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New research on ways to bounce back from a bad experience.

Achieving your performance goals makes everyone look good. Stakeholders and shareholders are happy. People recognise you as a strong, capable manager. People around you feel competent and confident, too.

But it’s not easy to always be a “high performer”. In my experience, unfortunately, too many people give up too soon. Pessimism – one of the biggest barriers to growth – takes hold. How many people get rejected once or twice and give up? Too many. Defeatism dominates.

I’m coming to the end of a fantastic project, supporting young leaders as they learn to develop and implement real projects, with the approval of the Board.  There have been a number of hurdles – changes in management personnel and in the project schedule. And, of course, not every project idea got approved immediately. Rejection is a milestone on the road to success.

One or two rejections are anomalies, not a pattern of behaviour. This is one attitude the young leaders were quick to internalize into their thinking.

They could have put up false barriers: sat back, then speculated and assumed that senior managers have fixed (and wrong) opinions, ideas and positions. They didn’t because throughout it all they chose to stay optimistic.

The false barriers are a façade – an excuse or delusion – for poor performance. And pessimism is a mechanism which helps people hold onto that position. They don’t bother to check out the assumptions behind the excuse. They get trapped in the “comfort trap” of being pessimistic and they rarely care who they pull down with them.

Just because a Board member says one idea is wrong, does not make your project a disaster. Often the Board member is asking for further proof or more data. And yet, pessimists persist in making generalisations from one anomaly.

Strong performance comes from optimism. Managers need optimism to build up their resilience. Optimism plus resilience, together with competence, go a long way to getting key projects implemented.

So how can you be more optimistic? New research on how people bounce back from a traumatic experience shows how optimists get their balance back. The researchers uncovered five unusual tactics:

#1 Surround yourself with optimists.
Analyse who you spend the most time with. Is each relationship is positive, neutral or dysfunctional? Expand the positive relationships. Monitor the neutral relationships. Decide about the dysfunctional relationships, by asking yourself if you need that relationship. If not move away. This is not about “dumping” or being rude. Moving away can be just spending less time with that person.

#2 Keep going until you are successful.
Don’t stop. Even when you can’t see the woods for the trees, a small step in the what is broadly the right direction is better than standing still or a clear step backwards.

#3 Act like an optimist.
Set yourself and others a challenge. Be positive in meetings and calls. This doesn’t require you to be a fanatic or zealot for any idea that comes across the table. Using constructive feedback (not negative feedback) is enough.

#4 Extend pessimistic thinking to its extreme.
This is something I’ve done many times with supposedly “broken” groups. Be silly. Take the excuse – for example, “our bosses are all sociopaths” – and work it through to its logical consequences. If you go far enough, you’ll often find that the reasoning does not fit the everyday experience at work. So, not all of your top managers are sociopaths. If that revised opinion is true, it’s easier to see the positives and negatives in your top managers.

#5 Accept the situation for what it is.
Stop blaming others. Stop blaming yourself. Sometimes things happen for no obvious reason. These are the one-offs, the anomalies. Treat them as such and move on. Over-analysing a chance outcome does get you anywhere.

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