Are you an optimist or a pessimist?  What’s that got to do with Human Resources and management?  Surely it’s just how you are…

Actually, whether you view the world as an optimist or a pessimist does have an impact on your business life and on those around you.  Martin Seligman introduced the concept of Positive Psychology after his research showed that salesmen delivered better results if they were optimistic by nature, compared to those who were pessimistic, although in some cases better qualified and more experienced.  Natural optimists had a better record of success in recruitment than applicants who were naturally pessimistic.

Psychology traditionally deals with what is going wrong.  It aims to move a person from a position of say -6 to -2.  To make them less ill or less stressed or less anxious.  It had little involvement when people were well and how to make them more well; how to move them from +2 to +6.

Seligman and his colleagues have developed various tests (see to indicate a level of optimism or pessimism (and also a level of ‘authentic happiness’).  In brief summary, an optimist tends to blame bad events on external influences or people and credits good events to themselves.  A pessimist assumes good things are external (luck of the draw, good timing, chance) and bad things are their fault.  The more a person assumes such bad events are personal (it’s to do with me), pervasive (everywhere) and permanent (everytime), the greater their level of pessimism.

If optimism is worth pursuing from both a business and a personal point of view, can anything be done if your natural or learned state is pessimistic?  Seligman offers a simple but powerful ABCDE tool to help:-

A          Adversity: the situation, event, or personal encounter that is negative – “My manager told me off again – he said my performance was just not good enough.”

B          Belief: what you think about that event – “I’m never any good and he hates me.”

C         Consequences: how that makes you feel – “I’m useless and fed up.  Stuff this rotten job.  Next time I won’t even bother.”

D         Disputation: internal challenge based on evidence – “Hold on, I did that last project really well.  The CEO told me so directly.  Family issues meant I didn’t give this particular work enough effort and time.”

E          Energisation: a shift in focus and attitude – “Right, I’ll redo the presentation and manage my diary to give next month’s report the time it needs to be excellent.”

Using this tool or model can shift a downward vicious spiral to a more positive self-motivating virtuous cycle.  It also raises self-esteem and assertiveness.

At times, pessimism is good.  Some roles in an organisation are rightly pessimistic in the sense of considering the worst case scenario.  What if the funds don’t come in?  If the sales figures are 20% below forecast?  If we do have to make 10 people redundant?  Optimism is not an excuse for heads in the sand and poor planning.  Realism is necessary.  But optimism can be learned and harnessed to enable people to flourish in the workplace.  And if people flourish in the workplace, your organisation is more likely to be successful.  Realistically not just optimistically.

Ref: Seligman, M (2006).  Learned Optimism.  Vintage Books.  ISBN-10: 1400078393

3D HR Bookstore

 Creative Commons License
This work by Peter Kenworthy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Scroll to top