Why running on optimism is a terrible idea

running on optimism


Pessimism is not generally regarded as an attractive trait in a leader, though it does have its advantages. Pessimistic leaders are likely to be more cautious, measured and have a plan for things going wrong. Where they fall short is in being able to motivate others and provide leadership that people would like to follow, since to some, it may seem as if everything is doomed.

Running on optimism has its own problems.

What do you mean by running on optimism?

By running on optimism, I mean ignoring issues, or “worrying about them later”. I’ve recently seen some behaviour by leaders that indicates that they are living in a cocoon where they think that everything will always turn out OK in the end.

Sometimes, things do work out in the end. Often to get there, however, you need to go through a world of hurt first.

Here are some damaging examples of running on optimism that I have seen:

  • Taking on work for which you don’t have enough resources
  • Taking on work for which you don’t have the right resources
  • Taking on complex work with an attitude of “How hard can it be?”

Now let’s have a look at them one by one.

Running on optimism means taking on work for which you don’t have enough resources

When you take on work, hoping that resources will appear out of thin air to do the work for you, you’re in trouble. You’re in trouble because you have most probably told somebody that you are going to get the work done.

Instead of setting expectations correctly, you push full steam ahead, indicating that it’s all OK. That is, until it isn’t OK and you need to tell your stakeholders that you couldn’t deliver.

Even if you can deliver, if you don’t have enough resources then you are clearly forcing people to do additional work that they hadn’t counted on. Running on optimism can put stress on teams for this reason. You might think you’re a positive leader with a great attitude. Your team might think you’re a slave driver because you don’t plan effectively.

Running on optimism means taking on work for which you don’t have the right resources

“Can Emma do this work?”

“Well, she’s never done anything like this before – we could get Josh to oversee it”

This situation is a recipe for disaster. Taking on work for which you don’t have the right skills means you are learning those skills at the same time as doing the work. This usually means that the quality of the work suffers, as people fumble their way through the task. By the end of it, they might know what they are doing, but they are likely to take longer to deliver and produce a poor quality outcome.

So what about Josh, who was going to oversee the work? The problem with this approach is that Josh usually doesn’t have time. If he had time, he’d be the one doing the work. For this reason, don’t expect Josh’s oversight to make much difference in the quality of the end product.

Running on optimism means approaching tasks with an attitude of “How hard can it be?”

Work isn’t hard. Work is very easy and the answer to “How hard can it be?” is often “Not hard at all.”

That is, unless you want to do good work. Then it becomes a whole lot harder. That’s why you generally hire people who know what they’re doing.

This attitude is especially problematic when your team or organisation is meant to be experts at something, delivering high quality work. Your stakeholders are expecting a good product. What they get is often rubbish, because you haven’t taken into account the complexity.

When you have an attitude that any task is possible or easy, you are likely to shortchange everybody involved in the transaction.

You will shortchange yourself because you will underquote or underestimate the time taken to do the work.

You will shortchange your stakeholders because they expect that you know what you’re doing and that you have estimated the workload based on your experience.

Running on optimism is one of the most frustrating traits I have noticed amongst leaders. It trivialises the effort and skill involved in doing things properly and producing quality outcomes. It increases stress on team members as they scramble to make things happen without adequate support.

Often leaders who are running on optimism get the work done in the end. But during that time, they put unnecessary stress on themselves and their teams. Once they deliver, they often say “You see, we did it!” and they repeat the behaviour over and over again.

If you are running on optimism, have a think about what this is doing to your team and to the stakeholders you serve. There is a good chance that you are damaging your credibility and your reputation.

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