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Is it Time to be Optimistic Yet?

Posted by Mark Bennett on December 18, 2009


Again, a trick question. At the end of the year, especially ones that have had so much turmoil, uncertainty, and economic pain, thoughts turn to whether the next year will be any better. It’s the same psychology behind setting resolutions and so forth, i.e. January 1 presents a “new beginning” or a “fresh start.”

People generally like to know what the future holds so they can either look forward to the good things that will happen or do something to avoid the bad things.* Businesses are the same. We then look at the past to try to spot trends, check what the experts say, do “wisdom of the crowds” investigation, etc. As always, the rule about everyone’s opinions still applies.

At Steve Boese’s HR Happy Hour last night, the topic was “2010: Looking Ahead” and some prognostications were thrown around. Naturally, whether to be optimistic or not also came up and it was interesting to see the different reactions to that. On one end, some folks want proof that it was time to feel good about the future. On the other end, some folks see optimism as the driving force to making things turn out good no matter what. The real answer to the question comes from taking a bit of both and understanding how an optimistic outlook coupled with an acknowledgment of harsh reality is key.**

In other words, realize that there are no guarantees about what the future holds and that waiting until everything is proven is a recipe for constant disappointment and/or missing out. However, also realize that things won’t always just get better on their own either (at least not for you or in the way that you had hoped), so you need to be taking conscious actions that weigh the risks and rewards. This includes the conscious decision to take no action (as described so well by Mark Stelzner.)

These decisions and actions are not always as simple as we’d like them to be and that’s also behind why we always wish for exact predictions. We say, “Tell me what the right move is so I get the most benefit without making any mistakes!” A short reflection on where unemployment is today shows how well predictions have worked out so far.

So now, companies are looking ahead and asking what to do when the day does come that hiring picks up and they worry they’ll lose their top talent. Point solutions like “do more training”, etc. are suggested, but more integrative solutions are called for that take into account the complex interplay of turnover, career development, engagement, talent inventory, and business strategy.

No one really knows what 2010 will hold, so there is no “perfect play.” Instead, companies need to think through the different ways that things are likely to go and take proactive steps today that will leave them options to take when it becomes more clear what conditions really are.

So the real answer perhaps is that there isn’t necessarily a “right time” to be optimistic so much as it benefits you to have an optimistic outlook both to keep yourself going (i.e. believe in yourself and you can prevail) as well as to keep your mind tuned to spotting opportunities (i.e. take prudent risks). At the same time, you need to confront the facts as they stand today and the very real possibility that conditions won’t get better for everybody in the near future.

*”Flash Forward” presents the interesting prospect of what would happen if people really did have a glimpse of what their situation would be in six month’s time. It addresses the classic issues around prophecy without context, determinism, destiny, and free will.

**see the “Stockdale Paradox” as described in Jim Collins’ “Good to Great“:

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” – Jim Stockdale

Photo by allieosmar

8 Responses to “Is it Time to be Optimistic Yet?”

  1. Meg Bear said

    I agree completely Mark, an optimistic outlook impacts everything you do anyway. Having an optimistic outlook that considers your reality is certainly the way to go. I really do need to get to a Happy Hour, all the cool kids are certainly there!

    • Indeed! The HR Happy Hour is a terrific venue for folks from all different backgrounds to share ideas. The founder and host, Steve Boese, is key to keeping it moving along, exciting, and a lot of fun. You would certainly enjoy it and there is word your presence would be very welcome!

  2. Optimism is essential, or we’d spend all our energy on preparing our grave before crawling into it. I’m living proof that optimism makes it possible to breathe through the pain. Reality and optimism do not conflict, because optimism, a belief in the possiblem, is what makes a better reality possible.

    • You hit the nail right on the head, Naomi! Thank you for being an inspiration to us as well and proof of the power and impact of a positive attitude. I am still playing “Tomorrow” in my head :-)

  3. Amy Wilson said

    “Plan for the best; prepare for the worst.” That’s my motto!

  4. | PseudoHR said

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