18 Feb 2016

Why Realistic Optimism Helps to Build Confidence in Ourselves and Others.


There are many studies on our tendency toward either optimism or pessimism. The good news is that optimism is a mind-set and practice that can be learned and developed. I’m not talking about developing a Pollyanna-like positive view of the world, but rather an approach that is realistically optimistic and based in the belief that we are often able to shape the outcome in any given situation. I define realistic optimism as “the belief in our ability to make a difference in what we do and how we do it.” Positive expectation lies at the heart of realistic optimism.

Let me give you a practical example; when I’m working with a group, I think it’s really important to learn the names of the individuals within the group before the session begins. Sometimes that means that I have to memorise forty or fifty names within a short period of time. When I start asking questions (by name) within the first few minutes of a session, I can see the delegates are surprised (yes – and sometimes a little freaked out!). By the end of the session someone always asks me how I manage to remember so many names – and then the rest of the delegates nod in approval at the question. Before sharing my secret, I ask those in the group whether they believe that they are able to remember more than, say, five or six names at one time. If I’m lucky, one or two hands will go up. If they don’t believe they can do it, then they simply won’t be able to. In the words of Henry Ford; “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t-you’re right.”  We need to convert any negative expectation into a positive one, otherwise we’ll fall at the first hurdle; and that’s the first tip to remembering several names at once. The second tip is to be completely present, engaged with and genuinely interested in the people you are meeting. Then—and this is the third tip—when you learn their names, take a moment to create a recall mechanism. My recall mechanism is to think of someone I already know with that name and to visualize that person. If I happen to be meeting someone who has a name I’ve never encountered before, I might ask the person about it, then take time to picture the word written out or an object that the name reminds me of. Try it—but believe you can do it first!


“If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however, if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.” —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


We are capable of setting expectations in others (as well as ourselves) that will have an impact on the outcomes that they achieve. This is critically important for all of us to appreciate: those who are parents, mentors or leaders—in fact those fulfilling any role where influence of any kind might be exerted. The first psychologist to systematically study how teachers’ expectations of students impact the outcomes that those students achieve was Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal, who, in 1964, carried out an experiment at an elementary school south of San Francisco. The aim of his study was to identify what would happen if teachers were told that certain children in their classes were destined to succeed. Rosenthal took a normal IQ test and dressed it up, giving it the title ‘Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition’. He told the teachers that this very special test from Harvard had the ability to predict which children were about to experience a dramatic growth in their IQ. After the children took the test, he then chose at random several children from each class. There was nothing at all to distinguish these children from the others, but he told their teachers that the test predicted which children were on the verge of an intense intellectual bloom. As he followed the children over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers’ expectations of these kids really did affect the students. “If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ,” he said.

As Rosenthal did more research, he found that the expectations affected, in a thousand almost invisible ways, teachers’ moment-to-moment interactions with the children they taught. Teachers gave the students whom they expected to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback and more approval. They consistently touched, nodded and smiled at those children more than others.

As leaders, it’s important for us to be consciously aware of the role that our expectations of others will have on how we interact with them, and how that, in turn, will enable them to develop positive expectations of themselves and their relationship with us. Studies have shown that those with higher expectations will work harder to achieve a goal and will project themselves differently. Those people also take a different view of setbacks; they are determined to learn lessons so that they can approach a similar situation differently next time. These are all great reasons to develop the habit of realistic optimism (and even pessimists can do it!)