Great Expectations

One of the most enduring concepts in the field of individual differences is optimism, usually described by invoking what is conventionally thought to be its opposite: optimism-pessimism. That turns out to be oversimplified: rather than being at opposite ends of a single dimension, the statistics suggest that while they are related, they represent discrete dimensions.

Optimism is often thought of as hope: the hope that things will be better in the future. In the nature of things, that’s likely for only part of the time: things also get worse! The difficulty with ‘better’ and ‘worse’ is that they have an emotional connotation; an alternative is to think about it as the inevitability of change. Better or worse actually means better or worse for ‘me’. Here’s an example: you’d very much like to see one particular candidate appointed to the management role in your team, but one of your colleagues would rather it was a different candidate. The role will be filled; if it is with your candidate you’ll be elated and your colleague disappointed, and the reverse if their candidate wins the day. Elation and disappointment are a consequence of fulfilled or disappointed hope, which in the former case can lead to triumphant crowing and in the latter case to opposition and negativity. Both will undermine the cohesion of the team.

One of the reasons for adopting a pessimistic view is that you protect yourself against the disappointment of things not working out as planned – ‘I knew it wouldn’t work’ seems preferable to ‘I wish it had worked’, and it gives the perverse impression that failure is a kind of success. On the other hand, adopting an unfailingly optimistic view of life isn’t necessarily the preferred alternative! Expecting that everything will always work out fine is unrealistic, and in teams it will often generate friction between gloomy pessimists and unrealistic optimists.

So what’s a realistic expectation? The heart of the problem is thinking in twos, assuming that there are only the two options of optimism or pessimism to choose between. Instead, try adding a third point, not just some compromise midway between but an entirely different view. In the Challenge of Change Resilience Training that third point would be exemplified by taking a detached perspective, illustrated in the programme by being ‘in the loft’ in the diagram we use to illustrate the house of the mind. From there you’re able to keep the issues in perspective, but what exactly is that perspective?

One way we could describe it is indifference. A common reaction to the word ‘detachment’ is that it means being cold or uncaring, which it isn’t, but if that’s the response detachment evokes you’ll probably find the word ‘indifferent’ even more challenging! It is always helpful to consider what the word means: just as with detachment, indifference isn’t not caring, it just means you don’t see a difference between the ‘successes’ and ‘failures’. As we saw with the example of preferring different candidates for a job, success and failure are in the eye of the beholder; the reality is that someone gets appointed who some will like but others won’t. The positive and negative perceptions of things are simply values we attribute to them, they’re not inherent in the things themselves.

Without wanting to be too philosophical about it, consider the Zen Buddhist story of the monk accused of fathering the child of a local girl. Her parents insist that he adopt the child and look after it, which he does. Some years later the girl admits that someone else was the father and the parents return to the monk and ask him to give the child back, which he does. At each twist and turn in the story the monk’s only response is, ‘is that so’? Indifference doesn’t mean being disengaged – the monk willingly looked after the child. It does mean not becoming a victim of circumstance by attributing values to things that have none.