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Resilience and rationality: the risks and rewards of rose-tinted glasses

‘If you were allowed one wish for your child, seriously consider wishing him or her optimism. Optimists are normally cheerful and happy, and therefore popular; they are resilient in adapting to failures and hardships, their chances of clinical depression are reduced, their immune system is stronger’. So writes Daniel Kahnemann, the Nobel Prize winner who has dedicated his life to studying the impact of cognitive biases on human thought and behaviour.

The central tenet of Kahnemann’s work is that our unconscious thinking processes are deeply flawed, and will frequently deceive us if left to their own devices. He urges us to apply our conscious thinking to techniques that mitigate the undesirable consequences of bias. In the context of change, such consequences include:

  • a preference to make decisions and take actions that maintain the current state of affairs (status quo bias)
  • failure to accurately estimate the time and cost required to complete a change initiative (the planning fallacy)
  • overlooking important data because it doesn’t fit with our existing beliefs (confirmation bias)

Yet when it comes to optimism bias, Kahnemann proposes that no greater gift could be bestowed upon a child.

No wonder, then, that an increasing number of employers are investing in resilience programs for their people. The ever-increasing pace of organisational change requires those involved to learn and/or grow in the face of stressors and changing demands. And the skills developed in resilience training are, to a significant degree, aimed at fostering an optimism bias, at providing us with the capacity to frame ourselves, our circumstances, other people and change itself in the most positive way possible. Who doesn’t want happy, resilient, healthy individuals working with and for them?

As a director of a consultancy that delivers resilience programs, I’ve witnessed first-hand the beneficial impact that the optimism bias has on people’s problem-solving abilities, their response to change and their relationships. I take Kahnemann’s advice seriously – my five and eight year old are subject to frequent exhortations to ‘seek out the good’ in others, and could probably recite verbatim my child-friendly (I may, admittedly, be biased!) spiel on the benefits of gratitude.

But as a consultant who works with organisations to mitigate biases in decision-making so that they can successfully navigate the fast-changing world they inhabit, I’m also determined to develop my children’s rational thinking skills. I want them to know how to seek out and analyse evidence for and against different perspectives. I want them to approach life’s big decisions, problems and challenges equipped with the ability to mitigate the cognitive biases that may lead them astray. I want them to understand that thinking rationally gives one a better chance of acting in accordance with one’s interests that thinking optimistically.

Because as individuals, and within organisations, we need to know when to remove the optimism spectacles. We need to understand that making people feel good doesn’t necessarily make people perform better (or even well). We need to identify when individual and organisational performance depends not on optimism, but on establishing – as near as is humanly possible – the objective reality of an existing situation, or the statistical probability of a future event occurring, or the precise events that led to a serious error.

The answer? Give people the tools to manage themselves, their emotions and their relationships. Increase their sense of agency and help them to feel good – or at least better. In other words, develop their resilience. But make them aware that relentless optimism is not a prerequisite for resilience, and that at times it will serve them well to relinquish optimism in the interests of realism. Show them that, just as they have learned to cultivate positivity in their conscious thoughts, they can learn to cultivate curiosity, reasoning skills and scepticism.

Organisations and individuals need to encourage the optimism bias. Hope, self-compassion, gratitude and positive emotion support people to be more resilient. And our organisations, our communities and our society need resilient individuals. But overcoming the economic, social and ethical challenges facing our organisations – let alone our world – requires rational thinkers. So by all means, help your people reap the benefits of wearing rose-coloured glasses. Just make sure they (and you) know when to take them off.