Optimism & Performance – Part 1

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a bad performance review? I have.

During my days as a junior trader for a large Multi-national bank, a new manager, who wanted to stir things up, decided that everyone in the department should be given a failing grade on their performance review. He took a hammer where a fine chisel was needed and necessary.

The manager’s intentions were good, but his methods lacked a clear understanding of how to motivate change. Being told that you are worthless makes for good entertainment, but bad management.

According to Martin E.P. Seligman, the father of positive psychology, the key to immunizing an employee against helplessness, depression, anxiety and giving up after failure is optimism.

Optimism is a pattern of thinking about oneself and the world. It’s exemplified in the dispositional attitude to expect the most favorable outcomes or an optimistic bias that more good and fewer bad things will occur. The classical question used to separate optimist from pessimist is: “Is the glass half-full or half-empty?”

tumblr_lhtnv4tAy21qe7vz2o1_500-150x150We all have the ability to use social and cognitive filters to interpret and position past experiences into a more favorable future outlook. Ideally, the future outlook is framed within the boundaries of reasonableness.

Two researchers, Scheier & Carver (1992) found that people with low levels of optimism, or high pessimism tend to cope with distress by disengaging from social situations (avoidance) and denial. Two other researchers, Carver & Gaines (1987) found that persons high in optimism were more likely to engage in efforts to manage the issues causing stress.

An employee’s performance is a function of an appropriate business process and employee attitude. Therefore, if you are looking to bring about a change in performance, then as a manager you should consider tapping into the mediating benefits of optimism.

In my next post, I’ll speak to how one should integrate optimism into the performance review process.



Carver, C.s., & Gaines, J.G. (1987). Optimism, pessimism and postpartum depression. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 11, 449-462.

Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C.S. (1992). Effects of optimism on psychological and physical well-being: Theoretical overview and empirical update. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 16(2), 201-228.

Strength based approach to improving performance

The field of positive psychology brings fresh insight into motivating poor performance. A strength based approach to coaching towards improved leadership performance seeks to find a balance between focusing on what is wrong and what is right.

A strength based approach begins with the core competencies of the leadership coach. There are 7 core competencies for using a strength based approach.

Core competencies:

  1. social connectedness – the ability to build rapport with others
  2. managing ambiguity – mindfulness in weighing pros and cons of actions
  3. adaptability – willingness to learn from mistakes
  4. agency & responsibility – thoughtful in exercising a positive influence on others and a willingness to partner to face challenges
  5. moral directedness – respectful of others and self
  6. strength-based aptitude – optimism about the future
  7. emotional competence – awareness of one’s own feeling and can express them in a positive way

Poor performers tend to fall into 2 stages. In the first stage, poor performers deny any control over the issue or focus on mitigating factors. Individuals in stage 1 tend to blame others or the system for their performance. In the second stage, poor performers have acknowledged what they have done or have accepted responsibility for outcomes. A strength based approach is a viable option in both stages.


  1. Poor leadership is injurious to the rank-and-file
  2. Everyone has strengths, regardless of current and past performance
  3. The key to ending negative behavior is tapping into the person’s strengths
  4. All environments have positive resources
  5. Performance Interventions (PIs) are not an extension of punishment, but an opportunity for positive change
  6. Positive working and mindful relationships produce promising outcomes
  7. No one method of intervention will improve performance for all people

Use of a strength-based approach is neither about pretending that poor performance is okay, nor ignoring areas of weakness. It’s about focusing performance intervention so that the individual can discover, enhance, build, grow capacities, and achieve their goals.

Handling Bad Behavior – Roi Ben-Yehuda

There is real truth to the statement: It’s not what you say, but how you say it that matters. Let’s explore the key factor that can cause us to say it the wrong way.

Recently, there was coverage of  some bad behavior in  a quiet car of an Amtrack train. The individual refused to stop talking loudly on her

cell-phone. She was ejected from the car by the police and charged. Approaching people who are violating a rule in a public space can be dangerous to your health.7-26_amtrack2-150x150

Roi Ben-Yehuda, a graduate student at Columbia University and a Ph.D student at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, writes the following in his blog Roi Word:

Of course, like in any conflict, much depends not only on the type of person you confronts, but also on the way in which you communicates your message. Often, people’s default assumption is that the passenger in question is arrogant as opposed to ignorant. Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error, which refers to our tendency to explain other people’s perceived negative behavior as derived from their personalities rather than the situation. As a result, the message of the annoyed passenger often comes out with a lot more aggression than intended. This is conveyed through word content, tone of voice and body language. In response, the offending passenger – who is almost always ignorant as opposed to arrogant, and who may under other circumstances simply say “I’m sorry” and change their behavior – will act defensively and respond in an aggressive manner.

The key to tackling bad behavior is to manage the story your telling yourself about the behavior. As Roi rightly points out, we tend to attribute other people’s negative behavior to their personality. I prefer to say, we make the person into a villain.

Roi suggest the following tactic:

Always assume the transgressor is ignorant, not arrogant. This way you won’t feel wronged and can communicate your message with less contempt and hostility. Remember that the problem lies not only in the noise itself, but also in the story you have attached to the noise.

They key is managing your attitude or the story you have attached to the event.  Manage your attitude and you’ll say the write way. Now the ball is in the other person’s court. If they freak-out, decompress, don’t take it personally, and use the contrasting method. Tell what you didn’t intend and then tell them what your intentions were. For example, “I didn’t intend to be a wet blanket, I just wanted to give you some information.”