Tag Archives: positive workplace

Permission to be an Optimalist

Think about your workplace:

  • Is there a climate of psychological safety in which workers are allowed to learn from mistakes, and there is an acceptance of human fallibility?
  • Is there a suffocating climate of fear of failure?
  • Is there micromanagement to eliminate possibility of mistakes being made?

“The perfectionist manager loses out, as do his employees and the organization: the best people leave, and those who remain fail to learn.” (p140)

The Pursuit of Perfect

Perfectionism at work is just one of the many areas Tal Ben-Shahar addresses in his latest book “The Pursuit of Perfect”.  Whether you’re a perfectionist or not, this book is highly recommended. Tal interweaves his wealth of knowledge of well-researched concepts with compelling personal experiences. The result is a very readable analysis of the dangers of perfectionism and an outline of a healthier alternative that he calls “optimalism.” In Part 2, he applies the ideas to specific areas of life that are dear to his heart: education, parenting, relationships and the workplace. Throughout Tal interjects practical suggestions and advice for how to reduce perfectionist tendencies. In Part 3, he offers ten meditations on specific topics.

The central idea is that being an optimalist, in the state of positive perfection, is adaptive and healthy, while negative perfectionism is a maladaptive and neurotic state. Tal draws a link between healthy optimalism and the goal of Positive Psychology, the scientific study of optimal human functioning.

Continuum between Extreme Perfectionism and Optimalism

At one end of the continuum, extreme perfectionists reject reality, failure (and success) and painful emotions, and are rarely satisfied. At the other end of the continuum are the optimalists. They accept the realities of being human and the inevitable, mixed results that come with purposeful action. They’ve learned to appreciate “good enough.”

There are shades of grey between these extremes on the continuum. People can experience varying degrees of perfectionism and optimalism in different parts of their lives.

Reality for Extreme Perfectionists

  • Perfectionists reject the reality, constraints and experiences of the human condition.
  • They believe it is possible and desirable to be perfect, and constantly strive and expect to get there.
  • They set impossible goals and standards.
  • Unwilling to accept themselves, they are destined never to feel good enough.
  • In effect, they rarely give themselves permission to be human.

Failure/Success for Extreme Perfectionists

  • To the perfectionist, a good life is completely without failure.
  • Hurdles are unwelcome, mistakes are catastrophic, and criticisms are devastating.
  • So focused are they on the destination, they are unable to enjoy the journey.
  • Even though they might succeed, they never feel successful.
  • Since accomplishment is never perfect, they even reject success when it comes.

Emotions of Extreme Perfectionists

  • Because feelings can be so volatile and unpredictable, perfectionists do not permit a range of human emotions. They seek a constant and perfect tone, whether it’s positive or negative. There is no pleasure in accomplishment, and no pain allowed in failure.
  • Because perfectionists want to look good, they fear exposing their mistakes
  • They can be beset by procrastination and paralysis (“if I don’t try, I won’t fail”).
  • With high expectations they are hard on themselves and can be as hard on others.
  • They tend to be fault finders and pessimists.

Reality for Optimalists

  • They set high standards and ambitious goals that are attainable and grounded in reality.
  • Their goals are flexible and adaptable. They are willing to experiment, take risks, seek feedback, and see the benefits in criticism.
  • They are curious with a genuine desire to learn.
  • Optimalists value the journey, expect detours, and seek to learn from (not fear) failure: “learn to fail or fail to learn”.

Emotions of Optimalists

  • They permit a full range of emotions, accepting both the pleasant and unpleasant experiences.
  • Optimalists appreciate and savor success, and can find satisfaction in a less then perfect performance.
  • The “good enough” mindset results in more energy. Coping and learning increases self-confidence, encouraging optimalists to take on more challenges.
  • A rich emotional life of high self-esteem and self acceptance is the reward for being an optimalist.

