While there are scores of motivational speakers in the management community dedicated to turning people’s frowns upside down, new research shows that this zeal for positivity has its drawbacks.
In a study of 1,600 participants in the British Household Panel Survey – a national wellbeing gauge launched almost three decades ago – scientists at the University of Bath tracked people’s life expectations and actual outcomes over 18 years. According to their findings, overestimating success is detrimental to wellbeing, compared to setting realistic goals. (Fast Company, 10 July 2020)
In the team’s assessment, while positive thinking frames optimism as a self-fulfilling prophecy, decisions based upon accurate, unbiased data will always lead to greater satisfaction.
The team pointed out that pessimists also fare badly compared to realists – however, numbers on that end of the spectrum are relatively sparse, because around 80% of the UK population can be classed as ‘unrealistic optimists’.
University of Bath School of Management associate professor Dr Chris Dawson said: “Plans based on inaccurate beliefs make for poor decisions and are bound to deliver worse outcomes than would rational, realistic beliefs, leading to lower wellbeing for both optimists and pessimists. Particularly prone to this are decisions on employment, savings and any choice involving risk and uncertainty.” (Science Daily, 7 July 2020)
For study co-author David de Mesa of the London School of Economics, the findings have particular resonance for personal behaviours amid the current health crisis. “Optimists will see themselves as less susceptible to the risk of Covid-19 than others,” he said, “and are therefore less likely to take appropriate precautionary measures. Pessimists, on the other hand, may be tempted to never leave their houses or send their children to school again. Neither strategy seems like a suitable recipe for wellbeing. Realists take measured risks based on our scientific understanding of the disease.”
Dawson added: “I think for many people, research that shows you don’t have to spend your days striving to think positively might come as a relief. We see that being realistic about your future and making sound decisions based on evidence can bring a sense of wellbeing, without having to immerse yourself in relentless positivity.”
Should leaders embrace that sense of relief – or is there still plenty of room for bullish confidence and optimism stemming from attitude, rather than evidence?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “This is all about the pros and cons of a ‘growth mindset’. It reminds me of a conversation I had last summer with a rugby sevens player, who told me that while she may not have the most natural ability, nobody could work harder than her, because that was her choice. And that’s one approach to life that muddles the debate around the growth mindset: is it just an attitude, or are there lots of other factors that contribute to it?”
She notes: “A couple of years ago, Marc Effron of the Total Strategy Group argued that advocating for the growth mindset was appropriate only when we’re speaking to children [ThePeopleSpace.com, 19 September 2018]. And even Carol Dweck, who originated the term, now recognises that no one has a 100% growth mindset the entire time.
“What has always concerned me about this disposition – whether you call it a positive attitude, a growth mindset or plain old resilience – is that it somehow locates responsibility for dealing with adversity solely with the individual. However, let’s think about the rugby player I spoke to: of course, we can always work harder – but the environments, situations and processes in our organisations can be set up in ways that make things harder for us.”
Cooper argues: “When we are faced with those difficulties, by all means we can call on our resilience. But wouldn’t it make far more sense for organisations to make processes easier for people, to ensure they can perform at their best? There are always two or more ways to look at situations. So encourage staff to reframe their experiences through critical thinking. Encourage them to use data, and to be challenging in the questions they ask of those around them.”
She adds: “It’s not an attitude that delivers success – it’s the actions that go with that attitude. And if we go back once again to my rugby player friend who said that no one could work harder than her: yes, we could call that an attitude. But we could also call it industry.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on resilience.