Overly-optimistic leaders can damage organisational and team culture. How?
The solution is not to become less optimistic and more pessimistic, but to show positive realism.
This lies somewhere on the spectrum between optimism and pessimism. It represents the balance between keeping your team engaged and motivated and recognising obstacles and frustrations.
But how does it work? And what actions should you take?
In every time period, in every place, the road to success is long and winding. There are setbacks. There are twists and turns. There are tough times. There are easy times.
But you have to keep walking. And whether you do actually keep on walking depends on your expectations.
If you’re expecting a difficult, winding journey with a worthwhile prize at the end, your resolve won’t waiver. If you’re expecting an easy, air-conditioned walk down a straight road, it probably will.
The leader’s job is to set accurate expectations: what will life be like on this road? What speed will you be walking? When will you rest up and when will you march on?
The answers to these questions may change over time. But everyone needs to be going in the same direction, with their eyes on the prize.
If you can set accurate expectations and paint a vivid picture of the road ahead, you’ve won half the battle. Everyone will be united in what’s to come.
And that is a superb foundation for a strong, healthy and progressive culture.
Once you’ve set expectations, you need to deliver on them. That’s the next step to inject your culture with positive realism.
Positive realism at work demands leaders to orient people
The road is long and winding and it’s not always clear which part you’re on.
Are you facing forwards? Or in one of those long bends back that never seem to end?
The uncertainty can be destabilising. And leaders – who naturally have more information available to them from their bird’s-eye view of the road – need to help the team pinpoint their location.
If things are hard, say they’re hard. If you’re one step backwards and have another three to go, say that.
Be clear. Be honest. Be accurate.
But most importantly, always spell out your plan of action for getting back to – or staying on – the right part of the road.
Positive realism at work demands leaders to have confidence in their direction
Teams will follow you backwards along the road if they believe you’re ultimately leading them in the right direction, back towards the right path.
But you have a problem if they lose confidence in the direction they’re traveling. These doubts can spread and quickly snowball, undermining the morale and motivation underpinning your culture.
But confidence isn’t enough. Confidence with excessive optimism leads people to cynicism.
This is why you need to combine confidence with realism. Confidence and realism and a plan of action equals positive realism.
Positive realism at work demands leaders to have a strong vision
The reward must be worth the journey. Storytellers instinctively know this: leaders need to catch up.
Since positive realism is about honesty tempered with positivity, this is very important. People want to feel that, however hard it gets, the prize is worth it.
But vision and reward are rarely self-sustaining flames, keeping people warm inside (although some people are of course better at self-motivating).
You must prioritise building the story of the goal and the vision, bringing it to life and always making sure that people have this in their mind’s eye, no matter which part of the road they’re on.
Culture is, after all, collective emotion and intelligence. Having a binding, collective vision that everyone is working towards is therefore essential to a strong culture.
Positive realism at work demands leaders to make it attractive
When cynics feel empowered, your culture is in trouble. This is because they feel like they’re saying what everyone else is thinking.
But cynicism doesn’t make people feel good. It eats cultures alive and undermines people’s professional and personal development.
Leaders must, therefore, always be promoting the benefits of positive realism and the tools and techniques that everyone can use to contribute: honest appraisal, giving feedback, constructive criticism, relationship-building and mentoring.
The more you help people see why being positive and forward-thinking is desirable and give them the tools to contribute directly, the more you remove power from cynics to undermine culture.
And the more that everyone wants to get on with the journey and achieve the prize at the end.
Check out more important leadership behaviours that improve wellbeing for the whole team.