Optimism is a beneficial trait. When you see the glass as half full (rather than half empty) you can be a catalyst and a champion for activities that support your organization, your community and yourself. But is there such a thing as too much optimism? Like any other component of emotional intelligence, it is all in the balance.
To begin with let’s look at the definition of optimism; optimism is an indicator of one’s positive attitude and outlook on life. It involves remaining hopeful and resilient, despite occasional setbacks (Multi Health Systems, 2012). You can often tell when you are working with someone who is an optimist as she or he will generally look on the bight side, are willing to try different things (i.e. they may be more comfortable with risk) and see the best in other people and situations. Optimistic people come in all packages; more often associated with extroversion than introversion optimism can be found in both (you’ll see it in an extrovert more quickly then you may someone who is more introverted). On the surface optimism may not be the first trait that comes across, but over time you can likely sort the people you know into two camps; those who exhibit optimism consistently and those who don’t. But is there such a thing as too much optimism? Could there be a down side to this wonderful way of looking at the world? The answer to that question is “yes”.
People who hold optimistic tendencies without the balance of objectivity can experience some negative consequences. This goes beyond the occasional setback and more towards systemic occurrences. I’ll give you an example. I have a colleague whom I enjoy working with immensely; he is bright, funny, highly intelligent and up for anything. Work projects can be a lot of fun when he is on them because the team gets to do many interesting and creative things. However he is also highly frustrating to work with because he is never on time - for anything. Where his optimism gets him into trouble over and over again in is in the way he schedules his time. He is overly optimistic about how much time his meetings take (and he isn’t necessarily the one contributing to them running over the time allotted). He is also overly optimistic about how much time it will take to get to the next meeting – he always plans for the perfect commuting conditions, which as many of us know is rarely the reality. As I mentioned, he is a very smart man and it is not that the practice of time management eludes him, he just has a blind spot fueled by optimism that prevents objectivity from helping him to see he needs to put more flex in his schedule to allow for the times meetings spill over and bad traffic is present.
This “raging optimism” can also stretch into other things as well. While not a concern for my colleague, things like setting achievable goals (personal goals or goals for your direct reports or team) can be impacted by a malpractice of optimism. Think of the consequence this may have when goals are set without a “reality check” – you set yourself (your team, your employees) up for failure, time and time again. While that may not hold an optimist down for long it is very demotivating for those who were asked to meet those goals, impacting even the most optimistic of employees. An optimist in a leadership role who cannot see this as a consistent problem may also, in time, feel a negative consequence at work as those who consistently fail to meet the goals they set are addressed by the organization, and not always to the benefit of the individual. A good foil for optimism is “realism”, which is the ability to look at things somewhere in the balanced middle between optimism and pessimism. Realism provides that measure of objectivity that allows you to take into consideration what you’d like to accomplish and what the reality of the situation may allow you to accomplish (known variables, like people talking a lot in meetings and environmental factors, like traffic).
Within realism there is still room for the raging optimist, but it is to consider known variables before setting and communicating goals to ensure they are achievable. Optimists may naturally watch for those opportunities to support moving things forward even further then planned in measured and responsible ways. To borrow a baseball analogy, realism doesn’t mean you shouldn’t “swing for the fence” but keep in mind to make that a worthwhile exercise you first have to connect with the ball. Just like in baseball, that connection takes skill, practice, the right conditions and a bit of luck – that is the reality of the “game”.