Here is an excerpt from an article written by Heidi Grant Halvorson for “The Conversation” series featured by the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
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There are quite a number of motivational speakers and self-improvement books out there with a surprisingly simple message: believe that success will come easily to you, and it will. There is one small problem in this argument, however, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to stop anyone from making it: it is utterly false.
In fact, not only is visualizing “effortless success” unhelpful, it is disastrous. This is good advice to give only if you are trying to sabotage the recipient. It is a recipe for failure. And no, I’m not overstating it.
But how can this be? Isn’t optimism a good thing? Yes it is. Optimism and the confidence it creates are essential for creating and sustaining the motivation you need to reach your goals. Albert Bandura, one of the founding fathers of scientific psychology, discovered decades ago that perhaps the best predictor of an individual’s success is whether or not they believe they will succeed. Thousands and thousands of experiments later, he has yet to be proven wrong.
But there is an important caveat: to be successful, you need to understand the vital difference between believing you will succeed, and believing you will succeed easily. Put another way, it’s the difference between being a realistic optimist and an unrealistic optimist.
Realistic optimists (the kind Bandura was talking about) believe they will succeed, but also believe they have to make success happen — through things like effort, careful planning, persistence, and choosing the right strategies. They recognize the need for giving serious thought to how they will deal with obstacles. This preparation only increases their confidence in their own ability to get things done.
Unrealistic optimists, on the other hand, believe that success will happen to them — that the universe will reward them for all their positive thinking, or that somehow they will be transformed overnight into the kind of person for whom obstacles cease to exist. (Forgetting that even Superman had Kryptonite. And a secret identity that took a lot of trouble to maintain. And also relationship issues.)
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Unrealistic optimists are only too happy to tell you that you are “being negative” when you dare to express concerns, harbor reservations, or dwell too long on obstacles that stand in the way of your goal. In truth, this kind of thinking is a necessary step in any successful endeavor, and it is not at all antithetical to confident optimism. Focusing only on what we want, to the exclusion of everything else, is just the kind of naïve and reckless thinking that has landed industry leaders (and at times entire industries) in hot water.
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Cultivate your realistic optimism by combining a positive attitude with an honest assessment of the challenges that await you. Don’t visualize success — visualize the steps you will take in order to make success happen.
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To read the complete article, please click here.
Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. is a motivational psychologist, and author of the new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (Hudson Street Press, 2011). She is also an expert blogger on motivation and leadership for Fast Company and Psychology Today. Her personal blog, The Science of Success, can be found at www.heidigranthalvorson.com. Follow her on Twitter @hghalvorson.
Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Dominic Orr (president and C.E.O. of Aruba Networks, a wireless networking company). He tells employees that everyone will eventually take a “momentarily stupid” position on some issue, so it’s important not to waste time defending it.
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Yes, Everyone Can Be Stupid for a Minute
Bryant: What were some early lessons for you as a manager?
Orr: The biggest feedback I had from my people is that I didn’t give them feedback. I was running along. I had a pretty high standard for myself, and I assumed that everybody who joined my team was operating at the same level. Good work was assumed, so I let them know only when something didn’t go well. People started telling me it would be nice if I gave them a pat on the back rather than only telling them when things were not good.
Another thing I distinctly remember is that I had trouble having a difficult discussion with employees because, as a young manager, sometimes you don’t really know how to tell somebody to their face that they’re not doing a good job. I also struggled at first with this whole process of running a staff meeting. I remember bringing my H.R. person in to have her run meetings so that I wouldn’t take over, express my opinions and then everybody would sit there silently.
Bryant: What are some other important leadership lessons?
Orr: I have had a very good mentor — Wim Roelandts, who worked for H.P. for about three decades. He rose to become the No. 2 executive of H.P. under Lew Platt. He is someone who embraced the old H.P. way.
Bryant: What were some lessons you learned from him?
Orr: I would say empowering people. Basically, he would push you and give you as much as you could handle until you started failing. He would encourage you to not be afraid of failing — because when you start failing, that’s when you know where your limit is, and then you can improve around that. So he actually sometimes would reward failure because that means that you have pushed yourself.
That is an unusual approach, so people under him tended to be able to really find their limits. And once they do that, they figure out a way to overcome it, because they don’t feel that inhibition. I think that is a very big thing. The whole H.P. way of management kind of molded my approach to managing people in business.
Bryant: And boil that down for me. What is the H.P. way?
