Grounded optimism, pragmatic pessimism

I read a blog-post today extolling the power of adopting a positive attitude and I felt my hackles beginning to rise. That simple switch seems to be the panacea for all ills, no matter how challenging.

At its worst, the emphasis on ‘attitude’ dangerously misrepresents our relation to the world: another post I read today claimed that “attitude creates things”.

No it doesn’t.

It’s not that a positive attitude is unhelpful. Indeed, I find that many of my coaching clients underestimate their power and their ability to control or influence a situation that challenges them. So often I find myself helping them find clarity and perspective simply by asking “what do you want?” and “how might you get it?”

As coaches, we often challenge our clients’ assumptions about their power. We also help them recognise that the attitude they take to a challenge is a choice. And that choice either opens up or closes down options for action. All part of the coach’s armoury.

But our armoury also needs a model of power rooted in the reality of organisational life – whatever the type of organisation our clients operate within. Individuals have power but it is not unlimited. And success in meeting a challenge is not just a matter of attitude: it often takes hard realism, analysis and planning. We can borrow from best practice in organisational change where strategic analysis, option appraisal and risk management are all part of the kit bag. And so they should be when the change is personal or interpersonal.

Good analytic tools complement the resourcefulness that comes from a positive mind-set. Indeed, they ground that optimism, make it real and can include a hard look at the client’s emotional state and readiness for action. They also show how it’s not your negative or positive mind-set that brings greater control, it’s more your orientation towards action.

Passive optimism is often delusional. Passive pessimism brings swift defeat. Both active optimism and active pessimism have strengths. With clients, I challenge the first to bring rigour to our thinking. And challenge the second to promote openness and creativity in finding solutions to the risks they see.

So if you are facing a challenge at work, by all means adopt a positive attitude. But more important than that: get real, get serious and, when you’re ready, get moving.