Psychological health

In a recent email Tal explained to us, “Where we are on the continuum between optimalism and perfectionism is one of the better predictors of mental health. It doesn’t explain everything, but it explains a lot.” On curiosity and intrinsic motivation, Tal offered, “Optimalists tend to be more intrinsically motivated, and curiosity is a form of intrinsic motivation. Perfectionists are usually driven by their need to prove themselves, not by their desire to learn.”

Acceptance and mindfulness

Amongst the many practical ways to become an optimalist, Tal advocates active acceptance and reminds us of the importance of mindfulness:

“Active acceptance is about recognizing things as they are and then choosing the course of action we deem appropriate and worthy of ourselves.” (pp. 51-57)

“Accepting myself, sensitivity and all, is more likely to help me become more resilient. When I accept the emotion – when I accept myself – that’s when I am in the best mindset and heart-set to change.” (pp. 51-57)

“Permission to feel, to experience the experience rather than to ruminate on it; it’s about accepting emotions as they are, being with them rather than trying to understand and ‘fix’ them” (p. 68)

Finding peace

Tal’s practical “Time In” exercises, reflections, and meditations help the reader lessen the grip of perfectionism. However, Tal does not set up unrealistic expectations. No quick fix, no silver bullets. It takes time, hard work and regular practice.

This book reminds us to allow ourselves to have a good enough life and to give ourselves permission to be human. So begins the journey of moving towards optimalism, and to a place of peace, satisfaction, and happiness.


Many thanks to Tom Weirich, colleague, friend and fellow member of Positive Workplace International (PWI). Tom is an Advisor with Wells Fargo Advisors, and helps people thrive and prosper by working at the intersection of money and happiness.

After recently reading and reviewing Tal’s book for our PWI team, Tom and I co-wrote this article for Positive Psychology News Daily (PPND): [Book Review] Permission to be an Optimalist .

A big thank you to Kathryn Britton, PPND Associate Editor, Consultant and Coach.  Kathryn refined and improved the final version of the PPND article.  More about Kathryn >>

Finally, thank you Tal for the great book, and for also conversing with Tom and me over email and answering our questions.


Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw Hill.

Zest and Work

How’s your zest? Your vitality, energy, exuberance, vigor, engagement? Do you approach your work with “anticipation, energy, and excitement”?

These are important questions because zest is linked with enhanced psychological wellbeing and better physical health, which in turn affect such things as job performance, reduced turnover and absenteeism. “People who are zestful are more likely to pursue flow (engagement) in their everyday activities and to regard their lives as meaningful.”

Zest and Work is the title of an article in the February 2009 issue of the Journal of Organizational Behavior (Note 1). The researchers, some big names in Positive Psychology, already knew that zest predicts general life satisfaction. This was based on their extensive work with the VIA (Values in Action) classification of character strengths. Wanting to extend their research into workplace settings, the researchers were interested in how zest is related to work satisfaction, and how zest relates to the concept of work as a calling.

Work satisfaction
Work satisfaction and commitment is ‘not simply a function of the work itself’. Other factors include: safety, security, challenge, variety, and responsibility.  Further, what the employee brings to work is also important, such as their levels of happiness, enthusiasm, and ability to be socially engaged.

Work as a calling
Work which is defined as a ‘calling’ occurs when employees are motivated to work because it is fulfilling, is intrinsically rewarding, and is ‘central to one’s very existence’. Such workers have high work satisfaction and take fewer sick days, and work units experience higher morale and better communication.

Research Results

The study of 9,803 participants confirmed the hypothesis that ‘zestful individuals would be more likely to experience their work as a calling and [would be] more satisfied with their work and with life in general’. Of all of the VIA strengths, ‘zest was the single best predictor of work as a calling’.

Enhancing Zest

The researchers list some of the many ways to enhance zest.  For example, optimising health and fitness, having a hopeful and optimistic disposition, having a supportive supervisor and good social and work relationships, cultivating gratitude, and seeing where one’s work fits into the bigger vision.

What can we do?

