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Guest Article by Dr. Harold S. Resnick: The Compelling Case For Optimism


During his thirty years in organizational development and training, Dr. Harold S. Resnick has earned national recognition as a leading authority and innovator in organizational transformation and leadership development.  We are delighted to run his most recent article on the need for optimism. 

During difficult times – such as those in which we are currently living – pessimism tends to take over our individual and collective psyche. Doomsday prophets are predicting the end of our economic system, the death of capitalism, the permanent re-setting of global wealth, etc. Fear feeds on fear and panic takes control. It is at moments like these that we need to understand the impact of such behavior and the consequences of consistent negative or pessimistic thinking.

Let’s take a moment to clarify the meaning of optimism and pessimism. Neither optimism nor pessimism are perspectives about today. They are both perspectives – points of view – about tomorrow and about the future. Neither can be proven at that moment.

Optimism is not Pollyanna-type behavior that looks at all conditions with rose-colored glasses. That is unrealistic and harmful in its own right. Optimism is based in realism. Optimists first examine the world around them to ensure that they have a realistic assessment of current circumstances. Then, based on both fact and insight, they seek a way to create a better situation and a better outcome. Their actions are largely pro-active in nature.

Pessimists look at the current reality and believe – based on both fact and insight – that a worse situation is possible and will most likely occur. They then act to prevent or mitigate further damage. Their actions are largely defensive or protective in nature.

Why Does It Matter?

Why does it matter whether individuals have an optimistic or pessimistic perspective since both are describing a future condition that does not yet exist? It matters deeply because their world view – beliefs and expectations about the future – will impact how they behave today.

This phenomenon has been researched extensively and is more popularly known as the Pygmalion effect, or self-fulfilling prophecy. Individuals and groups behave in ways that are consistent with their expected outcomes, which significantly influences what the actual outcome will be.

Let’s look at a few simple examples. Stock market prices are based on the expectation of investors regarding the future value of a stock or the future success of a company. If individuals believe that a stock will increase in value then they purchase it for future gains. If they believe that this stock or the market will fall, then they sell. Rampant pessimism creates panic selling which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is just as true at a personal level. Think about a meeting that is scheduled with someone regarding a difficult or contentious situation. If one party believes that he will be received well and expects a positive outcome, then his manner, non-verbal messages and behaviors are much more likely to create that positive outcome. If he expects to be received poorly he will be on guard, which will be reflected in his behavior. Conversations will be more cautious and suspicious and the outcome is much more likely to be a poor one. Expectations significantly impact results. This is the pygmalion effect in action. Pessimists are much more likely to create negative outcomes. Optimists generally produce better outcomes.

Locus of Control

More than fifty years ago a researcher by the name of Julian Rotter validated a construct called “locus of control.” Everyone has a personal view of their locus – or center – of control. Some people believe that their locus of control is internal. They believe that they can control or influence their lives. Others have an external locus of control. They believe that the things that happen to them are a result of fate or luck.

Those with an external locus of control believe that they are relatively powerless…so they don’t try very hard to influence others or to achieve their desires. As a result they tend to achieve less and are less satisfied with what they have. Those with an internal locus of control believe that they can influence the outcomes that affect their lives. Therefore, they set more rigorous goals for themselves, work harder to achieve those goals despite difficulties they encounter along the way, and achieve greater success. They also experience greater personal happiness and are more satisfied with what they do or do not have.

Internals are optimistic about the future…they believe they can create it। Externals are pessimistic about the future…they believe that things will happen to them beyond their control. Both are right. Both create their own reality.

Creating the Future

During difficult times it is easy to listen to those predicting economic doom. This leads to increased personal anxiety and stress. Stress reduces effectiveness and impairs judgment. Conversely, walking around with rose colored glasses and blind hope in the midst of crisis is similarly ineffective. Both behaviors have a negative impact in the business environment. Pessimists will drive a protective outcome which works against growth. It’s very hard to shrink a company into prosperity. Pollyannas, on the other hand, do not appraise dangers in the external world realistically. Their companies often fall prey to marketplace changes, shifts in customer perceptions or competitive forces.

The most effective leaders are optimists. They first seek to fully understand their current reality so that they can work effectively within it. Once that reality is understood those leaders set a positive course of action forward, focus positive energy on it, and achieve greater probability of success. A positive viewpoint – translated into meaningful action – is one of the hallmarks of effective future-focused leaders.

Dr Resnick is a regular columnist with the Jacksonville Business Journal. His column entitled “Leading Edge” discusses thought-provoking leadership issues. These articles are available in the Resources section of this website. Most recently, Dr. Resnick has published his newest book: “Energizing Human Performance.” This book may be purchased here.

Dr. Resnick may be contacted via email address at hal.resnick@worksystems.com

In 2009, Dr. Resnick entered into a strategic partnership with the University of North Florida, Division of Continuing Education. Through that relationship Dr. Resnick and UNF jointly offer a suite of Executive Development programs, including:

  • Leadership Development (Internal and Open Enrollment)
  • Individual Executive Assessment and Development
  • Executive Team Development
  • Executive Peer Roundtable
  • Customized Consulting Services

Further information regarding these programs may be attained through the following link:

http://www.ce.unf.edu/leadership.html

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