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Are you an optimistic or pessimistic leader? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Are you an optimistic or pessimistic leader? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

workplace award

Why you need to be an optimistic, not pessimistic, leader Add to ...

This is part of a series looking at microskills – changes that employees can make to help improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Register your company now at www.employeerecommended.com.

Are you an optimistic or pessimistic leader?

How you act with your employees matters. What you say matters. What you do impacts how your employees perceive you.

Leaders who are pessimistic are quick to conclude why something can’t be done, and they tend to focus first on what’s wrong. They typically don’t acknowledge or appreciate an employee’s effort, immediately have a negative view, and utter disempowering statements such as, “I should have expected you wouldn’t get this right.”

Employees perceive pessimistic leaders as being critical, judgmental and negative. Research suggests that pessimistic leaders have a much harder time motivating their employees to achieve their goals.

The purpose of this microskill is to support leaders to add more optimism to their leadership style and their conversations with their employees.

Research suggests that optimistic leaders often outperform pessimistic leaders because of their coping skills with respect to confronting and solving problems. Optimistic leaders are more able to deal with their current reality, accept it and move forward, whereas a pessimistic leader can get stuck.


How optimistic you are as a person will carry over into your leadership style. One way to determine your baseline level of optimism is to complete an optimism baseline quick survey. Print your results for your file. Whether you agree or disagree with your results, it’s helpful to get some input on how people see your natural leadership style with respect to being pessimistic and optimistic. Test your thesis and your perspective with five trusted employees and peers. This will show where you’re starting from.


Leaders must take control over how they want to be perceived by their employees, and own their results. Research by Harvard suggests that the future is shaped by highly motivated and positive leaders who believe in their ability and their team’s ability to achieve their goals. There clearly are benefits for leaders to own their behaviour and understand how their behaviour and words can shape and inspire their employees to follow them.


Leaders who practice an optimistic outlook are confident, positive and focused on achieving a desired goal. They know there will be bumps and hard work, and they are not over-confident. They are centered and believe in focusing on what they can control, and they see value in being positive and hopeful. They want to provide their employees with the certainty that their leader will remain calm and confident and that together the team can succeed.

1. Define in your own words what optimism means to you – Take a moment and visualize how an optimistic versus pessimistic leader would behave in your role. If you are unclear, do a bit of research and reading on the value of optimism and why it’s important to be successful (such as watching Simon Sinek Ted Talk). Become clear on how your words and energy have an impact on employees for good and bad. Until a leader is clear on the benefits of being optimistic to their employees and themselves over the long term, there often is no motivation to practice being optimistic.

2. Focus on what’s right first – An optimistic leader can be tough, direct and challenge their employees’ work. However, they will do best by making a commitment to focus on what’s right first and why it’s important before exploring what’s wrong and needs to be improved. This can help give employees the fuel and inspiration to feel good about what they have done and take ownership to go back and make recommended changes.

3. It’s okay for a leader to smile – By being aware and open to smiling when you’re interacting with employees you are projecting optimism through your non-verbal communication. This practice can positively impact your mental state. A positive mental state has you better prepared for the challenges that will require your calm, optimistic and steady hand. Some say it takes only 17 muscles to smile and 43 to frown, so save some energy.

4. Practice developing your coping skills to solve problems. Perhaps one of the best skills for developing optimism is having confidence in your ability to solve problems. If this is a gap, you can develop these skills through training, coaching and mentoring. The more confident you are in your ability to solve problems, the easier it can be to be optimistic.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto. He is also the president of Howatt HR Consulting and founder of TalOp, in Kentville, N.S.

This series supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell’s Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

This award recognizes employers who have the healthiest, most engaged and most productive employees. It promotes a two-way accountability model where an employer can support employees to have a positive workplace experience.

You can find all the stories in this series at this link:http://tgam.ca/workplaceaward

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