Updated: May 6
The benefits of positivity in the workplace have received increased attention in recent years. Most of the conversation focuses on the indirect pathways, such as talent retention, by which positivity enhances outcomes. These indirect pathways are powerful, and it is right to recognize them, but there's another part of the story that deserves more notice. Individuals and organizations should also embrace positivity and its close cousin, optimism, because of their direct benefits for problem-solving and performance.
My beliefs about the paramount importance of a positive, optimistic mindset are rooted in personal experience. I grew up with a father who embodied these qualities and regularly extolled their benefits. There are various stories, but there's one that always makes me shake my head and gives me a chuckle.
It happened during a Little League game when I was 10 or 11. My dad was the well-liked coach who frequently joked with the kids and their parents, kept detailed records to make sure everyone got enough time on the field and delighted in his players' improvement - although he also deployed his best players in the right positions so that we could be competitive (I had to beg him to let me pitch three innings once) and he hoped for a win as much as the next person.
We were OK that season, if I recall, but we were getting dismantled this day. The further behind we fell, the more the game seemed to drag on. After coming in from a lousy inning in the field, we moped around and prepared for another futile turn at bat. It wasn't going to be our day and I think most of us were just waiting for the game to reach its merciful final out.
My dad stepped into the dugout. He observed the mood and and then spoke in the firm but not cheerless tone one uses to galvanize the dispirited. "Hey," he said. "We have them right where we want them. Overconfident."
I'm not sure how many of us bought into those words at the time. But he meant them and he wanted us to internalize the ethic they represented. I still marvel at his ability to conjure up the bright side of a situation and identify reasons to not despair. Here is why embracing such an outlook in the way that he did has direct strategic benefits:
It promotes an action orientation and wards off passivity.
It keeps us on the lookout for possibilities that might have gone unnoticed.
It keeps us working hard on the challenge and putting in the appropriate level of effort.
It provides a chance for the situation to develop and for additional paths to success or survival to arise.
Until it's time to give up, these elements are indispensable to success in strategy, planning, and operations. Staying positive and optimistic isn't just a blithe credo; it's about the control you have over your mindset and responding with what you can. It's not just about keeping a good attitude - it's about keeping a productive one.
This outlook and its benefits are conceptually pretty simple, but often challenging to maintain. It can be hard for us humans to modulate our emotions in the face of adversity even when the case for doing so is intellectually clear. By more explicitly embracing the importance of staying positive and optimistic, we can try to nudge our feelings and thus our actions in the right direction.
Since I started thinking about this article, I've seen some conversation about toxic positivity. Those points are well-taken. But that wasn't part of my dad's approach - he encouraged us to recognize disappointment and grief, too. It was just that, so long as you were still figuratively going to walk up to the plate, with any path to come back, you should stay committed and keep swinging.
It would make for a great end to this story if our team rallied to win that day. I doubt we did, although I truly don't recall the outcome of the game. I only remember how we were told to play it.