This week at work we had an hour long session with Tim Sharp from the Happiness Institute.
He was talking about the power of optimism, and why optimism is not just positive thinking, but is about focusing on the positives, on those things you have control over, and just getting on with things. He talked about the way in which optimism and pessimism can show up in how you deal with challenges.
If you think about these three dichotomies:
- temporary vs permanent
- specific vs global
- external vs internal
Optimists will tend to look on the left hand side of these things, while pessimists to the right (this terrible challenge is going to last forever, it is going to affect my whole life, and it is entirely my fault). You can move your dial towards optimism by trying to move each of these thoughts towards the left, for any particular challenge or issue you are facing.
At first glance, a speech about how to make yourself happier and more optimistic does not seem to be particularly relevant to an all day leadership session. But it reminded me that managing people is, largely a subset of managing relationships. I’ve found management and leadership advice in many places beyond the traditional.
Fundamentally, if you think of yourself as intrinsically smart, or good at sport, or good at any particular characteristic, then putting effort into training or improving whatever it is will imply that you aren’t particularly good at it in the first place. But if you think of that characteristic as something that you can improve with effort, then you are likely to get much better at it.
In the workplace, we can help people improve any particular skill by recognising the effort they put into something, rather than just the outcome. Doing that will help move their mindset towards growth, away from assuming that they can’t get better at a particular skill.
I came across the topic of Flow, in the workplace, but most of the time if you read about it, it is in the context of sport or music. Flow is described in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as:
“We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like….. moments like these are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Thinking about how best to help people achieve flow at work leads to thinking about people as individuals who find mastery and satisfaction in quite different areas – some by analysing data, some by solving a programming problem, and some by explaining concepts to others.
Pink’s view is that people want to believe that they are fairly rewarded. But the more specific the goals and rewards you give them, the less intrinsically motivated they will be. If you are looking for effective long term performance, creativity, and people who learn and improve, highly specific goals and rewards related to those goals will probably be counterproductive.
A more left field source of great management concepts was a blog I found following a comment from a bluemilk , one of my favourite feminist blogs. Wandering Scientist is written by a scientist project manager, about many topics, including motherhood, feminism, and management. My favourite concept of hers is one I’ve been using a bit at work lately – work limits.
Not only does trying to spend more hours working lead me to start wasting time reading blogs and stupid news stories rather than actually working, but at some point, putting in more hours actually leads me to produce less actual work.
While it is possible for a short period of time to go beyond my own maximum, if I start doing that for more than a few weeks, my productivity and quality starts suffering, so it is definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Wandering scientist also points out something I’ve always thought about – the similarity between parenting and business management:
And apparently, I am not the only one who sees the similarity between parenting and project management. So you could also read some parenting books… And all joking aside, I think Faber and Mazlish’s classic Siblings Without Rivalry is one of the most useful management books I’ve ever read. Replace “siblings” with “team members” and you’re good to go!
So back to the story that started this post. Why does optimism matter for leadership? This study from Gallop links optimism and better leadership:
Optimistic managers are more likely to be engaged managers who are more likely to engage employees; engaged employees, in turn, are more optimistic and productive than disengaged employees, and their increased productivity increases profitability.
Think laterally and read widely when thinking about management and leadership. There is some great stuff out there. And if you’re a parent, you might find it just as relevant to your parenting.