Make optimism your company’s business force multiplier
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” said Oscar Wilde. Indeed, with the economies of several countries already in the gutter — or close to it — there is much cause to be pessimistic.
Economic growth in major zones like Europe and US is anemic to say the least, and sharply slowing in emerging powerhouses like the BRICS. Embarrassing corporate scandals have dented confidence in business ethics and governments have exacerbated the problem by tardy responses and overregulation that chokes the shoots of recovery.
We live in times of high volatility, whether it relates to currencies, interest rates or commodity prices. Consumers are more fickle than ever, demanding more but only willing to pay less. Competition is ever increasing with mounting supply gluts and increasingly uncertain demand patterns.
And employees have started behaving as short-term opportunists ever ready to jump ship and decamp with contacts, information and even business secrets.
Little wonder that there is a tendency for corporate corridor talk and boardroom chat to be increasingly laced with pessimism. Doom-and-gloom scenarios are painted and instead of concentrating on strategy implementation teams are already drumming up excuses about how targets will likely be missed and plans delayed.
Company actions related to efficiency, cost control, divisional restructuring and rationalization are seen not as positive moves towards a leaner organization but rather as de-motivating factors.
External developments are outside corporate control and the correct professional approach is to sensibly manage risks, prepare for contingencies and avoid overextending in terms of capacity or debt. There is little point railing against absence of reform, political machinations or bureaucratic malaise.
The excellence-oriented corporation focuses on activities that are under its control. Take for example corporate culture. It is quite easy for pessimism derived from external factors to seep into corporate culture. During mid-year review meetings, if management spends excess time on problems and difficulties as opposed to opportunities and achievements then teams get an overly negative signal.
Often tactical actions like workforce downsizing, closure of unproductive branches, product portfolio streamlining or job enlargement are not accompanied by proper communication and socialization of the logic behind the idea. Consequently, rumors and misinterpretations of motives become the norm creating further negativity. Likewise employee turnover is allowed to create fears of mass desertion with glorification of competitors and the career opportunities outside.
In reality all three aspects need to be effectively managed if the corporate culture is to be seen as generally positive. While during deep dives and review meetings it is fine to discuss problems and issues the whole exercise should not degenerate into a problem highlighting, corporate bashing affair.
As Tom Friedman has said, “all the great changes have been accomplished by optimists”. It is not the complainers, naysayers or perpetual critics that will drive innovation, project execution or new talent development. To excel in these requires a balanced perspective of being alert but essentially keeping the momentum going with enthusiasm, energy and an ability to inspire teams.
Open, trustworthy and positive communication is critical for generating optimism even in the most difficult of times. The grapevine is the lifeline of corporate negativity and when everyone is second guessing everyone else and is focused on ‘who said what why’ rather than listening intently to the voice of the customer, then companies will essentially only muddle through.
In optimistic work cultures, senior management is socializing, reiterating and clarifying key decisions and the logic behind these. In doing so the approach is more participative, the emphasis is on the “glass is half full” progress being made and tone is hopeful. If you get alarmist then alarm bells will go off in the minds of your employees and customers. If you only talk of troubles then you will struggle to earn the reputation of being a solutions generator.
A major cause of heartburn is the mismanagement of employee turnover. It happens, it is unfortunate when good team players leave and at times corporate poaching can get downright nasty. But instead of belaboring the point turn the page, appreciate the loyal and welcome the newcomers. The tendency to allow salary packages and roles of departing employees to dominate internal discussions is self defeating and ends up helping competition.
Think of it like soccer teams in the Premier League. It is understood that at the end of each season professionals will come and go — some due to poor performance and some due to better opportunities. This is the reality even for winning clubs like Chelsea where star striker Didier Drogba has left after a distinguished career and sterling performances in the recently concluded Champions League. In such clubs, teams quickly move on and focus on assimilating newcomers and maintaining performance consistency. Fans too look ahead to what can be instead of the past and what should have been.
“I’m an optimist. I’ve always believed the future is going to be better than the past. And I also believe I have a role in that,” says Jeffrey Immelt of GE.
“The great thing about human beings, myself in particular, is that I can change. I can do better. If you can get up every day, stay optimistic, and believe the future is better than the past, those few things get you through a lot of tough times.”
This is a mature mindset to have and one worthy of emulation. See change through the prism of optimism. It will bring in new opportunities, adventures and excitement. To be sure it will resemble a roller coaster with exciting ups and some problematic downs.
But only the optimist will make it to the ride and enjoy the thrill of it. Fill your ranks with sufficient number of optimists and let positive energy be your business force multiplier.
The columnist is president director of international strategic advisory firm IndonesiaWISE.
Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.