Oswald Letter

Optimism is a powerful tool in overcoming adversity in the workplace

Think positive writing on white napkinThis week’s Oswald Letter is a guest post from Elizabeth Petersen, BLR’s executive vice president of strategy and revenue.

by Elizabeth Petersen

Every company has at least one: the employee who finds fault in everything. Her cries of, “The company never does anything for us!” are followed by, “They think they can buy our affection!” when the business hosts a holiday party. This employee uses every interaction to complain about her workload, her boss, or her peers, and all new ideas are met with immediate cynicism.

And while she may be an extreme example, we’re all guilty, at times, of defaulting to negativity. We question a colleague’s motivation. We use a single negative outcome to make sweeping statements about our corporate culture or even the general health of our business. And we often use pessimism as a conversation starter (an easy way to bond with a colleague is to lament over a shared complaint).

Pervasive negativity can have a far-reaching impact on a business, even beyond our employees’ emotional well-being. It taints our interactions with our customers. It deadens creative thinking and stops innovation in its tracks. It drains our energy and prevents us from building meaningful relationships based on trust.

Once, a boss chided me for being “Pollyanna-ish” and told me that “not everything is sunshine and roses.” And he was right. Bad things happen. Projects go awry. People can be cruel, and ideas can fail.

But optimism can be a powerful tool to overcome the inevitable adversity we face in the workplace. In an article in The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith postulates that “a positive outlook is the most important predictor of resilience.” And in business, resilience is a defining characteristic of personal and corporate success and longevity.

Shared optimism can have a broader impact on our business as a whole. In his article “3 Overlooked Benefits of Workplace Optimism,” Shawn Murphy argues that positivity creates a sense of belonging. Belonging, in turn, is the foundation for community and high-functioning teams. “Belonging is a gateway to a team’s working extraordinarily well together,” he notes. “It is a wellspring for happiness.”

A wellspring for happiness. Doesn’t that sound nice . . . if not a little unattainable? But it’s not as far off as you think. Try it out yourself: Dedicate one day in the next week to unrelenting optimism. Start your morning by thinking, “Something wonderful will happen today.” Smile at a stranger. Ask a colleague to share an idea, or congratulate someone on a job well done. Work to find a positive take on a less-than-ideal situation (even if it’s simply thinking, “Well, that could have been worse!”). And when your day is done, spend some time thinking about how optimism changed your outlook and how it affected your interactions with others. Did you feel more hopeful? Were your peers more likely to share ideas with you? Did you have more productive conversations with customers? Or none of the above? Tell me in the comments—is optimism a required trait of a successful employee, or is it superfluous?

Elizabeth Petersen is the executive vice president of revenue and strategy at Simplify Compliance. Before her current role, Elizabeth oversaw Simplify Compliance’s healthcare division, HCPro. She also has held roles in HCPro’s sales, product management, and content development departments. Before joining HCPro, she held editorial positions at JBLearning and CCI Communications. Elizabeth lives in the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and son and is passionately interested in corporate culture, innovation, women’s leadership, and caffeine.

E-mail Elizabeth your thoughts, questions, comments, and ideas, or connect with her via LinkedIn.