With every hopeful step that promises imminent emergence from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are often quickly called to adjust to setbacks and reset our idea of “normal” once again. The most effective leaders in such challenging times are those who can provide a realistic evaluation of the circumstances at hand while also inspiring hope around our ability to improve them with meaningful action.
The approach is one McKinsey & Company calls “bounded optimism.” They suggest that leaders who combine an eyes-wide-open view of obstacles with a sense of empowerment around the team’s ability to cope can help employees feel a sense of confidence and personal agency that they can rise to the challenge.
“Early on, leaders can lose credibility by displaying excessive confidence or by providing simple answers to difficult problems in spite of obviously difficult conditions,” McKinsey’s report, How to demonstrate calm and optimism in a crisis, reveals. “It is essential to project confidence that the organization will find its way through the crisis but also show that you recognize its severity.”
The Stockdale Paradox
In his seminal book, Good to Great, best-selling author Jim Collins asserts that every company faces significant adversity along the road to success, but those that rise to greatness always have a management team that practices “psychological duality.” He writes, “On the one hand, they stoically accepted the brutal facts of reality. On the other hand, they maintained an unwavering faith in the endgame, and a commitment to prevail as a great company despite the brutal facts.”
Collins eventually named this approach the Stockdale Paradox after United States Navy Vice Admiral, James Stockdale, who was the most senior naval officer held captive in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. He was tortured repeatedly throughout seven years as a prisoner of war. During an interview between Collins and Stockdale, the author asked the admiral about the prisoners who were less likely to survive imprisonment and torture. He was shocked when Stockdale replied, “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists.”
Stockdale explained that fellow prisoners who thought they would be released by Easter, or Thanksgiving, or certainly by Christmas suffered from unrealistic expectations and repeatedly crushed hopes. His own approach, by contrast, was to maintain a persistent belief that he would eventually be released and return home, but never to let that cloud his ability to see the severity of his current situation. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Bounded optimism as leadership strategy
The McKinsey report says this mix of confidence and hope combined with realism (bounded optimism) springs from a profound trust in people’s abilities to deal with adversity and find their way through, while also recognizing that the challenges will be significant. A key value in acknowledging the severity of a situation is in how it prepares you to marshal forces to address it as effectively as possible and to frame the experience in meaningful terms.
Leaders who help create meaning around a struggle enable team members to place their own efforts in a larger context and to see the purpose behind personal sacrifices, such as long hours, heavy workloads, constrained resources and anxiety fueled by uncertainty.
Effective leaders use bounded optimism to help teams rise to a challenge and fight mental fatigue and disillusionment when setbacks inevitably occur. “Meaning builds confidence, efficacy, and endurance but also can serve as a balm if the outcome takes longer or is different from what is expected,” the McKinsey report states.
Bounded optimism keeps team members from anticipating that a severe challenge will suddenly disappear and helps fortify them for the long haul and the roller coaster of managing through crisis. If you think everything will be fine in just a little bit, you are far more vulnerable to disappointment and less ready to weather the storm.
Creating realistic expectations about hoped-for outcomes and a framework in which team members can fully contribute to bringing those solutions to fruition empowers people with purposeful action. The strategy is well applied in facing the ongoing difficulties of leading through a global pandemic, but can also be used for dealing with more localized trials faced by a work team or department in more typical business situations.
The power of acceptance
By building your leadership responses to workplace challenges on bounded optimism, you can share a message that is still hopeful, but that shifts thinking from what could have been or should have been or used to be to one that looks at what is possible moving forward. With a more pragmatic vision as a guide, you can help employees better understand their new reality, spark a sense of motivation around their personal ability to make a difference, and inspire the team to emerge even better than before.