MT Expert - People: How to make your staff more optimistic

When helplessness is widespread, making your staff more optimistic is as simple as ABCDE.

Last Updated: 09 Jul 2013

This week I was thinking about the CBI’s latest report on ‘Alternatives to Redundancy’. Business leaders are calling for employment reforms now to help stem the tide of unemployment, and further measures that will help create the highly-motivated, adaptable and skilled workforce that is needed for business success. The real challenge for individual employees at times like this is that many of us feel quite helpless. And it’s hard as a leader to exhort your people to feel optimistic about the future when they think they are simply victims of circumstance, or fate even.

It’s widely accepted that, as individual personality types, we fall into one of two camps: we are either in the ‘glass half empty’ or the ‘glass half full’ camp. But there’s now a growing body of literature that says optimism is a product of how you think - and therefore it can be changed. Carol Dweck is a leading psychologist writing in this area, and the central theme in her theory is that mindset - beliefs about yourself and your most basic qualities - profoundly affects the way you lead your life. A fixed mindset involves believing that your basic qualities and abilities are set in stone. A growth mindset, on the other hand, means that you believe your basic qualities and abilities can be cultivated through dedication and hard work.

So if you encourage a growth mindset, optimism can in fact be learned. Teaching this mindset can be life-changing; it allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives. A team here at Stanton Marris has been working recently with local authorities in applying this thinking to the alarming numbers of young ‘NEET’ people (Not in Education, Employment or Training) to help them break out of the cycle of helplessness that they find themselves in so early in their lives.

It prompted me to ask whether we could use this technique in our own businesses? Imagine the impact if we could do something practical to help our people feel more optimistic - to be more proactive about the opportunities presented by the recession, rather than feeling like victims of the current situation.

There is a very simple tool that you can use to help people break the cycle of helplessness, according to Martin E. P. Seligman, another influential thinker on the field of positive psychology. It’s as simple as ABCDE...*

A is for Adversity – acknowledging the adverse situation that triggers feelings of helplessness
B is for Beliefs – exploring the beliefs that emerge as a result of the situation
C is for Consequences – understanding that beliefs have consequences and asking: ‘what are the consequences of these beliefs?’, ‘what’s the impact of those beliefs on what you do?’ and ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’
D is for Disputation – challenging negative beliefs by finding evidence to dispute them and alternatives to these beliefs
E is for Energisation – feeling energised as you succeed in dealing with negative beliefs

You can encourage colleagues to write these things down, practice them in coaching situations by using hypothetical or real-life situations, or simply talk through the 5 steps. For example, use it when someone is late for a meeting; acknowledge it and then help your irritated colleagues to explore the assumptions about beliefs and consequences of the person’s lateness. The result should be that you are able to refocus the energy of the meeting as well as help the individual to understand the impact of their behaviour.

Try using this approach more widely in your own firms to see how you can influence a shift towards a more optimistic outlook - and thereby prove to those ‘glass half empty’ people that something can be done to mitigate the human impact of the recession.

*Martin E. P. Seligman, ‘Learned Optimism: How to change your mind and your life’

Virginia Merritt is managing partner at Stanton Marris, a consultancy that specialises in working with leaders at all levels to bridge the gap between strategy and execution, focusing on leadership development, culture and values and employee engagement to make your performance sustainable. For more information visit

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