Orr: Fundamentally, the H.P. way started with the basic assumption that each employee wants to do well, and they are capable of doing well, so as a manager you have to give them that environment to flourish. When someone does not perform, the first reaction is not to get angry at them or assume that they are incompetent, but to question whether they have they been matched to the right assignment. From the background, from the skill set, have you created a productive environment for them? So the first question as a manager is, have you done something wrong?
Bryant: Tell me about the culture of the company you run today.
Orr: I use a simple principle of management based on intellectual honesty. You try to be intellectually honest with yourself, meaning that you have to forget about all the face-saving issues and so on. I tell people that if you work for me, you have to have a thick skin because there’s no time to posture.
I also tell people that everybody can be and will be momentarily stupid. I think that in many large companies, a lot of politics arise because somebody makes a statement in a meeting, and then it’s weeks of wasted time and effort because they have to dig in to defend that position, and then politics come into play because they now want to lobby for their position.
So when I interview key executives of my staff, I tell them that they need to accept that they can be, and will be, momentarily stupid. If they can accept that and be able to say, “Oh, I was momentarily stupid; let’s move on,” then you don’t waste time dealing with that.
Bryant: How has your leadership style evolved over time?
Orr: The big thing that has changed from 25 years ago is how much I think about the power of the team. I used to, for example, look for two things in people: one is whether I clicked with somebody, and then I would look for best-in-class competence and star performance in a certain discipline, regardless of how they work with others. Now, whenever I’m interviewing for a new executive in any discipline, I look at how they might enhance the capability of the team. Can the dynamics work? And can this person rotate to do some other things? So I would say as I mature, I focus more and more on the performance of the team versus the performance of the individuals.
Bryant: What else are you looking for when you’re interviewing?
Orr: I tend to spend more and more time just understanding where they’re coming from, and do they jibe with me in terms of fundamental human decisions, not just work decisions. Obviously, everybody has different styles and values about family and hobbies, and different dynamics in the way they interact with society. But fundamentally I believe people work for three things. People work for impact — for the company or the industry or humankind. Right? They want to have fun. And they want to get rewarded, and people get rewarded in different ways — through praise, or financial returns. So, ultimately, I try to gauge how the people I’m interviewing are operating on those three dimensions, and then can they have those in this company, in my environment. Can I give this person the impact? Can I give him or her the fun? Is the compensation appropriate?
Ultimately, I would say I look for people who have the passion to make the impact, and the passion will be tied to the fun. Because if don’t have the passion, it’s very hard to have the fun component work out.
Bryant: How do you get feedback on how you manage?
Orr: I try to set an example and to be very thick-skinned. I have a very open door. I encourage a lot of feedback so that my staff has no inhibitions to just tell me that I was momentarily stupid or I actually was wrong in some way. Sometimes I argue. Sometimes in the end I’ll say, “I still want to go with my hunch.” I think I would fail in this whole management philosophy if my staff couldn’t be intellectually honest with me. That’s one principle I try very, very hard to set by example.
Bryant: And how do you put that into effect so people don’t take it personally?
Orr: Just recently I handled one of those moments. I sometimes write an e-mail to someone and will add a section that begins, “Start of intellectual honesty moment,” and then I will be just doubly hard on them, and then I will write, “End moment,” and then I continue the e-mail. So you create, really, a little space for people.
The point is to be very honest, and I try to do it one on one so they save face. The major thing you want to accomplish is to not make it personal. Then people will feel that you’re not attacking them. You’re just attacking the issue, the fact that he was behaving a certain way and you make it very kind of private. Having said that, I would add that I still do have occasional outbursts in my staff meetings, mainly either because I wanted to get a point across to the group or because I am genuinely upset when I feel there has been silent disagreement from somebody or if they have stubbornly not aligned with the team’s goal.
Bryant: Why do think this is so important to your culture?
Orr: You look at the competitive space we’re in. The only reason we have come so far and we’ll be able to sustain our gains in market share is because we have more focus and we move faster. I tell everybody, “If you think we have better talent than our competitors, dream on, because they have very deep talent, too.” The only thing that we can do is we can focus and we can move faster.
And the one thing that allows me to move faster than the much bigger companies I compete with is I have less politics. The way I want to encourage my team is to tell them that we aspire to be the largest small company in our space, and the smallest part is about me not wanting to give up the speed.
I don’t want politicking, and I’m truly convinced that politics arise because people dig into their position because they have ego tied to it. I’m trying to extend my speed as long as possible, and I defuse a lot of politics by telling people: “You don’t need to dig into your position. Just be intellectually honest.” That’s my tool to break up all these potential blocks of ice that then maybe become icebergs.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for “Corner Office,” a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. His book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, was published in April of 2011 by Times Books. To contact him, please click here.