I’ve just read a book about a bloke who wakes up one morning, realises that everything on the TV and radio is bad news and then wonders where all the optimists are. Intrigued by the question, he resolves to identify and track down the world’s biggest optimists to find out what makes them tick and why everyone else isn’t like them. On his journey – via Bill Clinton, Archbishop Tutu, politicians, psychologists, sports stars and a fair bunch of nutters – our hero enters the world of neuroscience, transcendental meditation, high finance and religion.
Most of us, at the end of the day, tend to be optimistic about things we can control. Most of us believe our children will go on to be successful. Most of us think we’ll be healthy in our old age. Most of us believe we can avoid accidents. And as we prepare for a new year, most of us will genuinely be optimistic about achieving our new year resolutions. But while we’re optimistic about ourselves, we’re often less so about other people. People tend to think their own financial situation will improve even if they think the overall economy will not. People have enormous belief in their own ability to whether storms and avoid loss. Why is this? And if it’s true, why do we see overt optimism as a sign of weakness or naivety?
Apparently when you ask people to rank the days in the week in terms of preference, they rate Friday higher than Sunday, even though Friday is a work day and Sunday is not. Saturday is always tops, but why do people prefer Friday to Sunday? The answer lies in our unique human ability to imagine. Friday holds promise. It offers anticipation for the weekend ahead. Sunday may be a day of rest but we all know that lying in the back of our minds is the thought of work the next day. I don’t know about you but I like Christmas Eve more than Christmas Day. Christmas Eve holds magic and excitement. And optimism.
In the workplace, optimism flows freely from boardrooms and business cases – we will achieve our vision, we will deliver the change programme, we will meet our objectives, we will deliver sustainable growth etc. Why are leaders so optimistic? Especially when history tells us that most change programmes fail and that most visions are never realised. I’ve seen some ambitious business cases in my time and I can hardly think of a single one that has lived up to expectations. One of the reasons behind this ‘blind’ optimism is that we focus purely on the things we want to change, and we assume that by changing them we’ll all be better off. It’s that Friday feeling.
There are two problems with this. First, while we have a natural optimism bias about things in our control, we have a natural pessimism bias about the things that aren’t. So the people writing the business case or vision statement may well feel optimistic, but those observing from the side may not share the same excitement. So when you try to engage the pessimists, you have your work cut out. Secondly, when we set out on a change programme to ‘make things better’, we assume that by doing so we’ll enjoy the benefits on a quid pro quo basis (fix this blockage and we’ll be xxx amount better off). The problem though, according to Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias, is that “we underestimate how quickly and easily we adapt to new circumstances and we fail to incorporate such adaptation into our forecasts”. We may be optimistic about starting a new job because the pay is higher. So we focus on those things that will change (more money!) and that makes us optimistic. However, we don’t take into account that we still have bills to pay, we still have problems to deal with, we still have to get up on a cold Tuesday morning, we still have office politics, we still have to load the dishwasher. We may be optimistic about the weekend on a Friday but we all know that not all weekends live up to expectations. Vision statements are like Fridays – full of hope, expectation and optimism. But there’s always a Monday round the corner.