3 Ways to Stop Leader Optimism from Ruining Your Team

A key aspect of a leaders job is transmitting a sense of positivity to keep the culture enthusiastic and engaged. No one can argue with that, or can we? Sometimes the happy face is not warranted, and team managers have to temper it by injecting a dose of reality into the mix.

The research now shows clearly that CEO’s are way more optimistic than the average person. In fact 80% are ‘very optimistic’ according to research of over 1,000 sitting CEO’s by Duke’s Fuqua Business School. (WSJ Jan 3-4 B1)

This makes perfect sense. The general definition in psychology and in this study of optimism is “I expect more good things to happen to me than bad.” That is what you want in a CEO. Someone who sees that things are possible and creates vision and hope. Optimism creates success. Being optimistic in communication about the future helps executives and employees keep motivated. Being optimistic about market and product opportunities, encourages innovation.

The problem is when this optimism undermine CEO’s results on their teams. I have seen the damage done too many times when their propensity for optimism turns into a false positives. Here are some real life examples:

  • an executive on the CEO’s team – everyone knows the executive screams at and insults people – and the CEO thinks everything will be OK and just change magically without confronting the executive about the problem. False positive.
  • despite the lack of collaboration between divisions, the CEO thinks that if we just wait long enough and ‘let it play out’ it will all work itself out. False positive.
  • hoping that people won’t see an executive’s immoral personal social behavior. The CEO doesn’t say anything about the behavior and just hope that it wont reduce trust and commitment to the leader. False positive.

False positives do as much harm when it comes to personal and interpersonal issues at the executive level, as false positives about customers embracing an inferior product, or false positives about economic conditions.

CEO false positives about teamwork throw water on the fire of motivation. As executives and employees watch the CEO do nothing and avoid the problems that are blocking success, their trust in their optimistic, hopeful, visionary leader erodes.

And what about the more public displays of false positives?

  • Does Mary Barra offer a false positive when she talks about GM’s creating a ‘new safety focused culture’?
  • Yahoo Chairman Maynard Webb saying he encourages his people to ask “How many people on your team would you rehire if all the positions were open again?””(NY Times Jan 3, Business Day Online), but does he have false hope for Marissa Mayer?
  • Has optimism at Apple based on past success led Tim Cooke to look past the slipping technological status of Apple in the consumer’s mind ?

So if you are an optimistic leader or work for one who creates false positives, here are 4 ways to avoid also false positives ruin your team:

  1. Wake up the ‘dreamer’ – Not many will tell the CEO that they’re full of it. Our global research shows that when new plans are announced, 81% will say “OK let’s do it” and then do nothing. Often it is simply political: support the policy in public knowing and that no one will ever follow-up. Optimistic leaders have a history of starting new things and then moving on to the next one, without following through. Another problem is that these visions are not exactly concrete. They lack specifics. And people working for you need precise direction. This is especially hard when working in a start-up or fast-moving industry. The bottom line is don’t let conceptual or hazy explanations about what is envisioned take the place of specific information you need to proceed. If you are the dreamer, force yourself to be specific. If you work for one, ask them about specifics. This may take more than one conversation—in fact it may take many – especially as the playing field and the dreamer’s vision changes. But the dreamer must be awakened so that others can implement.
  2. Fish for sharks in the water – Remember in Jaws the constant fear of knowing that that there was a shark swimming under the water but you never knew where it was. Everyone knew what but the mayor and. He was either pretending they weren’t there and or ignoring them. Overly optimistic leaders are like the mayor. They put other people, and money and resources, at risk with their false positives. There are bad attitudes and screwed up process and unskilled people who can kill initiatives at work. To keep everyone honest it’s important to go fishing for sharks. When you are the leader, ask your people “what will kill this initiative?” “what can make us fail?”. If you are a follower raise the sharks to your leader in a professional way. Not to be negative, but as a means to discuss challenges.
  3. The Rule of 7 – My business partner Antoine was speaking to the tech startup entrepreneur client who said that he has learned when he invests into a startup he assumes it will take 7(!!) times the amount of money they are asking for initially. In other words he is ready to invest 7x (max) the amount they are asking for initially to make this business a success. This is a good role when leading any new venture. It can take up to ,seven times more effort, seven times more communication, seven times more resources than you think at the beginning. To prevent a false positives remember the rule of seven.

It would do leaders well to pay attention to another part of this Duke study on CEO’s. It appears CEO’s are less patient than their CFOs and probably than the rest of the team.

This impatience needs to be shined like a laser beam on the ‘soft’ problems of lack of respect, divisive communication and fake teamwork that are preventing their organizations of the real hope of success.


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