Developing a Positive Mindset: Time to Fill That Glass

September 5, 2023

Nigel Girling

Head of Professional Qualifications
A wine glass being filled with red wine

There is a question commonly used that purports to ascertain whether someone has a positive mindset or not: “Are they a glass half-full or half-empty kind of person?”

Whilst often used quite casually, I believe that it’s a very important principle. I would suggest that the answer to that question of ‘full or empty’ for any individual has a profound and long-term influence on their relationships, performance, perceptions, impact and ultimately even their wellbeing and mental health. The health benefits of a positive mindset are well documented.

Of course, the glass half-full question is quite vague and ambiguous – here’s a better way to test if you have a positive mindset:

Q: When someone suggests a new idea or an action, what’s your immediate reaction?

• Do you feel a sense of excitement or eagerness to get behind it and see it as an opportunity?

• Or do you look for all the potential problems, obstacles, flaws, downsides, and reasons not to act?

Our challenge in leadership is that many who would like to see themselves as the positive, glass half-full person actually spend quite a lot of time in the other camp.

It’s something we learn to do due to negative experiences, something we’re often encouraged to do in our work environment and, for a leader, something we often see as a key part of our management responsibilities – spotting and avoiding potential problems. It can also come from our inherent personality and attitude to risk.

These are understandable habits to develop. But what effect does this thinking have on us and on those around us?

Positive versus Negative Mindset

Glass half-full (positive) or half-empty (negative) is not just about mindset: it is also about habits and cognitive bias. This is the filtering mechanism through which all information passes on its way to our thinking, usually at a subconscious level. This means that we aren’t even aware that we’re applying that filter.

People who are naturally pre-disposed towards a negative mindset will often tell themselves – and others – that they’re ‘just being realistic’ or ‘playing devil’s advocate’ or that they’re ‘being practical’. They may view those of a more ‘half-full’ persuasion as naïve, unrealistic or even ‘away with the birds’.

That may well be their genuine belief and intention, at least in part – but is that how others perceive their attitude?

Imagine that you are the one putting forward the suggestion:

a) Are you grateful that the other person has spotted the flaws in your argument?
b) Would you view the objections as supportive and helpful?
c) Would it encourage you to put your ideas and suggestions forward in the future?

I suspect that for most people, the answer to all three of those questions would be a firm ‘no’ and the net effect of a negative mindset here can often be to demoralize and demotivate others, to discourage them from coming up with anything new and to damage your relationship with them.

That’s quite a high price to pay for ‘just being realistic’, wouldn’t you say?

On the other hand, just accepting any suggestion or idea uncritically and without appropriate consideration would clearly be reckless and unwise, let alone practically unmanageable. It might expose you, your team and your organization to unacceptable risks.

Becoming equivocally positive

So, in conclusion – which is the best stance for a leader, glass half-full or glass half-empty? I think you can tell from the preceding paragraphs that the truth is that neither actually fits every situation.

I suggest that the best answer for any leader is to be equivocally positive.

What’s that, you ask? It means that you need to approach the idea – at least initially – with an open mind and a positive mindset. This will encourage engagement, generate creativity, and enable future motivation. However, you subsequently need to encourage the proposer to undertake a critical evaluation of the real merits of the idea, so that you can both be reassured that it is likely to work.

If the proposer identifies potential flaws in their own suggestion, rather than have you point them out, then it’s likely to have a very different effect on them. It allows you then to applaud their effort and intentions and to commiserate with them that it hasn’t turned out to be the best course of action. If you can add the word ‘yet’ to that conclusion, better still. That suggests that, though this idea may not yet be exactly right, it could become – or give rise to – the right answer with further thinking and a few modifications. That is likely to engage and motivate.

For any leader, the glass needs to be treated as if it is probably half full – a leader certainly has a responsibility to manage risk – but also an even bigger responsibility for engagement, motivation and morale – and to build a culture of ideas, innovation, teamwork and support.

As a leader, your mindset, approach and attitudes resonate widely. They have a profound impact on the culture and priorities of others – and on their wellbeing. Make it a positive one.

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