Focus: “One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think…. On a mechanical level, cognitive therapy works because it changes explanatory style from pessimistic to optimistic, and the change is permanent. It gives you a set of cognitive skills for talking to yourself when you fail.” – Martin Seligman in Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind & Your Life.
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Transcript of this audio was originally published on February 24, 2009 [some links referred to below may no longer be valid]
Martin Seligman, former APA president and one of the founders of the research-based Science of Happiness tells us that individuals and teams can learn to be optimistic (and ultimately achieve greater success) by adopting an optimistic explanatory style. In his book Seligman provides examples from sports and business in which teams that have developed optimistic explanatory styles have shown a greater ability to "bounce back" from defeat and return to their winning ways more quickly than their pessimistic competitors. This is great news! But how, exactly, can you change (or control) your explanatory style? Well for starters, you need to understand its key dimensions and how these influence your self talk.
According to Seligman, “There are three crucial dimensions to your explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.” Here's a brief operational definition of each dimension:
- Permanence: Is this event, this set of circumstances permanent? (Will it continue?)
- Pervasiveness: Is this event, this set of circumstances universal? (Does it effect everything we do?)
- Personalization: Is the cause of this event or circumstances really “my fault?” (Is the cause due to my internal traits/behaviors or due to external circumstances that are beyond my control?)
Now let's look at how each of these dimensions manifests itself in both the optimistic and the pessimistic explanatory styles.
The Pessimist's Explanatory Style
The pessimist says, when bad things happen, “This is the way of things… they always happen like this (It’s permanent)… No matter what different strategies I try, these bad things happen (It’s pervasive)… And it’s always my own fault -- I can’t seem to get things right (It’s personal).”
The pessimist says, when good thing things happen, “This is just an accident… I got lucky. (It’s not permanent.)… Generally, good things like this don’t happen to me (It’s not pervasive.)… Things went right because of what was happening in the world at large, not because of anything I did. (It’s not personal.)
The Optimist's Explanatory Style
The optimist says, when bad things happen, “This is a fluke…an unusual situation… generally, things go well for me. (It’s not permanent.) There are a lot of other things going right. (It’s not pervasive.) This bad stuff was a result of things that were beyond my control (It’s not personal.)
The optimist says, when good things happen, “It figures! Generally, things go well for me! (It’s permanent.) … Look at all the other areas of my life that things are going well! (It’s pervasive.)… I work hard, strategize well, pay my dues, and I cause good things to happen! (It’s personal.)
The Value of an Optimistic Explanatory Style
In Learned Optimism, Seligman cites several studies (business-based and sports-based) that show “Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better.” In fact, he asserts that an optimistic team (optimistic explanatory style) can “bounce back” from a loss more quickly, learn from their mistakes, and get better results the next time. Conversely, a pessimistic team (pessimistic explanatory style) can’t recover as quickly from setbacks.
Finally, Seligman assures us that “Unlike dieting, learned optimism is easy to maintain once you start. Once you get into the habit of disputing negative beliefs, your daily life will run much better, and you will feel much happier.” So why not do everything you can to help everyone on your team develop an optimistic explanatory style?
Reflect on these questions:
- How did your team explain their last victory? (Was it permanent, pervasive, personal?)
- How did your team explain their last defeat? (Was it permanent, pervasive, personal?)
- Does your project team have an optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style?
Ask your team to:
- Discuss a recent defeat, listing (without censuring) their causes and explanations for this defeat.
- Discuss a recent victory, listing (without censuring) their causes and explanations for this victory.
- Review the list of causes and explanations and discuss each of them:
- Does our statement of cause or explanation indicate permanence, pervasiveness, personalization?
- Ask: “Are we optimistic or pessimistic in our world view?”
- Ask: “Can we re-characterize the pessimistic explanations so that they are more optimistic?”
Project Manager Challenges
- Listen carefully to the way your team is explaining their victories and defeats.
- Overtly challenge or dispute any negative beliefs that lead to a pessimistic explanatory style for your team.
- Look for opportunities to praise your team’s successes by providing evidence to them that these successes are permanent, pervasive, and personally attained. This will help the team develop an optimistic explanatory style.