Saturday, December 2, 2017

When looking on the bright side ain't so bright


There is no doubt we all can be placed on a continuum of optimistic to pessimistic. That is not to say we will have the same predictable reaction to everything, but we may tend to lean one way, to the middle or to the other. Some people have a voracious change appetite that manifests as a genuine restlessness to be doing new things and challenging themselves often. Others of us, if given a choice, might prefer things stay largely the same. If we keep going back to the same coastal holiday destination year after year, that may be an indication of a preference for low risk and for familiarity (and predictably good times). If we’ve made a vow we will never visit the same place twice, our mindset is probably somewhat different. 

In her book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (2001), author and psychology professor, Julie K. Norem argues that rather than thinking positively, defensive pessimistic strategies can help people to effectively manage their anxiety so that it can work for rather than against them. For example, how many times have you been left feeling more anxious and infuriated after hearing the phrase "look on the bright side" from a family member or a friend who meant well? Norem's research found it wasn't that people were able to do well despite their pessimism but rather that it was the pessimism that allowed people to do well. They were able to turn anxious thoughts into action and thus optimise their performance.

A change announcement may be made to a number of people and it may end up affecting all of them from a structural point of view in the same or similar way. That does not mean they will all react or respond to the change in the same way. The perceived quality and number of options open to us can make us feel very constrained, even vulnerable or secure in the knowledge that we’re holding some attractive cards. It is unlikely we will feel good about the change, particularly imposed change, if we feel what is being offered to us is a choice between bad or disastrous or worse and "worser"! Based on the impacted person’s understanding of the change, how well does it seem to match the hopes, skills, interest and passions of the person undergoing the change? In other words, how attractive/comfortable is the change likely to be and how well can the person see him/herself flourishing and enjoying the fruits of the change?

"VUCA" (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) is an acronym first used in the US military in the 1990’s to describe the general conditions and situations of the armed forces. As a metaphor, it reasonably depicts the fluid environment and the changes that employees are asked to embrace. In view of the above, we might be facing a challenging re-structure at work, the job requirements of our role have expanded and become more onerous than anticipated or a new CEO has taken over the company and we may need to bounce back, demonstrate mental toughness and manage our own 'state' particularly when under stress to increase our competence and confidence to flourish post change.

American author and organisational consultant, William Bridges, postulated that whether or not change is self-initiated or imposed, we do experience loss even if that loss is only the 'old way of doing things'. He says that it is unlikely we can envisage every possible consequence of the change, even when we initiate it and and therefore we might need a period to adjust or adapt. An analogy for a mild change is the excitement of learning that we were successful in our application for a new job. The success of the application marks an "ending" to whatever we were doing before. Initial elation can sometimes give way to some nerves about how we will fit in, whether or not we oversold ourselves at interview and could find the role too challenging, whether or not it was the right decision to leave the current company we were working for and how much adjusting we will have to do to feel comfortable in a new work environment. Many of those anxieties will prove to be ill-founded but that won’t necessarily stop us from fretting about them until the large “realm of unknown” shrinks and is replaced by a larger "realm of what’s known".

Defensive Pessimists spend a lot of time and energy investing in the possibility of how things might go wrong. Our anxiety is fundamentally fuelled by the discomfort in uncertainty and loss of control. Therefore, if we can convince ourselves of the likelihood of future good outcomes occurring we can a) reduce our feelings of anticipation and fear of the unknown, without ignoring or denying them happening or b) we are able cope better with change if the worst possible outcome we imagined, occurred. The key here being that we feel more in control. By mentally preparing for disasters or setbacks to occur we are more prepared to plan and respond quicker in case things don't go as planned.

Norman went to her son's pre-school and as part of career day was asked to explain to a class of five-year olds what her job was.

"I gave them smiley-face or frowning-face stickers and told them a series of short stories describing various situations such as 'It is a cloudy day and Mary is going to the park. What do you think will happen?"

For each example, the children were instructed to put a frowning face or a smiling face sticker on their paper and at the end counted up the number of each sticker they had.

"We talked about what it meant that some kids had more smiling stickers and some had more frowning stickers. The children were able to explain to me, as one boy did, that 'it can be good to remember that it might rain, because then you will take your raincoat and boots, and you can stay outside and play. This makes Mary feel better about the clouds'".

This is a perfect, yet simple example, of a circumstance where it is effective to call on defensive pessimism. However these are some tips to consider:
· Is my reaction to the change proportional to what’s actually happened? Am I allowing myself a 10/10 reaction to a 3/10 stressor? Can I intentionally bring myself down to something more proportional?
· Is the thing that I fear (really) likely to happen? Am I worrying for nothing? Am I worrying excessively?  
· What are my Primary Driving Forces? Do I really want what I say I want? Is someone else telling me this should matter to me?
· Am I dwelling on the past (which I can’t change) or worrying about the future and robbing myself of joy in the here and now? 

If our self-efficacy is high, we will be less likely daunted by unexpected events and imposed change. If our self-efficacy is low, we are more likely to be dubious about our ability to cope and may worry more than is necessary for longer than is necessary. It is important at times to turn up the volume of the voices in our heads and work out which ones need to be silenced and when… (because they can be really unhelpful).

If you've recently coped with a difficult change, we'd would love to hear from you about your thoughts and strategies.


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