I think it, really, matters, because it can land or not land. It can bring people along or not bring people along. So, the first, kind of, thing I think about, and I think the first, sort of, strategy to be mindful of is resonance. And by that, I mean that when you speak to your team; let’s say there’s a project that they’re taking on. It’s a new project, it’s a complex project.
There are parts of it they haven’t done before, maybe they’re overwhelmed with other work, but you’re looking at this project and going, this could be a game changer for us, you know? And so, you just start speaking about how wonderful it is and all of the reasons why it is, and they’re just staring at you. Because, perhaps, they’re in a mood of overwhelm or daresay resignation or whatever else. And so, there’s a way in which your communication of your optimism and their mental state don’t connect, right? So, how can we share the optimism, yet bring people along? And I think we have to meet them where they are.
Bridgette: So, that doesn’t mean we become resigned ourselves, but we somehow have to find a way to acknowledge where they are, speak to their true cares and concerns and then bring them along into seeing what is possible.
Bridgette: Yeah. But what about you, what comes to mind, Irvine, for you in terms of how best to communicate optimism?
Irvine: I think, really, piggybacking off-of that resonance is this idea of, we have to co-create the reality that we want to move into, and that plan has to be a co-creation. I think if there’s one thing we’ve learned in leadership now, it’s the command, the obey, I obey you to do this, I command you to do this. Those days are gone. And we are in, really, a transition when it comes to leadership, and I think one of the things that people expect in workplaces where they find meaning, is that they have an opportunity to add to that meaning; that their voices are listened to.
So, when it comes to planning, kind of, a future, have we listened to the other voices? Sometimes those voices might not be easy to listen to, I know, for me, that would be the case. But I think people, if you’re moving from point A to point B, you have to describe B; and B, there has to be buy-in to B, and for people to have buy-in, their voices have to be heard, have to be acknowledged, they don’t always have to be agreed to, but in some way people feel, I’m co-creating what’s happening here.
Irvine: And what’s important here, as well, is I think there has to be some form of emotional connection to it. We’ve talked about very often, what we’re creating is something that may take six months, a year, maybe two years. And if there’s no emotional connection to this, it’s going to dissipate; people are going dissipate in their enthusiasm. So, can we, in some way, enroll others into a vision that people deeply care about or emotionally connected to? And part of that is listening to them. Part of that is helping them co-create what that looks like.
I think we’re in a time now of a perfect example of this. And it’s this tension of returning to work, and what does returning to work mean? And so, for some leaders it’s, please get back to the office and get back to the office. And part of what they’re saying is, we’ll be able to build this culture and we’ll have communication together, and it’s going to be better. And people are like, oh, I’m not so sure that’s the case, I, kind of, like being at home. I like having time to do other things. I’m just as productive, am I not?
And so, what this, really, is, it’s not an either-or, this is an invitation for a deeper conversation; we’ve talked about this before. And part of it is, here is the vision, and this is why I think this is important. Let me hear your voices. What’s important for you, and can we create something that, really, brings in all sides here and gets us to what’s most important?
Bridgette: I love that. And I have heard, and I think we spoke about this in another episode, but I’ve heard several clients that I coach say the culture, the culture, the culture, right? And so, then they talk about that. Not, necessarily, pausing to say, well, is that what my employees deeply care about, right?
Bridgette: They might think culture’s important, but I don’t think it’s in their top three, right?
Bridgette: There may be other things they care more deeply about, and could you speak to those, right?
Bridgette: Because that brings people along.
Irvine: Totally. Well, Bridgette, we always end with a practice, and so I’m wondering, what do you suggest, today, would be a practice around this topic of optimism and grounded optimism?
Bridgette: So, what we are going to leave our listeners with is a practice that’s about generating grounded optimism through conversation, right? So, what is this conversation like? Well, the good news is that you can initiate this conversation in the context of your, regularly, scheduled meetings, right? So, most of the leaders that we coach, they have weekly or bi-weekly check-ins with people, right? One-to-one. They have, regularly, scheduled team meetings. So, you just devote one of those meetings to this conversation, and it’s, really, about asking a series of questions, and there are three, that get your employees reflecting on what they’re excited about, what they’re hopeful about, and also, where the obstacles may be.
So, here are the questions. So, the first one you might ask is, what are you working on these days that you’re, really, excited about? And what is it about this work that excites you? Hopefully, you have an idea of what your people are working on, right? But what you might not know is, of that work, what most excites them and why.
Irvine: And then, here is a right brain question. What do you see as our, or your, biggest challenges or hurdles ahead? Do you have any thoughts about how we might overcome them? So, we, sort of, start off with a left-brain question that gets people thinking about possibilities and things that they’re excited about, that they’re working on; we, kind of, let the right brain hemisphere have its say, right? About obstacles.
And then, we end with, well, what new possibilities would you like to pursue? Or what new possibilities do you think we should pursue as a team or as a company? And what might these possibilities make possible for us? And so, we end, again, on a more hopeful note, right? And so, the questions are balanced, they’re questions that initiate a grounded optimism, right? And you can ask them; let’s say you aren’t feeling, particularly, optimistic as a leader. And you ask these questions of a handful of people you might be like, wow; there are some, really, great ideas here.
Or let’s say you, really, have a vision, you haven’t shared it yet; by asking these questions of your employees, you’re going to find out, really, important information about how to connect your vision to what they care most deeply about.
Irvine: Oh, I, really, love that. Three just, really, powerful questions, and I think, yeah. And to activate both parts of the brain. So, this has been such a rich conversation. We’ve covered a lot; we’ve covered the optimism, pessimism. We’ve covered the fact that it’s not either-or, that, in many ways, leaders are called to be grounded optimism. We’ve talked a little bit about what is that and how might you express it? And we’ve covered here or practice three questions that will help you enter into that way of thinking.
So, as we leave today, please, if you think this episode would be of value to someone you know, share the word about this podcast, we’ve been getting back some wonderful comments and we’re always receptive to new comments, receptive to ideas for episodes. Maybe you’re going through something at work and you think, God, I’d love to have some input from Bridgette and Irvine about that. So, right to us, let us know and we’re, certainly, open to ideas for new episodes. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org, so that’s all for this week. Bridgette, thank you so much for such a wonderful and rich conversation.
Next week, we are going to explore the upside of anxiety. We often think of anxiety as the downside, but we’re going to look at the upside. So, Bridgette, thank you so much.
Bridgette: Irvine, it has been a pleasure, as always. Take care, everybody.