Optimism 101: How To Lead In Times of Change

April 14, 2016 Sarah Payne

Optimists don’t just see the world through rose-colored glasses. They are a key piece of the fabric that helps our organizations and businesses run more smoothly.

According to positive psychologist Martin Seligman, “pessimists tend to give up more easily, feel depressed more often, and have poorer health than optimists. Optimists, on the other hand, generally do better in school, work, and extracurricular activities. They also often perform better than predicted on aptitude tests, are more likely to win elections when they run for office, have better overall health, and may even live longer.”

Who wouldn’t want more of that kind of person on their team?

There’s also research that shows it pays to be optimistic, especially for managers. Margaret Greenberg and Dana Arakawa from the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study on more than 100 IT professionals at The Hanover Insurance Group. They found that:

“Optimistic managers are more likely to be engaged managers who are more likely to engage employees; engaged employees, in turn, are more optimistic and productive than disengaged employees, and their increased productivity increases profitability.”

This cycle of optimism, engagement, and productivity is what propels businesses forward, especially during times of change and uncertainty.

This is also an idea we explore in a Workhuman research report, which finds that: “Employees’ attitudes towards change and optimism for the future correlate with recognition efforts to build a more human workplace.”

Survey respondents were first asked: “When things are changing at your company, how do you most often feel?” Here are the results:

Chart of all respondents attitude towards change

Interestingly, a slight majority of respondents are optimistic, with 62% of workers saying they are confident or excited about change. 42% of workers are more pessimistic, either hostile or nervous about change.

We then looked at whether receiving recognition impacts employees’ optimism. The simple answer is yes; recognition is strongly linked to a positive outlook about company changes. As you can see below, workers who have been recognized in the last month are more than two times as likely to be excited or happy about change.

Chart of respondents attitude towards change when recognized

The also means that the reverse is true. People who have never been recognized at work are nearly two times as likely to report being nervous or afraid of change.

How can we as leaders encourage more positivity and optimism at work? Here are 4 key findings to use as a guide:

  1. Workers who agree their company is open and transparent are nearly 4x more likely to be excited about change.
  2. Workers who feel their voice matters are also 4x more likely to be excited about change.
  3. On the other hand, when workers don’t feel their company cares about them as a person, they’re nearly 2x as likely to be hostile or resistant toward change.
  4. When they don’t believe leaders care about a human workplace, workers are more than 2x as likely to be hostile or resistant toward change.

The survey also shows that when workers are excited about change, they are:

  • More than 2x as likely to be highly engaged
  • 40% more likely to believe their organization is a best place to work
  • 38% more likely to recommend their company to a friend
  • 25% more motivated to work hard for their company

What are you doing to encourage optimism at your company? Share what’s worked for you in the comments. And stay tuned for our next post in this series, which delves into the data on how trust can benefit your culture.


Self-Efficacy, Optimism, Resilience, and Hope

Trauma Triage: How to Help Your Culture Survive a Merger

The Evolution of Workplace Psychology

9 (Proven) Ways to Influence Work Culture

6 Surprising Data Points About Recognition

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