Why motivation and optimism isn't enough

Pollyanna optimism, even when combined with motivation, won’t always deliver results. So what else is needed? Realism.

Jim Stockdale was a US naval pilot who was shot down and then held as a prisoner of war (POW) during the Vietnam war. He was imprisoned for eight years and he and his fellow POWs were regularly beaten and tortured. When he came out of prison, he was almost completely psychologically intact. Stockdale, and many of his fellow prisoners, have been the subject of many psychology research studies.

Jim Collins, in his well known book “Good to Great”, interviewed him. Stockdale said:

“I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event in my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When he was asked who didn’t do so well, Stockdale said:

“Oh that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas’. And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say ‘we’re going to be out by Easter’. And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

It made me think about organisations today. But first, let’s define what realism meant in the Stockdale story.

Stockdale wasn’t simply optimistic and hoping that someone would rescue them. He did have faith that he would prevail, but he also confronted the brutal facts of his current reality. He knew he had the internal strength to manage his current reality, and he believed he had the coping skills to deal with whatever happened. Hoping someone would rescue him/them would be placing his faith with external factors.

Organisations today.

Many organisations are going through transformational change. And in many cases, as soon as one change finishes, another begins. Roles are reviewed and in many cases lost. Reporting lines change, new responsibilities are added, projects are stopped, and/or outsourcing begins. There are many individuals, including senior leaders, who are positive, open, and optimistic about the pending change.

Yet when it happens, they are often caught with their mouths open and their minds closed. They’ve ignored the realities of what may happen. They feel powerless and unable to cope with what’s next. They feel this “has happened” to them. They feel “unable to cope” with the prospect of having to find a new job or report to a new manager. They become that disgruntled and difficult employee who will collude with those that may feel the same so as to justify their behaviour and thinking. They will impact the morale within the team or division or company very quickly. The more senior they are, of course the bigger the impact with be to the culture.

Building resilience.

Jim Stockdale was a resilient man. He was positive and he was optimistic but he was also realistic. He was resilient. Individuals can develop resilience.

How can organisations create an environment that helps to develop resilience within individuals?

  1. Create opportunities to learn (formal and informal)

  2. Create opportunities to be social (not only drinks after work, be creative)

  3. Building confidence with “stretch + support” projects (part of learning but the aim is confidence building)

  4. Be awesome at communication in every sense of the word

  5. Remove hostility and negativity (they have no home)

  6. Empower individuals to make decisions (growing their confidence)

  7. Blame becomes a swear word (taking responsibility rules)

  8. Inspire health (mental, physical, nutritional)

  9. Authentic interactions at every level prevail

  10. Be innovative with points 1-9

Thriving and resilient employees are confident and highly energised. They'll create your organisation's future.