Skeptical Optimism: Reality Checks and Fake News

Skeptical Optimism

“I encourage active skepticism – when people are being skeptical because they’re trying to identify the best course of action. They’re trying to identify the next step for themselves or other people” ~ Tim Ferris

I am proudly on the record as a self-proclaimed optimist – and I think that optimism is vital for leadership, because part of the role of leader – whether in an organisational context, or in the wild, is to provide hope for those that follow.

But there are two dangerous traps for optimists who don’t watch their step:

  • Developing an optimism bias
  • Gaining a reputation as gullible or naive

Optimism Bias

Skeptical OptimismA former colleague of mine recently wrote an interesting article about the perils of Optimism Bias.  A behavioural economics/psychology term for what happens when people only want to see the good things, and not prepare for bad things, or even entertain that they could happen.  Paul’s article is mostly about public policy and economics, but it struck me as being a very valuable lesson about leadership…

Being an optimist can mean that you develop a preference for ‘good news’.  You begin to seek out people who provide good news, and spend less time with people who seem to bear bad news.  This is referred to as confirmation bias (you only want to read, hear, watch, engage with ‘things that confirm your existing perspective).  If you continue with this approach – actively spending more time with those who tell you things you want to hear, and less time with those who don’t, you will eventually gain a reputation for being detached from reality, and you will find your self surrounded by sycophants.

“Leaders who refuse to listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say” ~ Andy Stanley

This is particularly the case when a leader’s optimism is based on ‘faith’ rather than ‘facts’.  To be clear, I’m not referring to religious faith – I mean that hope should be dowsed with a healthy dose of data.

Appearance of Gullibility or Naiveté

Skeptical OptimismIf you manage to dodge the optimism-bias-trap, there’s still a risk that you might still appear gullible or naive.  In other words, people start to think that you’re unrealistic, or oblivious to the facts.

This can be devastating for those looking to your leadership – they are left uncertain and hesitant, in much the same way as they would if you displayed pessimism or fear.  Ultimately, you lose credibility.

If you aren’t actually gullible or naive, remember to balance your optimism with realism, and actively plan for unexpected events, so that when they occur you can appear wise and prescient.

Skeptical Optimism

Possibly the best way to avoid either of the optimism traps I’ve described is to employ skeptical optimism.

Reality Checks…

Questions are incredibly powerful, when well deployed.  Use them to regularly check your assumptions, to identify additional data, and to (in)validate your perspective.  But you need to be open to realising you were wrong.

When you assume the mantel of leadership, you will find there are people around you who validate your thinking and support your decisions.  That’s great.  But you also need to find people who might propose an alternative view – a Team of Rivals if you will, and seek their views actively.  People who remind you about compassion in the face of a disciplinary matter, or intangibles in the face of a major financial decision, or customer service in the face of pursuing a stronger bottom line…  And it can be frustrating when these views take you back to square one.  But in the end it’s worth it.

Fake News…

Very trendy these days, but nothing new.

Skeptical Optimism‘Spin’ is not confined to the news media – and it never has been.  As human beings, we are all highly likely to tell a version of the story that paints us in the best possible light.

As a leader, you need to remember that because you have power people want to be seen in a favourable light by you – they believe this will benefit them.

While I don’t want you to stop believing the best in others – that’s a critical leadership mindset – you need to retain some skepticism.  Be aware of WIIFT (What’s In It For Them) and seek corroboration from multiple sources before acting on the information.

Just be mindful to guard against cynicism.

Employee Background Checks – Ripe for Skeptical Optimism

The most common real example I see of leaders failing to follow the advice here is employee background checks, or reference checks, prior to making an offer of employment.

Generally, by the time we’ve carried out a thorough and extensive recruitment process (we’ve updated a position description, written a compelling advert, long-listed and short-listed from dozens of candidates, interviewed a handful, including the time involved in preparing, scheduling and carrying out these interviews, evaluated a work sample or psychometric evaluation) we have invested a substantial amount of time in whoever it is that has emerged as our ‘preferred candidate’…  We desperately don’t want to have to go back to the drawing board.  Or even to our second choice, who want’s a second choice employee for goodness sake!

Skeptical Optimism

By the time we pick up the phone to call the referee, we are primed to hear information that will confirm our decision, and to not hear information that might cast doubt on our ‘already-anticipated-new-team-member’. I am astounded at the regularity with which managers accept a candidate’s request not to speak to their current boss – “I haven’t told them I’m looking and I’d rather not, in case I don’t get the role”… This always triggers alarm bells for me.

If you are in a management position already, this is a great area to practice your skeptical optimism skills!

Can you think of any other recurring scenarios where skeptical optimism should be deliberately practised?  Let me know in the comments below!

Leadership Possibilities

I want to help you to lead.  Not from a position of power, but from exactly where you are now.

So I’m going to write a book specifically for you.  It’ll be out early next year (28 February 2018 to be precise).

If you’d like to know more, please sign up for my newsletter (I don’t spam, just a weekly newsletter) where I’ll keep you up to date on progress, test some ideas, and even share a preview or two as we get closer to launch-day.

Let’s do this!

2 thoughts on “Skeptical Optimism: Reality Checks and Fake News”

  1. Another area where managers can practice skeptical optimism is in relation to project milestone report updates, especially where projects are long term. Managers eagerly hope for the good news of ‘green’ status each month, and project teams may be inadvertently incentivised to report progress generously. Both parties can find themselves underestimating the impact of challenges on budget and timeframe and overstating the significance of progress made.

    • Kia ora Grant!
      Yes, I absolutely agree – we get what we ‘transmit’ we want, even when we’re not aware of it sometimes!
      Lovely to hear from you, and thanks for stopping by!
      Best wishes


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