Certain questions have plagued the human race for centuries:
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
What is the possibility of life after death?
Is the glass half empty, or half full?
For project managers, the answer to that last question might be the difference between success and failure. How you view your work has impact on how well you and your team perform.
Researchers have yet to conclude whether optimism is learned or inherited, but media reports that regardless of how is it obtained, optimism contributes to better health and longer lives. Pessimists are up to eight times more likely to become depressed, they do worse at school, sports, and most jobs; they have worse physical health, live shorter live and have rockier relationships. Research shows that people with an optimistic life-view tend to outperform pessimists in all respects. In project management, these can translate to more positive outcomes, a happier team and successful careers.
Consider the following scenario.
Company XYZ recently announced to the employees that there will be an increased drive to improve productivity by 30% by quarter-end. At the same time, budget cuts have required that projected funds will decrease by 12%.
The Pessimist’s initial response: "This is ridiculous; it simply can't be done so why should we even try? This company doesn't even think about their employees when they give us such impossible targets."
After four months, the Pessimist’s team had made some improvements, but barely minimal. More importantly, the team morale had slipped even further, people were looking for other employment, the leader was defensive and angry most of the day and communication amongst the team was limited at best.
The Optimist's initial response "This is going to be tough, so we better work together to see what we can do." Within about three months the Optimist’s team had changed the course of their path to achieve their goals and was already taking about how to celebrate their success.
Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, is the founder of positive psychology, which focuses on the study of as positive emotions, has defined three elements which differentiate the thinking styles of pessimists from optimists. According to Dr. Seligman, when something bad happens, pessimists automatically think that the cause is permanent, pervasive or personal.
The see change as something that will "last forever" (permanent), or "undermine everything" (pervasive) or "my entire fault" (personal). Whereas, an optimist has the skills to see setbacks as short-term, particular to a specific situation or problem, and as a result of circumstances. This allows optimistic people to focus on the solution, rather than get bogged down with the overwhelming weight of the problem.
The Value of Pessimism: There is, however, a certain value in a balanced pessimism. Some studies have found that pessimists were actually more accurate in their assessments than optimists. So in business it can be good to have some pessimists attached to your team, because they have a much stronger handle on reality than the optimists so they may be able to foresee problems and play devil's advocate during the project processes. The job of the project manager is to balance the pessimists with the optimists so you don't let one group overpower the other. Help the two groups value the perspective each bring and make sure the balance is right between hopeless and idealic.
So what if your budget is getting smaller, your deadlines are tighter, your risks are higher and your group is smaller, you can take any aspect with a positive or negative attitude. An optimistic attitude will encourage your group to try harder, not give up; communicating goals, not shutting off production and to achieve under pressure, not crumbling under stress.