Tough times signal need for managers to express genuine optimism, not ‘happy talk’

When I ask journalists to reflect upon the qualities of their best bosses, they almost always include “optimistic.”

That’s not surprising; one dictionary defines “optimistic” as “hopeful and confident about the future.” Most of us are grateful when we work for (or with) people who help us feel good about what lies ahead.

That’s why it’s a shame so many managers misunderstand what real optimism is. Their staffs are looking for reasons to believe, and what they get is happy talk.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Communicating genuine optimism is the result of a process — a straightforward, and potentially wrenching, process.

Any leader, at any level of the organization, can do it. In fact, all leaders owe it to their staffs to rigorously seek genuine optimism that they can share with others, credibly.

Let’s be clear about what genuine optimism is — and what it’s not. First, optimism is not a substitute for a good strategy. It is, however, an important ingredient in the effective manager’s ability to lead others to carry out that strategy.

Second, optimism is not happy talk. Over the past two decades, we’ve heard gigabytes worth of happy talk, often from top managers who are trying to fire up the troops after the latest downsizing. Standing before staffs that have said goodbye to friends, longtime colleagues, sources of institutional memory and expertise and yes, some underachievers, these managers have been known to say something like:

We will look back on this as the best thing that ever happened to us.

Really? If the staffs listening to these pep talks were given those hand-held meters that record real-time reactions to what’s being said, I’m guessing they’d be looking for PolitiFact’s “Pants on Fire” rating.

That’s happy talk.

When I think of genuinely optimistic leaders, I think of Winston Churchill, emerging from his bunker and walking through the bombed-out ruins with his fellow citizens. I can hear him asking them to believe that no matter how bad things are right now, they can prevail.

Real leaders do not deny reality. In fact, the credibility of their optimism stems from the fact that they believe in the future despite the current reality.

Let’s be clear about our current reality: after 20 years of downsizing in all kinds of newsrooms, members of our communities are less likely to see themselves in a news report. They get news products that receive less editing, and it shows. And the coverage they receive frequently lacks the expertise of beat reporters who, thanks to downsizing, have been replaced by generalists. (Imagine being told to run down to the courthouse and get a story online ASAP about a complex corporate bankruptcy filing — the first one you’ve ever covered. This is the best thing that ever happened to us?)

As managers, we need to remember that the people most familiar with the current reality are the people who work in that reality. Our staffs sit next to the empty desks. They scramble to cover topics they’ve never covered before and learn technology they haven’t been trained to use effectively. They take the phone calls from readers and viewers who ask why we didn’t cover that story, why the story that broke at 10 p.m. wasn’t in the morning paper, why we didn’t photograph this game or that graduation. Managers don’t get credibility by denying or sugar-coating that reality.

The current reality should give us hope for the future. Why? Because in many places around this country, staffs are producing examples of print, digital and broadcast journalism that help their communities make better decisions, help people make sense of their increasingly complex world, help all of us interact with each other all day, every day.

It’s happening. Newsrooms that are, in some cases, one-third their previous size, are producing work that matters. Could they produce more of it if they had bigger staffs? Absolutely. Would their communities benefit if they were producing more good work? Yes they would.

But here’s the point: Managers in many newsrooms have gone through the process of seeking optimism, have found it, and are producing work that makes a difference. What I am suggesting today is that knowingly or not, they found optimism by following a process. Here it is:

  1. Identify your ambitions. What does your community need from your news report? What kind of journalism would address those needs? What’s your vision of success for your newsroom’s staff?
  2. Confront those ambitions with your current reality. What can you expect to accomplish with the human resources you’ve been given, the technology and training you’ve been allocated, and the goals you’ve been assigned? Be ruthless in your consideration of these questions. Remember, your credibility with your staff is riding on this exercise. Can you succeed with the hand you’ve been dealt?
  3. Answer “yes” or “no.” If your answer to question 2 is “yes,” you are capable of communicating optimism to the most skeptical of staffs. If your answer is “no,” you need to ask whether you should remain in a job that you don’t believe you can do.

Three steps. One process. Now that you honestly believe in the future you are responsible for leading, you are ready to credibly address the staff — no matter if it’s the entire newsroom or three page designers. When you talk with them, here are a few things to remember:

  • Acknowledge reality. Don’t shy from talking about unpleasant facts, like the new population of the newsroom or the impact of a new round of furloughs. Your audience knows those facts, and they want to know you are as conscious of them as they are.
  • Share your own fears. Think of it this way: You want to help your staff confront their ambitions with the current reality, just as you did. So tell them what concerns you and how you got to “yes.” Religious people say faith means more when it survives a confrontation with doubt. The same is true of optimism.
  • Don’t dis the past. Some managers say their staffs resist change by clinging to their past. Instead of disparaging work from the past (and by extension, the staff that produced it), emphasize how the newsroom can meet the current, changing needs of the community by building on the best of the past — with interactive technology, enhanced storytelling skills and delivery platforms that take you where the audience is.
  • Communicate your (revised) vision. Newsrooms that have most successfully dealt with downsizing have focused on specific coverage goals, like Watchdog reporting, sports, consumer news or politics. They identify areas that the community needs its news report to cover, and work to own those areas. Sharing your strategy with the staff adds specificity — and hopefully credibility — to your optimism.
  • Ask for help. You can’t do it without them. Say it.

Is this a process that can lead to genuine optimism? I believe it can. Genuine optimism can help you unite people behind a sound strategy for your newsroom’s future. It can set the tone for sound, day-to-day management of a staff in times of change.

And it can help you dump that foolish pep talk for something like this:

I’m standing before you today with very mixed emotions. I, like you, am aware of the people who are missing from this room, and I can’t help thinking about how much we will miss them and their work. I hope we never forget the contributions they made to this newsroom and to the community we serve.

At the same time, I have to admit to a feeling of excitement. I’m thinking about the challenge of covering our community in a time of constant and confounding change. Our public needs strong journalism from us more than ever, as they try to make sense of the chaotic information world in which we all live. They are waiting to see if we can respond.

I believe we will. And do you know why?

Because I’m looking at all of you. When I do that, I believe that we can do it.

I know it won’t be easy. We’ll all have to learn a lot of new things. We’ll have to make some smart choices about the coverage we’ll focus our remaining resources on — and we’ll have to stick to those choices. And we’ll have to interact a lot more with our community than we’ve ever done before about the issues they struggle with the most.

And so, I’m also a little scared. Maybe just like you. But I believe we can do this. We can do it because of the talent in this room, and the desire you and I share to be excellent. That’s our tradition and we’ll honor it by making it our future.

We can do this.

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Join Butch Ward, Jill Geisler and managers from all over the world for Leadership Academy, Poynter’s premier management seminar, this October 20-25 in St. Petersburg. Apply here now to guarantee yourself a seat. 

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