Optimism in the workplace

Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, Senior Vice President of Engagement Solutions
Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, Senior Vice President of Engagement Solutions

When I was in my 20's, I started wearing glasses. This wasn't such a bad thing because I figured my eyeglass frames would be one more way in which I could express my personality. And so I chose opaque pink (yes, pink) frames. My friends and family weren't surprised. When seeing me for the first time in my new glasses, invariably the comment was something like, “Yup, not surprised! You look at life through rose-colored glasses!”

I took this as a compliment because I believe that optimism and positivity are good things. And guess what? Research has proven me right! (I love it when I'm right!) Many studies have repeatedly shown that people with an optimistic perspective enjoy many personal benefits including:

  • better mental health
  • better physical health
  • greater resilience
  • healthier relationships
  • And my personal favorite, optimists age better!
Some of you may be thinking that optimism is just unrealistic thinking and naivety, especially given the uncertain world of health care and the vexing challenges we face.While it's true that blind optimism could result in overconfidence and might make us miss or deny information that would otherwise help us make good decisions, healthy optimism is good for us, and good for the people who work with us.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not a Pollyanna. I do have a realistic side to me. There are times when a dose of pessimism is a good thing. For example, when you're considering a strategy or action that is high risk, you want to make sure you've thought through the potential vulnerabilities or downsides of the action. The “devil's advocate” role can raise a mirror to weaknesses and susceptibilities and allow you to examine the potential negative consequences of a decision.

The danger comes when one adopts pessimism as their primary mental model and establishes a habit of viewing everything through a negative lens. Pessimism can result in low energy and feelings of indifference. A perpetual pessimistic perspective can negatively impact your health. It also negatively impacts your employees and your work environment because pessimism is contagious. When a manager displays apathy, speaks in a defeatist manner, engages in blaming or fault-finding, embellishes problems or continually focuses on obstacles, these behaviors can cause others to quickly follow suit. These behaviors are destructive to morale and productivity and ultimately impact employee engagement.

While there is no direct correlation between a manager's optimism and the engagement of his/her employees (at least that I'm aware of), there is an indirect connection. Research from the University of Pennsylvania tells us that a manager's optimism is directly correlated with his/her own feelings of engagement. The more optimistic the manager, the more engaged in his/her job. And here's the impact on employees: A manager's level of engagement directly correlates with their employees' level of engagement. Gallup calls this the “cascade effect”. In the report, “State of the American Manager”, Gallup reports that “…employees who are supervised by highly engaged managers are 59% more likely to be engaged than those supervised by actively disengaged managers.”

So an optimistic manager tends to be more engaged, and a more engaged manager tends to have more engaged employees.

I'm not suggesting that a manager has to be happy and cheerful all the time! I'm just acknowledging that the energy we project impacts others and, as such, it behooves us to be self-aware of our mood and our mindset as we interact with employees.

Some of the best advice I ever received was from a seasoned administrator who always conveyed a bright outlook and a balanced approach in everything he did. He explained that his secret to staying sane in the midst of trying times revolved around three tenets. Allow me to pass along what I learned from him and expand on his words of wisdom.

Manage your emotions.

Maintain self-awareness about what you're feeling and use that awareness to actively choose what you say and do. As a leader, you don't have the luxury of allowing your moods to control your behaviors. Self-awareness and self-management are emotional intelligence skills that are basic to effective leadership.

Pay attention to the language you use.

Words are powerful. Your words provide insight into what you think about your workplace and how you feel about your work and the work of your employees. Your words have the ability to inspire and motivate, or discourage and deflate. Become aware of the words you use. Do they convey appreciation and enthusiasm? Do they project confidence and tenacity? Do they promote hope and courage? Once you're aware of your language, you can start choosing words that leave you feeling good and leave others feeling good about working with you.

Control what you can control and let go what you can't.

Our brain has a deep need to feel a sense of control. It's wired with a desire to predict what will happen in the future and it aims to avoid uncertainty. So when things feel out of control, ambiguous or chaotic, it's easy to become stressed and negative. The antidote is to focus on controlling what you can control and letting go what you can't. When you recognize, acknowledge and act on those things that are within your control, you gain a sense of personal power that promotes a feeling of well-being and optimism.

In today's healthcare environment, wrought with challenges of labor shortages, financial uncertainties and regulatory pressures, managers and employees need optimism and hope more than ever. Conveying optimism promotes confidence, courage, and resilience in your work environment. You can consciously use optimism to benefit a positive environment and a thriving workplace.

"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."

- Winston Churchill

Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, is the SVP of Engagement Solutions for Align. In her role, she provides strategic leadership and supports development of solutions to help providers successfully build and sustain a culture of engagement.



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