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Dark days v. sunny outlook Add to ...

Last week Stephen Harper was walking on sunshine, asking the country to shake off the recessionary clouds and jaunt alongside him into a brighter economic future.

Some were inspired. Others not so much.

"Canada was the last advanced country to fall into this recession," the Prime Minister told an audience in Brampton, Ont., on Tuesday. "We will make sure its effects here are the least severe, and we will come out of this faster than anyone and stronger than ever."

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff accused him of being on another planet and said his "happy songs" can't resonate in a country where the unemployment rate has rocketed to 7.7 per cent, with 295,000 jobs lost since October.

But in the workplace realm, a glimmer of hope and a dash of optimism aren't just helpful, they're critical, experts say. Still, leaders must toe a fine line: Optimism served without the facts can cause employees to lose trust in their leaders.

And heaven help a manager if his optimism is feigned.

"You shoot yourself easily in the foot if you're not [genuine]" says Gerard Seijts, a professor of organizational behaviour at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. "The BS meter just goes ding ding ding ding ding! People pick up on that."

While optimism is considered necessary in the recessionary workplace, many leaders are still conservative with it.

"Great leaders are more optimistic than the average person, but we're in a very strange environment right now," says Carmine Gallo, a communications coach based in Pleasanton, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay area. "Leaders are afraid of appearing too rosy for fear of being proven wrong or criticized."

They shouldn't be, he says. Optimism will banish a lot of that gloom and uncertainty, and boosts employee productivity and morale. But a positive persona will only fly if it's genuine, he adds.

"Optimism obviously can backfire if it's based on hot air and no supporting facts," Mr. Gallo says, mentioning billionaire Warren Buffett's recent statement that although he's lost money, he still thinks the economy will come out on top, as it did after greater trials in the 20th century.

Office optimism needn't be a cheerfest either, says Steve Roesler, CEO of Roesler Communications, a consulting firm in Medford, N.J.. Managers can celebrate the small wins in small ways, and it's important to do so, now more than ever, he says. A major client of his sends daily e-mails out to employees keeping them in the loop about the company's performance and the messages always end on a high note about what's gone right, he says.

"It's one of the things managers do the least. Even in good times they don't do it. It's really important that every time something concretely good happens that everyone knows about it."

Along with giving small but regular pats on the back, it's also helpful for leaders to put the economy, and the company's place in it, into perspective for employees, says Kevin Burns, a Calgary-based speaker and author of seven books on attitude adjustment. If we look at the 1980s recession and the Depression, the current situation won't look so bad, he says.

"Comparing apples to apples, I think that's the key at this point," he says. "We can't compare ourselves to the boom years because we're not in boom years right now. With every boom there's a bust."

Research has also shown that resilient companies are led by positive leaders. A 2006 study from the University of Pennsylvania found optimistic managers promote employee engagement and negative managers invite the opposite.

If a manager isn't optimistic, employee motivation tends to dry up, says study co-author Margaret Greenberg, president of The Greenberg Group consulting in Andover, Conn.

"[Employees]start shutting down their creativity, their problem solving. They'll say, 'We're just going to hunker down here, let's not try to make waves or think creatively.' That negative emotion is contagious."

If a leader all of a sudden throws on a positive front, it'll take a lot to convince a suspicious staff, Prof. Seijts says. But they will be convinced if there's an action plan.

"It's all wonderful, these great presentations, these great talks. We want to be optimistic and I think employees expect us to be optimistic," he says. "At the same time, we have to couple that with a dose of realism. Spell out the challenges, identify or offer some suggestions how we might overcome those challenges and then get to work."

There are also times when optimism, however genuine, is plain inappropriate, Ms. Greenberg cautions.

"If your company has just laid off workers and you have a manager who's talking about how great things are, that just shows very little emotional intelligence about how people are currently feeling," she says. "Knowing how people are feeling and thinking and being able to temper that is really important."

Some companies are making a concerted effort to keep employees in the loop and take every chance to communicate a positive message.

Although business is sailing along just fine, WestJet executives say they know people are still concerned about job security. That's why they receive weekly updates from the CEO sharing the good news - how the company is faring compared to competitors - with a dose of realism, says Ferio Pugliese, executive vice-president of the airline's people management programs.

"We're making some real direct asks of WestJetters to say, 'We're not immune to a bad economy. ... What we need from you is to continue to do what you do all the time," he says. Employees have also been asked to suggest cost cuts, and executives have started blogging and visiting "bases" in an attempt to be more accessible to employees.

By being accessible, they share that optimism, says Robert Bartrem, WestJet's vice-president, culture and communications.

"It's not the typical 'I'm going to walk down the hallways and shake some hands and kiss a few babies kind of thing.' It's visibility [in the sense that we're]going to celebrate things."

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