Why Your Perpetual Optimism Might Be Killing Your Team

There is a big difference between telling the actual truth and telling people what you wish was the truth. Some leaders think that to inspire their team they must always have a positive vision, so they translate that belief to “I must ensure that team members feel like everything is going great.”

However, this is not driven by a desire to do what’s in the best interest of the team, but by the neediness of the leader. They don’t want to deal with the discomfort of wading through the murky grey waters of uncertainty. It’s much easier to deal in black and white, so they paint the situation as much more simple and positive it really is. The dissonance team members feel between words and reality causes a major breach in trust. (By the way, your team is smart.)

Have you ever met that person who always puts a positive spin on everything? The world could be falling apart, cats and dogs living together in harmony, and fire and brimstone falling from the clouds, but somehow they still muster a smile and say it’s going to be OK? You’ll hear many gurus and leadership experts touting the importance of optimism and the strategic value of always keeping a positive mindset. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this advice, except that it’s taken to an irresponsible extreme. When your optimism is decoupled from reality, you risk losing the trust of your team and your perspective on what needs to be done.

That person who always puts a positive spin on things? You probably don’t trust them. Not fully, anyway. They might be fun to hang out with, and they might be able to turn around a bad night out, but it’s doubtful that you’d go to them first when you need serious advice about an important decision. You simply can’t trust that they’ll give you a realistic viewpoint. They are too clouded by their unrealistic “future’s so bright I gotta wear shades” mentality.

If you aren’t realistic with your team, then you risk losing their trust. They’ll listen to you, but they won’t believe you. As legendary leadership expert Warren Bennis said, “Trust is the lubrication that makes it possible for organizations to work.” If your team suspects that you’re putting a glossy overtone on everything, they’ll soon stop paying attention and will seek out a truth teller. Your organization will become dysfunctional.

Yes, informed optimism is the fuel of change, but naive optimism is deadly. Wishing and hoping is never a solution to actual problems. If you want to effect change, you need to pair your optimism with realism and skill.

The same principles apply to your team.

Don’t fall for the temptation to put a glossy coat on everything. Your team will trust you more, and will follow you into the uncertainty, when they believe that you’re telling them the truth.

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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