Why optimism comes naturally

Just back from a week’s holiday in the sun to find my blog had over 500 hits from more than 20 countries last week, so thanks everyone for visiting.  Anyway, I’m feeling refreshed, energised and looking ahead to the Olympics. But it seems that’s not the case with everyone.  According to the latest poll, 53% of the UK public aren’t interested in the Olympics.  I just don’t believe that.  Who are these grumpy cynics anyway? (don’t answer that, I really don’t care). I also read yesterday that most business leaders in the UK are sceptical of the official figures that show Britain in a double-dip recession, claiming that the drop in unemployment and their own order books suggest we’re not in recession at all, and that this run of downbeat official statistics is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. So what’s going on? Should we be optimistic or pessimistic? Well, as it happens, I’ve just read a book about optimism. Apparently, we humans are hardwired to look on the bright side (no, really). But whilst we tend to be optimistic about our own futures, we also tend to be pessimistic about everyone else’s! The difference is in the choice and control we have in our own lives. Ask people how they rate their driving ability and most people will rate themselves in the upper quartile. Ask people to rate the likelihood of them getting a serious disease, like cancer, and they will usually put themselves below the national average.  Most people will rate themselves high for their ability to ‘get along with others’. Most people believe their children will do better than the national average at school.  Most people underestimate their chance of losing their job. But most of us can’t be better than most of us, right? Our inherent optimism bias comes down to the way our brain works and how we feel psychologically about the choices we make. Here’s an example. Researchers asked volunteers to rate a number of paintings out of ten. They then picked two paintings that were rated the same (say, 8 out of 10) and asked the participant to pick one to take home. They could only have one, so the volunteer would have to choose between two paintings he previously rated the same. Let’s say the participant chose painting A and rejected painting B. The researchers then asked the same volunteer to re-rate all ten paintings again. This time, the participant (in almost every case) would rate the painting they chose (A) higher and the one they rejected (B) lower, even though they rated them equally the first time.  The study proved the psychological impact of choice. If we choose something, we tend to value it higher. If we don’t feel we have control – like running the finances of the country – we tend to be pessimistic, but if we do have control – running the finances of our own family – we are more upbeat. Now bring this into the workplace. Why are people often cynical and pessimistic about change programmes or delivering on corporate objectives? Usually it’s because they’ve seen previous goals and change programmes fail to deliver and because they’re not personally in control. Give them greater choice and a reason to believe and their natural optimism will kick in. Maybe we should do more to set choices out for the workforce – we could do things this way or that way – and let them have more of a stake in the decision? Companies who have given their employees the choice of taking a pay cut and avoiding redundancies or maintaining current pay levels and cutting the workforce have actually seen their productivity and engagement go up when the employees have been involved in the decision (usually to take the pay cut). Maybe we should thank people more for choosing to work for the organisation?  Optimism can be a powerful factor in business.  Optimists are more productive, more creative and more fun to be around.   They live longer as well.   This isn’t just about employee engagement, this is biology.