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.