November 2, 2008

Staying Optimistic in Troubling Times – Emotions and Performance

It’s difficult to avoid all the negative news right now – the economy, nasty politics, international threats, organizational failures, and many disappointments with our business and government’s leadership. I know of no one not touched in some way by all this.

During times of such stress and uncertainty, it is more important than ever to manage your emotions, your attitude and your focus. It is too easy to get caught up in the cultural drift of fear-based thinking and speaking. If you do, you risk becoming less effective and your business will be in even greater danger.

Tom Peters, during the 1980’s recession, said, “Sales people make 25% less phone calls during an economic downturn.” It was the sales person’s emotional reaction to the economic news which led to less activity and therefore lowers sales. The sales reduction was not caused by the recession itself.

We cannot control the outside market condition, but we can control our own ability to be proactive, as Dr. Stephen Covey, famed author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, taught us. With this in mind, our focus this month is on the emotional intelligence competency that fuels one’s ability to be proactive, and that is Optimism, the ability to look at the brighter side of life and to maintain a positive attitude, even in the face of adversity. Optimism assumes a measure of hope in one’s approach to life. It is a positive approach to daily living.

Psychologist Martin Seligman, in his classic book, Learned Optimism, offers a useful look at how our negative thoughts feed our emotions in a stressful situation. Using the acronym ABC:

A is for Adversity – trouble hits.

B is for Belief – you start explaining to yourself why this is happening – this tends to be negative, and often inaccurate. For many of us, when something bad happens, our pessimistic explanatory style tends to pick the worst possible reason for our worry. Our inner voice tells us that we are a failure and we’ll always be a failure. Psychologists call it “awful-izing,” an over-reaction that puts you in an emotional spin.

C is for Consequence – you are impacted by these negative beliefs and you feel stressed, anxious, scared, hopeless, and depressed. As your emotional response system kicks in, you are not able to think clearly or realistically and you are immobilized. Buying into these beliefs leaves you vulnerable to the ups and downs of life, and ill-equipped to generate powerful responses to inevitable leadership challenges. Developing your ability to be optimistic is a way to stay centered and in control.

Caution: many people are naturally predisposed to optimism, and as in any strength, it can be over-used. This can lead to less than proactive behavior when a leader ignores danger and is too “Polly-Anna,” or out of touch, only to be blind-sided, exposed and unprepared. Optimism must be balanced with another Emotional Intelligence competency, called, Reality Testing. Reality Testing is the ability to assess the correspondence between what is experienced and what objectively exists. In simple terms, it is the ability to accurately “size up” the immediate situation, without taking it personally.

You can use the ABC method to see things as they really are. Then you are ready to fight back, adding D and E.

D is for Disputation - all beliefs are subject to question. When we dispute our assumptions, often formed in childhood, we usually find they are unfounded. Challenge your own automatic and habitual beliefs and look for alternative explanations.

E is for Energization - you observe and nurture the energy that arises naturally when you throw out your negative assumptions and start to follow a new course.

Check my next post for an application idea for staying optimistic.

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