An employee’s performance is a function of the business process and employee attitude. Therefore, if you are looking to bring about a change in performance apart from a process change, as a leader, you should consider tapping into the mediating benefits of optimism.
Optimism is a general sense of confidence or lack of doubt. It 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.
Although research suggest that optimism is stable over time, optimist and pessimist are not distinct groupings. People fall in a range from very optimistic to very pessimistic and levels of both vary with time and situation for all of us. I might be optimistic about my career potential after graduating from college and with time and with incremental life changes (marriage and divorce) become pessimistic. Research on depression suggest that the journey from optimist to pessimist depends on a persons explanatory style.
How an employee chooses to explain or view the cause of events in the past will affect their level of optimism and motivation to persist.
An employee who believes the forces that cause an event to be stable will expect bad outcomes. However, if they believe the cause of an event to be unstable, then their outlook may be more optimistic.
In addition to the nature of the forces driving an event, an individual’s expectation is affected by their view of the magnitude or scope of past failures. For example, an individual might view their poor interpersonal ability as being part and parcel of their personality (global scope) or as a result of perceived insults (specific).
Two researchers, Carver and Scheirer, suggest that if we can identify specific reasons for past failures our outlook for the future will be brighter.
In general, the typical pessimistic explanatory style for bad outcomes are as follows:
1. forces are stable and the scope is specific (quadrant 3)
“I don’t have the ability to be patient on the phone.”
2. forces are unstable and the scope is global (quadrant 2) –
“I do this all the time”
Because an employee’s performance is a function of the business process and their attitude, in bringing about a change in performance one should engage the mediating benefits of optimism.
For example an employee might be atrocious in the area of customer service. High need customers invariably leave their presence in tears. Before negotiating a change in behavioral skills, first deal with the cognitive component.
The key to tapping into optimism is to help the employee interpret the cause or causes in terms of the characteristics of quadrant 4 of the explanatory model. In quadrant 4, forces are unstable and the scope is specific. Quadrant 4 represents the optimistic explanatory style.
Research suggest that people who attribute setbacks to stable and global factors are more likely to experience pessimism and helplessness following a negative event. After some discussion with the the individual, you discover that the employee’s eplanatory style falls into quadrant 1, stable forces with a global scope.
A stable and global explanation for poor customer service might be: “It’s just me. I can’t suffer fools. I become abrupt and shut people down.”
During a performance review, be prepared to identify negative interpretations and evaluate these interpretations by thoughtfully considering alternatives and evidence that falls within quadrant 4. From our example, perhaps poor customer service has nothing to do with the employee’s self- identified trait of impatience with people, but when information has to be repeated twice. The scope is now specific.
The next step would involve exploring the forces that lead to information having to be repeated twice, such as speech rate, the lack of wait time, or improper “chunking” of information. The forces are now unstable and malleable.
In the heat of the moment a seemingly catastrophic setback or really bad performance is often, with some thoughtful deliberation, affected by factors that are changeable or transient.
Now that you’ve dealt with the cognitive component, the stage is set for exploring behavioral skills such as relaxation, assertiveness, or breaking large pieces of information into manageable chunks for improved communication with customers.
By shifting the scope and forces to specific and unstable cuases, we have set the condition for optimism to mediate a boost in motivation to perform.
Carver, Charles S., Scheier, Michael (2003). Positive psychological assessment: A handbook of models and measures. Lopez, Shane J. (Ed.); Snyder, C. R. (Ed.); Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, pp. 75-89.