My Favorite Attitude

Attitudes at work are simply personal orientations toward a particular person or thing. But some are bigger than others. (By “bigger” I am specifically referring to attitudes at work and their corresponding behavioral impact. This may be different from other characteristics of attitudes at work that could be considered “big” (i.e., more emotional, more common, more difficult to elicit, etc.) One in particular has reigned as my favorite attitude much longer than most “favorites” (i.e., food, song, place, etc.).


Why Optimism?

For one, it’s a very strong predictor.

Optimism is a near pre-requisite for achievement. And the opposite is also true. To state it bluntly,

I’ve never met a pessimistic over achiever.


If you don’t believe you can do something, you probably won’t. “Can/Can’t” becomes irrelevant in a situation where you won’t do something. Regardless of what you could (or can) do, what you would (or will to) do is much more predictive of success.

Very good research has shown that what one person can do under pressure (called “maximum performance”) is actually not that predictive of what they will do in general (called “typical performance”).

One of my all-time favorite studies looked at the performance of store cashiers under conditions where they were instructed to do their best and aware that their performance was being measured versus situations when they thought no one was looking. But someone was, and the correlation between maximum and typical performance was very small. In other words, what they were capable of doing was virtually unrelated to what they would do any given time.

Secondly, optimism is VERY hard to change.

As part of my job when serving as an executive coach, they’re a lot of attitudes I work to change in others. From critically low self-esteem to rampantly effusive narcissism, I’ve coached ‘em all. But the one attitude I’ve had real trouble changing is pessimism. (Note: Here I am referring to the challenge of eliminating, or reversing, pessimism. I do routinely influence pessimism in ways that actually make it improve performance.) In fact, I probably would have a hard time changing optimism as well (but I certainly do manage expectations), but rarely do I find this to be a singular setback. It’s only when optimism is combined with unsupportive, or even destructive secondary traits that it becomes a problem. Think of the person who absolutely believes they will become a rocket-scientist, but who also has no ability to perform moderately challenging math. They won’t go far. But if I were to coach this individual, what do you think I’d have more success with: coaching them out of their pipe dream, or coaching them into stronger numerical reasoning?

Thirdly, optimism can be highly contagious!

It’s said that “leaders cast a long shadow.” This metaphor is frequently used to describe the behavioral impact that leaders have on others — particularly their reports, but also their peers or even those higher up in the organization hierarchy. In fact, you don’t have to be a leader to render the benefit (or detriment) of “walking the talk.” People model others’ behavior and this is particularly true for optimism. (This is why sitcoms often include “laugh tracks.”) If you want to improve the attitude of your team, you might want to start with your own.


Think about what most interviews assess.

That’s right, “can do,” or “maximum performance.” Unfortunately, the much more predictive performance dimension is “will do,” or “typical performance.” But this is seldom covered in an interview because both the interviewer and the interviewee are 100% focused on maximum performance. In fact, it’s very difficult to assess “will do,” because it is so frequently affected by what the candidate wants to show off: their “can do.”

Just as important, hiring for things that are very hard to change is a bad idea. You know the saying:

Hire for attitude, train for skill.

Well, it can’t be more true in the case of optimism.

Because optimism is such a powerful and steady predictor of success — even promotions –, and it’s opposite in defeat and career derailment, it takes the cake as my favorite attitude. This is the one I’d choose to maintain if all other attitudes, or even capabilities were stripped from my personal tool belt.

Parting Advice

So use more “Yeses” than “Nos” in your daily speech. Think of the good that could be if we only would give it a chance.

It really matters.

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

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