What is the difference between a pessimist, an optimist and a realist? The classic joke says that a pessimist sees a dark tunnel, an optimist sees the light at the end of it, a realist sees a train, and the train operator sees three idiots standing on the track.
We all have our unique interpretation of the world we see. The trouble is, what is real and possible for one person doesn’t have to be real and possible for another one. We also all have different ways of problem solving and coping.
If you are a leader, you want to be in the operator seat, not with the people on the tracks looking like idiots. You want to be where you can see the whole picture and decide on what to do next and how.
Frank was a mid-level manager with a small team in a production company that hired me as an external consultant during a personnel audit. People avoided working with Frank; the atmosphere in his team wasn't good. His team members were complaining constantly about the company, reported they disliked their job, and it looked like their only reason to go to work was the salary received. They also disliked Frank and said he was constantly in a bad mood.
When I talked to Frank, I understood. The first reaction of Frank to a different opinion or anything new to him was refusal. 'This cannot be done, because...' was usually the first sentence Frank's manager heard when assigning him a new project. His subordinates received similar responses every time they proactively suggested improvements in production processes.
We organized a 360° feedback review and it looked as if for the first time in his life, Frank realized that while he considered himself to be a realist, people perceived his behavior and attitude as very pessimistic and unpleasant. Thanks to the 360° review, the work of Frank’s manager as well as an external coach, Frank started to change the way he communicated with the team on both verbal and nonverbal levels. After a year, the climate in his team was much better, as were the results of a new 360° review.
I strongly believe that the more you allow negative thoughts to enter your mind, the more negative outcomes in your real life happen, while if your mind is filled-up with positive thoughts, your life gets better.
It is your role as a leader to preserve good vibes in your team and set up the team for success by projecting a positive attitude towards work tasks and challenges of new, unknown projects. The way to do that is to start with your own mind. And the good news is that you don't have to be an optimist by your nature to be able to do that. You might not be always able to manage your emotions, but you can definitely manage your attitude.
It is now 20 years since I met my English teacher, and I still have a clear picture of her in my mind. She was unbelievable. Little over-weight, probably in her forties, she always entered the classroom filled with optimism and great energy that she poured out on us. No matter what was happening in her private life, she was shining bright in the classroom, and thanks to her, many students started to shine as well. She played a crucial role in my learning of the English language because with her, students really learned with ease and fun.
There is a real power in being a leader. It is not the power you gain with your status (you, same as me, probably know some horrible teachers as well as the great ones). It is in how you use that status to help others shine. You cannot do that if you yourself are lost in “a dark tunnel.” Unless you are suffering from a depression, it is up to you whether you set up your brain to see life and work tasks as burdening or results as frustrating, or if you think positively and decide to project optimism to your team.
Without a doubt, the second approach will have a better effect not only on the team's attitude, but also on its results.
It doesn’t mean that you cannot be critical or realistic. You as a leader need to be all of that and on top of it you need to decide which emotions you want to project outwards.
When you decide to think positively and project optimism to your team, you should be authentic and always respect individual as well as cultural differences of your team.
Start with training your mind to be not only critical and realistic, but also positive. Estimate the level of positive encouragement your team or team members need. Similar as in sports, there are people who perform best when supported by the best cheerleader and there are people and cultures who hate cheer-leading and perform best if you support them in subtler ways. Nevertheless, all of them perform worse if faced with a leader whose face has a constant pessimistic grin.
To sum it up, you as a leader have responsibility for the attitude of your team no matter what. It starts with well-selected team members who fit their individual roles as well as company culture, but it doesn't end there. Your positivity can make a powerful impact. It is now 20 years since I last saw my English teacher, but her influence on me is everlasting.
If you want to succeed as a leader and be influential, start with management of your own emotions and with creating an environment where people find joy in working on your team, even at times of stress and big challenges.