optimism large

Call it blind faith if you like, but the rewards of believing that people are on their way to being first-class are enormous and backed by the research.

Since an influential study in American classrooms in the 1960s established the power of the self-fulfilling prophesy, there have been hundreds more. Our belief in their potential or ability can be a useful motivator for children and adults.

It's easy to confine our faith in their potential to learn whatever they are working on now. The real power of the self-fulfilling prophesy comes from communicating in subtle ways that we believe in them, not just their performance on a task or individual skill.

Researchers refer to three kinds of self-fulfilling prophecy, one of them negative. The Pygmalion effect is created when our belief helps our coachees to succeed. When they believe in themselves and succeed as a result, it's called the Galatea effect. The negative one is the Golem effect. It's what happens when we don't believe they can succeed and they pick up our at least subtle messages. (Before Lord of the Rings, Golem was an unpleasant character in a Polish fable. In Jewish storytelling Golem is an unnatural creature with human powers.) 

Ideally, our staff should be spurred on by their belief in themselves (the Galatea effect) but the Pygmalion effect is a useful ally to develop them towards that stage. It doesn't work with everyone, but should be a standard part of our leadership and coaching repertoire. We should always be aware of the dangers of the Golem effect and take care not to communicate our prejudices - of first impressions and assumptions based on others.

We can use our positive belief in people to help them develop their optimism.

Optimism is more than 'nice to have'. The research is showing that it's a key to motivation and persistence. It's also linked in many studies with better physical and mental health, and a longer life. Optimism creates an upward spiral, a positively biased view of the world. But it's real optimism we need not: 'Don't worry, everything will be okay', accompanied by doing nothing. Most often, that's denial. Real optimism is not only a positive view of the world, but a focused way of coping with the inevitable setbacks.

There's a simple process you can follow to help your coachees develop their real optimism.

1. Put them in learning mode

First we must choose to believe our coachees are on their way to being first-class in the role we are working on and encourage them to do the same. That choice, and it is a choice, will help create the Pygmalion effect, but those words 'on their way' are significant. It helps to put them in learning mode. People in learning mode accept that setbacks are just part of the learning process and enjoy the journey.

We can help people into learning mode by being relaxed about their setbacks to reinforce the point that setbacks are part of the process. We can help them focus on working hard to improve, rather than how wrong they are when they have a setback. We can drop comments into our conversation to suggest our belief in them and their potential.

The alternative to learning mode is performance mode. It's based on the belief that only the gold medal will do and anything less than gold is not just a setback, but a failure. Our staff can be in performance mode because they want to demonstrate how much they know, or to avoid us discovering that they lack ability. The researchers tell us that people in performance mode can be very motivated, but generally only while they are succeeding. Performance mode starts early. I've heard 12 year-old boys agreeing that one of them who came second in a race was the 'first of the losers'.

Learning mode sounds like a soft option, as if striving for perfection doesn't matter, but it isn't. It's just more real. People in learning mode are striving for first-class performance, but that's a long-term goal. In the short-term they are satisfied with exceeding their previous personal best.

People in performance mode usually believe that ability is something we have, rather than learn. It's a particularly unproductive way of thinking, especially for people whose motive is to show off their ability because it suggests that the best strategy is minimal effort. When they don't succeed, people in performance mode are more likely to see themselves as failures, not just their attempts to meet the arbitrary standards they have set.

2. Help them act the part

You can help your staff  act the part of someone who is already first-class. Acting the part means staying in role - giving your best, no matter how you may be feeling. Expect them to stay in role and intervene if they don't. If they suggest that you are encouraging them to be insincere, by pretending to be someone they are not, suggest they think of acting the part is heroic - feeling the fear of failure, and doing it anyway.

3. Help them explain their setbacks

When they have a setback, help your staff to accept that it can't have anything to do with their potential (because they are on their way to being first-class). It must be something they haven't learned yet; something they can work on. It may even be something to do with the circumstances. Maybe your salesperson's prospective client was distracted by other things that day or your sports team was feeling the effects of more travel than usual. They could learn how to handle those circumstances more effectively next time, but a poor result is not a reflection of their potential.

It's important that they not only learn from the experience, but keep their belief in their potential intact. You can help them do that by reassuring them that you know they can do it, but usually just focusing on what they could do next is enough. It's affirming their potential because it suggests that their potential is something you take for granted; all they need to do is try a different way, work harder or be more focused. Affirming our potential after a setback puts us in quadrant 4.

4. Help them explain their successes

When they succeed, help them to see it as evidence of their ability and potential. It's what top achievers do. There's nothing modest about it. 'It just shows that I'm on my way to being a first-class manager, goalie, machine operator' (or coach) is not something they might be comfortable sharing with the world, but they should tell themselves.

Make your affirmations of their potential genuine and low-key. That's the skill. Overstating makes it seem artificial - just a technique and even manipulative. You'll have your own words, but something like this:

You: 'How did the meeting go?'
Staff member: 'Great. They've asked me to lead the project.'
You: I thought they might.

It's important not to attribute their success entirely to what they did to succeed. Helping them to affirm their potential is vital too. If, for instance, your staff member tells you that she succeeded because she worked hard, that's worth noting and it would encourage her to work hard next time. But its value in building her optimism would be temporary. Top achievers believe in themselves, not simply what they do to succeed.

The benefits of an optimistic explanatory style

  • More motivation
  • More persistence when the going gets tough
  • Greater resilience to stressful situations
  • Less anxiety

And also:

  • Stronger relationships
  • Less depression
  • Better physical health
  • Greater happiness
  • A longer life

Our explanatory style is the way we explain our successes and setbacks. Communicating in subtle ways that we believe in our coachees' potential helps them develop an optimistic explanatory style. All the benefits are confirmed by research. I've drawn. particularly, on the work of Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, a leader in the modern 'positive psychology' movement.

About the author

Ralph Brown is the author of Success at work and at home. The books are based on emotional intelligence, the research in psychology and business, and Ralph's experience teaching thousands of New Zealanders and Australians.