Optimists more likely to succeed at work

I see it every day: how optimism and pessimism affect success at work.

Your personal lens on the world may impact your achievement level more than any other single factor.

If you see mostly hurdles and obstacles in all directions, your life becomes hurdles and obstacles. The opportunities are crowded out. The options for doing better next time are behind a curtain.

Almost no one’s life is all about obstacles. Think of the inspiring stories of people overcoming incredible physical or mental barriers to success and happiness.

But your life and career may seem filled with obstacles if you let that happen. Neuroscientists disagree on how many thoughts we have each day (5,000? 50,000?). We can all agree if too many of those thoughts are of hurdles and barriers, rather than opportunities and solutions, we will miss a great many positive outcomes.

You are what you eat, read, watch, believe, say, think and do. Few of us are always optimistic or pessimistic. Most of us find a blend that works to motivate us and keep us moving realistically forward.

Martin Seligman, PhD, is a major force in the field of positive psychology. He created the phrase “learned helplessness.” He teaches that a person’s “explanatory outlook” is a central determinant of their levels of optimism and pessimism.

In other words, how you view what just happened, why it happened, what is happening now and what could happen next all affect how you meet real challenges and opportunities.

Take a typical workplace challenge. Your manager seems unhappy with your performance or behavior. It could be their body language, comments, issue avoidance or maybe a very blunt conversation.

You can choose to blame the manager. Maybe this is yet another unlucky, unreasonable place to work. You cannot imagine ways to reverse this perception and create a completely new one. Your explanatory outlook says “I knew this would happen!” rather than “why is this happening?”

The difference between “I knew it!” and “why is it?” is profound. The I-knew-it track is too often a downward spiral into mediocrity, resignation or termination. If you view the problem as external, as someone else’s problem, as something you cannot affect, it is only a matter of time.

The why-is-it track makes you willing to assess your role in the problem. It means you are seeking solutions, not just taking a seat on the struggle bus. It allows your manager to see a desire to improve backed up by action.

There is a story in HR about a pessimist’s answer to the question “why did you leave your last job?”: “My last employer was a bunch of ungrateful beggars just like the one before them.”

What is the chance this person gets hired? What is the chance they will find success?

Workplace optimism is not about a bubbly personality or permanent smile. It is about driving rather than riding.

(Read more in “Four Things that Will Increase Your Optimism” by Mick Ukleja of Lead Change Group.)

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit