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Having a team of optimists requires more than wishful thinking: Rich Brandt

by Rich Brandt (February 2020)

One of the major struggles that employers seem to have with their workforce is poor morale or attitude. Part of an employee’s attitude is shaped by environmental factors such as work conditions, external pressures, and corporate culture. But what seems more significant are psychological factors -- particularly the employee’s general outlook on life.

If someone is an optimist, they are more likely to have a good attitude at work than a pessimist, and they are also more productive. Unfortunately, employers rarely think to train their workforce on how to be more optimistic, even though experts in behavioral science tell us how it can be done. So rather than complaining about your team’s morale or attitude, why not give them the tools to change their brains?

To start, people need to be aware of their pessimism and how it is negatively affecting their health, happiness and job performance. I’m convinced that most people think they’re an optimist simply because they have a friend or relative who’s more negative than they are. But it doesn’t work that way.  Pessimism is a general tendency to expect poor or unfavorable outcomes. It is not about comparing yourself to others; it is a question of whether your outlook is more frequently negative or positive. If we want to change our outlook, where do we begin?

Our outlook is shaped by a running conversation that goes on in our head from the time we wake up until the time we go to bed or even into the wee hours of the morning. If most of that self-talk is negative, it will change how a person sees the world. Negative thoughts wire the brain to look for problems, so people tend to see them everywhere.

The habit of forcing reality to fit into certain patterns is known as the “Tetris Effect.” This expression comes from an experiment conducted at Harvard Medical School, where a group of people who played the game repeatedly over 72 hours and then were awakened early in their sleep cycle saw Tetris patterns even while not playing the game. Everything became a Tetris block.

If people are more pessimistic, that pattern of negativity is fixed in their brains and they tend to focus on what can go wrong in any given situation. Whereas, the optimist, in the same circumstances, sees the possibilities. If you want to have a better attitude and outlook, you must engage in certain mental practices, because humans need to overcome what is called a “negativity bias.” Neuroscientists believe that being more pessimistic allowed our ancestors to survive the daily onslaught of threats to their existence. Consequently, humans are more inclined to pay attention to danger and threats than to positive opportunities. 

Here are three practices that can help you change your brain chemistry and rewire your brain to be more optimistic:

1. Practice gratitude

Be intentional about being grateful so that it becomes strong enough to counteract the negativity bias. One year, my wife and I kept a huge glass candy jar in our living room with a pen and Post-It pad next to it. Every day we would write down one or two things that happened that day that brought us joy. With each passing day it made a real difference in our awareness of how good we had it.

Also, try expressing gratitude to others more frequently. Use your smartphone to send text messages of appreciation to others. This will get the happy neurochemicals flowing with a “twofer” benefit -- it will improve your attitude and improve your relationships at the same time.

2. Learn to savor the good

This is about lingering over pleasurable experiences for just a few seconds, instead of rushing on to the next thing. Doing so will stimulate positive brain chemistry and download the positive experience into your memory. Learn to hit the pause button when you eat something tasty or feel the sun on your face or hug a close friend. Allow it to sink in. Make the good times last by cherishing them in the moment. In neuroscience they say that “the neurons that fire together, wire together.”

3. Manage your self-talk

The psychologist Martin Seligman has discovered in his research that a pessimistic mindset develops when we explain our setbacks in ways that make it personal, pervasive and permanent. So learn to do the opposite.

I once had a huge sales opportunity with one of the country's leading insurance companies. After months of negotiation, they sent me an email saying they were going to go in another direction. Instead of telling myself that all my hard work was down the drain, I focused on coming up with a solution for salvaging the deal. I offered to give them a reduced rate in the hopes that after getting my foot in the door and showing good faith, their budget might be in a better place a year later. This is exactly what happened, and it ended up being the huge sales opportunity I had imagined. How I talked to myself made all the difference between success or failure.

These three practices -- gratitude, savoring the good, and positive self-talk -- may seem sappy or trivial, but they work. Of course, changes in your outlook won’t happen over night, but in a matter of weeks you will find yourself less stressed, and feel less negative and more optimistic. These practices change your attitude and give you the energy you need to succeed.

Like it or not, we all need to train our brains to overcome our inherent negativity bias. You may be a natural at this, but it is important to know how to help others and to give them the cognitive tools they need to change their brain wiring. Having a team with a good attitude doesn’t happen by chance or wishful thinking, it takes earnest effort and proven practices.

Rich Brandt is a training specialist and managing partner with RDR Group based in the Southeast. For over 20 years, he has spoken to audiences throughout the US and abroad on a variety of subjects such as diversity, trust, respect, communication, change, customer service and a positive workplace. He has worked at all levelsincluding the top executive teams at General Motors, Kroger, State Farm and Cisco Systems. He has also worked in numerous health care facilities, universities and government agencies. He earned his bachelor's from Lake Forest College and his master's from Trinity International University.


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