Zest is within our personal control, and is also affected by our workplace settings. Executives can take an interest in the ‘psychology of energy’ that drives their organisations. They can deepen their understanding of how employees’ levels of zest are affected by such things as workplace culture, communications, conversations, policies and procedures.

This is where the practical application of Positive Psychology, Positive Organizational Behavior, Positive Organizational Scholarship and Appreciative Inquiry can help executives to build positive workplaces where people are zestful and thriving.

Note 1: Peterson, C., Park, N., Hall, N., Seligman, M.E.P. (2009), Zest and Work, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol 30; Issue. 2, pp 161-172
All quotes above are drawn from this article.

Respect at Work

Last month I heard an interesting radio interview on workplace incivility. In line with the theme of my (usually) monthly emails, I reflected on how this month’s email could kick off the year with tips that help build thriving people, thriving workplaces.  Below is some information from the radio interview and some information drawn from some of the past five years’ emails.

Workplace Incivility

Christine Pearson, Professor of Management at Arizona’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, is an expert in workplace incivility and was recently interviewed by ABC Radio National. Here are some extracts: Incivility is the seemingly inconsequential acts which have a negative impact.  It is at the low end in terms of intensity.  It can be denied, joked off, and some would say they don’t mean harm.  Incivility is not ‘out and out’ harassment and bullying.  It includes sarcasm, not being helpful, talking down, sending bad news via email, belittling, talking badly about people behind their back, or simply being unhelpfully unresponsive. Although the behaviour might be subtle, the costs are not.  People reduce their hours of work, reduce effort, lose focus, their customer service suffers and about one in eight people leave their job.  The bad behaviour ripples out and can corrode people’s values so that they too begin to act in similar ways. This happens when people are the on the receiving end of incivility, or if they witness it. Less than 10% of people report incivility because they think they might be ridiculed, or encouraged to get over it and toughen up.  Workplaces might not be aware that incivility is occurring because, unlike bullying and harassment, there are usually few corporate policies or guidelines on how to deal with this more subtle behaviour.

“Negative interactions had a fivefold strong effect on mood than positive interactions – so nasty people pack a lot more wallop than their more civilised counterparts” (“The No A-hole Rule”, Robert I. Sutton Ph.D., Warner Business Books, 2007)

A Thriving Workplace

Extracts from my previous emails:

Focus everyone’s attention on what it takes to be a decent human being, and how to uplift and energise others around them.  Encourage behaviours that promote positivity and help an organisation to thrive and flourish and to be a positive workplace. Because emotions are contagious, each person needs to consider their impact on those around them.

  • Leaders have a role in inspiring positive moods and in creating the conditions that promote positivity
  • Leadership is closely linked to one’s humanity
  • “The new CEO will be a healer” (Bulletin Magazine, June 2005)
  • The best managers encourage friendships in the workplace by creating the conditions under which such relationships thrive
  • All employees deserve a manager who cares about their general wellbeing
Respectful relationships
  • It’s about hearts, minds and souls; workplaces should be full of “energy, light and vibrancy”
  • Developing a climate of appreciation in people, teams and organisations leads to better performance, more engaged workers, more satisfied staff.  It lifts the individual and collective mood and creates an attractive place where people want to work
  • Give attention to people; show respect; value them. Treat people with respect and caring: they want to belong
  • The motivation of people depends on human connectedness
  • Appreciation, valuing each other, is the building block for successful workplace relationships

“Respect can be a powerful signal to individuals regarding their standing not only as employees but as people” (Knowledge@Wharton “Lack of Organizational Respect Fuels Employee Burnout”)

“I am more aware of the attitude I bring to work and how it affects my colleagues around me.  I also make a conscious effort if I notice that someone is not the happiest or if they are super busy, I offer to get them lunch or remind them that they need a break or simply offer help.  Sometimes by just saying hello to someone and smiling or giving them a nice compliment can really change the person’s perspective.” (A client’s comment on how they treat others)

All the best in your quest to create the kind of workplace that brings “energy, light and vibrancy” and enriches employees’ hearts, minds and souls. I wish you well for 2009.