Keep Optimism Realistic

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Why should you, the leader, be realistically optimistic?

Being realistically optimistic is different from being “Pollyanna optimistic”—where you make promises you can’t keep.

Admiral James Stockdale, in his book about the Vietnam War, had this great quote: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end, which you can never afford to lose, with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

What Stockdale described was people after the war who had aftershocks from the stress they had endured; the ones to die in captivity soonest were the ones who said, “We’ll be free by Christmas,” or, “We’ll be free by summer.”

It’s all about expectations. Once they set that expectation in their mind, the only reality they would accept is the one they had imagined. And, when it did not happen, it would cause depression and dejection.

Stockdale advocated that you need to have realistic expectations and be optimistic— but with realism intact.

Here are three tips to allow you to be both optimistic and realistic:

Number one is to be realistic about the challenges you face. A lot of leaders and managers try to sugarcoat the challenges in the organization or department. By doing that, you are not giving people the full truth of the situation. They can’t feel the gravity of what they are dealing with. Don’t sugarcoat it. Tell it straight like it is so people know the hurdles they need to overcome.

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Secondly, avoid making a promise you can’t keep. When you tell everybody there won’t be any further cutbacks—when you know that’s a foreseeable possibility—it will only erode the trust and respect of your team down the road. Why not make promises you can keep? Say something like, “Guys, this is the situation we have, and it’s stable for the next couple of weeks. When things change, I’m going to let you know as they happen.” 

Smiling manual worker in blue helmet with digital tablet and gesture thumb upThe third tip is to acknowledge progress. Sometimes, when you are going through a very difficult challenge, your team feels “over-overworked”. In other words, they are working too hard, or, maybe they are dealing with a resource cutback for cost-saving purposes. Either way, what you want to do is acknowledge the progress they are making in digging themselves out of the hole they are in.

It is better to celebrate little improvements than focus on the pit they just came out of. Always dial in on the realistic and truthful gains they are making as they go along. Seeing some of that progress, even when it is small, can help build hope for the future.

All in all, you, as a leader, need to embrace this realistic optimism because your team needs to know there is hope that things will get better in the future. Find a way to do this without making promises that will end up causing them to become dejected down the road.