The best leaders aren’t optimists

Be honest, this glass is not half full.
Be honest, this glass is not half full.
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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Countless studies prove that looking at the bright side has ample psychological and physiological benefits, from depression and anxiety prevention to improved cardiovascular health. Beyond the personal perks, many believe optimism is an invaluable leadership trait, and an “essential ingredient of innovation.”

But at work, optimists can be the worst.

As a proud pessimist (my parents nicknamed me “Eeyore” at age four), I’ve always found comfort in workplace commiseration—not because I think life sucks, or that complaining improves office morale. It doesn’t. But it turns out, being constantly optimistic also threatens morale, along with your (and your team’s) productivity and success—especially if you’re a manager. That’s because optimists often become what Liz Wiseman, CEO of the Wiseman Group, a Silicon Valley-based leadership research and development firm, calls “accidental diminishers.”

Diminishers vs. multipliers

For her book Multipliers: How The Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, Wiseman interviewed and surveyed more than 30,000 professionals across industries. She found that all of them fell somewhere on the spectrum between being a “multiplier” and a “diminisher.”

Multipliers are those who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and skills of the people around them. Diminishers, on the other hand, drain intelligence, energy, and capability from others. While diminishers sometimes do this out of a need to be the smartest person in the room, more often they’re well-intentioned leaders who, while following popular management practices, subtly and unintentionally shut down other people’s ideas and potential.

“I’ve come to see that there lurks a diminsher in all of us,” Wiseman says. “Even some of the most amazing leaders I’ve studied have diminishers in them. That’s because diminishing traits, like optimism, can also be incredible strengths. Most diminishing comes from leaders who accidentally overplay their own strengths, having not yet realized that as a manager, sometimes you have to temper your own skills so to leave room for other people to thrive.”

Why optimism diminishes intelligence

Among the six types of accidental diminshers, optimists are the most notorious in professional settings. These are people, often leaders, who intend to communicate that their teammates can do anything they set their mind to. As a self-proclaimed “massive optimist,” Wiseman has experienced this negative aspect of positivity first-hand.

“The good thing about optimists is that they’re positive and hopeful, and you tend to need heavy does of that in senior leadership because sometimes it can be difficult to even get out of bed in the morning and say, ‘I believe we can make this work,'” says Wiseman. “But what happens with optimists is they’re often so focused on what’s possible, and so convinced that the team is going to be able to make something work, that they don’t see the messy process of getting there.”

As it turns out, blinding yourself from the messy side of work is a surefire way to piss off your direct reports. Wiseman offers two examples to clarify this phenomenon.

Once while she was working as a manager on a complex project, a colleague turned to her toward the end and said, “I need you to stop saying that.” Caught off guard, Wiseman asked what he was referring to. “That thing you say all the time,” he said. “How hard can it be? We can do this! This can’t be too hard!”

“This was my inner optimist talking, and I explained to him that I said that because I genuinely believe we can do this project, we can make this work, which I thought might be helpful or motivating,” she says. “But he said, ‘No, I need you to stop saying that because, Liz, what we’re doing is actually really hard, and as my manager I need to you acknowledge that.’ I wasn’t seeing the struggle, and when people don’t see you’re struggling it’s easy to say well then, why struggle at all?”

Wiseman’s can-do attitude stung her again while she was working at Oracle as vice president of Oracle University. During a one-on-one with a direct report who was leading a large-scale training program, she learned that the training, which was supposed to launch in a few days, was in jeopardy due to a lack of server space.

“She’s really distressed, so I pick up the phone—this was back when we had phones with handsets—and I call the data center because I know they’re going to give me extra server space in a snap. One phone call will get it done,” Wiseman recalls. ”But when I pick up the handset, she says, ‘Liz you don’t need to make that call.’ She told me she just wanted me to know what she was working on. And something changed in me at that moment—she was basically saying to me, ‘Liz, I’m doing heroic things here. This thing is in jeopardy, and I’m going to fix it.’ But she didn’t want me to fix it, she [just] wanted me to understand that it was hard.”

How to remedy accidental diminishing

When you’re so hopeful that things will work out, you can unintentionally eliminate the possibility that things might not work out. And that can make employees afraid to take risks or make mistakes because they know their boss is so convinced success is possible.

An easy way to guardrail yourself from negative optimism, if you will, is to literally talk about how difficult your employees’ or teammates’ work is. “I find that actually when I spend more time talking about what is hard a project is, how it might not work, or we might not win this one, strangely my team goes, ‘Okay, we got this,'” Wiseman says.

Another simple strategy is to ask more, and smarter questions. Wiseman’s favorites include: What problems do you see that I may be missing? Are there reasons we shouldn’t proceed? And where might our assumptions be wrong?

From a psychological standpoint, relentless optimism has an adverse effect because people need to have their experiences validated.

Some people are chipper by nature, and genuinely see the positive in every situation. Good for them. For the rest of us, workplace challenges—nasty Excel sheets, crappy Wifi, overbearing clients, inattentive bosses—can easily spark annoyance, frustration, anger, or fear. Many of us have convinced ourselves that these emotions are the antithesis of professionalism, and we go to some lengths to hide them, when in truth we are desperate to have those feelings validated.

“One of our deepest human needs is to be understood and heard,” says Wiseman, “and I think we need that a lot more than we need motivation or positivity.”