Only optimistic people need apply…

In a recent blog I highlighted how optimistic, cup half full, employees are more likely to be “hard-wired” to be engaged – as are their highly conscientious colleagues. So why not, in the interests of great employee engagement scores, do we not just put every applicant through some simple psychometrics and regret all those with below typical scores?

As anyone who has been on a BPS Level B course will be able to tell you, 66% of the workforce will report typical scores on factors like optimistic and conscientious when completing personality questionnaires. If we can stream out the 17% of the population who have lower than typical levels of optimism, the argument goes, we would be significantly reducing the risk of hiring staff who go on to report low engagement.

So why don’t we do it? Firstly there is an ethical argument. If every organisation took this approach we’d be pigeon-holing 17% of the workforce as “unemployable”.

Secondly the maths don’t add up. UK unemployment today is running at 7.9%. More than double the number of people with lower than typical optimism scores. We’d have a chronic labour shortage if we excluded these people.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we actually need pessimistic people in our teams.

Like all personality traits, optimism – or the lack of it – isn’t inherently good or bad. It all depends on the situation. We like being around optimistic people as they tend to be cheerful and buoyant. Optimistic people expect things to turn out well and that can help them triumph in situations which others wouldn’t even be prepared to tackle.

However all that expecting things to turn out all right may just blind side them to risk. A sort of “don’t worry, it will be alright on the night” approach to everything. Pessimists by contrast expect things to go wrong and therefore are often much less likely to be caught off guard. They help anticipate problems and as a result can be more forward thinking.

If you haven’t done so already, I really recommend you look up Ralph Stacey’s work on “extraordinary management”. I may be greatly over-simplifying, but my reading of his work is that organisations increasingly crave two things – certainty and agreement. The problem is those two things tend to be the nemesis of creativity and innovation. They create a world of “yes men” and an unwillingness to take risk. And that way lies organisational decline and possibly death. Kodak pioneered digital cameras yet refused to champion them because of the perceived threat to film sales…

By contrast extraordinary leaders encourage and manage a degree of uncertainty and allow dissent. They let people to explore without fear of blame or criticism. They allow the heresy of asking “why do we do things the way we do…” and the right to say “…I think we should do it differently…”. Dissenters are not always “terrorists” as one CEO described them to me recently – they can be the lonely voice of enlightenment…

I can’t help thinking that a lot of retail businesses that have gone to the wall in recent times needed more extraordinary management. They liked the certainty of the high street they knew and turned a deaf ear to the non-conformist champions of being early adopters of on-line selling. I suspect they also had a lot of optimists saying “don’t worry, just keep the shops open” and not enough Private Fraser’s saying “we’re doomed” (unless we build an internet business).

Of course it can all go too far. The banking crisis could have been argued to be a case where certainty at least went out of the window and people took huge risks. I wonder how many of those “rogue traders” were optimists?

Ian Gooden
Chief Executive