The Optimism Bias

October 16, 2015

By Erin Gloeckner

Are you a Tigger (i.e., an unfailingly cheerful and bouncy tiger)? Or are you an Eeyore (i.e., a pronouncedly pessimistic and gloomy donkey)? Whether or not you fit neatly into one of those categories, you’ve likely met people who do. My own partner is a die-hard Tigger who always tells me to ‘look on the bright side,’ especially when I naturally drift to the Eeyore extreme. Sometimes it’s refreshing to be cheered up by a person who is exploding with joy, or to be grounded by a true cynic; in some cases, endless optimism inspires a drastic roll of the eyes. Of course since such radical personalities can clash in our personal lives, they are likely to clash in the workplace, too. And we frequently witness the Tigger and Eeyore traits during Risk Assessments for our nonprofit clients.

The optimism bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to assume they are less likely to experience a negative event than other people are. The ‘that will never happen to me’ attitude naturally springs up when we see a coworker get fired, when a friend is diagnosed with a disease, or when we read about a brutal crime in the newspaper. Apparently the bias holds true for positive events as well, such as believing we will be richer and more popular than other people around us.

These cognitive phenomena are ever-present in the world of risk management. During interviews for a Risk Assessments, we have come to expect that one or more interviewees will paint a far too rosy picture of the risks facing their organizations. The rosy picture could be an underestimate of the significant consequences that a potential risk event could have on the organization, or a low-ball estimate of the likelihood a risk will materialize. The optimism bias may cause a nonprofit leader to feel and convey to others:

  • a false sense of security because ‘this could never happen to us,’ or
  • an inflated sense of preparedness, essentially that ‘we have got this under our control.’

On the other end of the continuum, our Eeyore clients tend to grossly overestimate the potential impact of risks they identify on the horizon or overestimate the likelihood of disaster landing on the nonprofit’s doorstep. For example, a risk heat map drawn by an Eeyore might show that every risk lies within the upper right-hand quadrant (i.e., the extremely likely and extremely severe category). These cynics may paint an overly frightful picture of risk because they’d rather overdo it than be wrong. Imagine if you estimated that your nonprofit had a very low risk of being affected by a natural disaster, and the next day your building was demolished by a hurricane. Now I’ve got you wondering… is it better to overestimate or underestimate when it comes to risk management? Do I want to be like Tigger or Eeyore?

The answer is that neither character has the perfect outlook on risk. Risk management is certainly a practice that can and should bolster the confidence of your stakeholders, and in that way it acts as a counterbalance to cynicism and stress. Perhaps it’s best to sway slightly to the side of Tigger-using optimism to inspire proactive risk management, but being careful not to fall victim to a false sense of security or overly optimistic view of your preparation to address threats or seize opportunities. Maybe the best solution is to invite both Tiggers and Eeyores to join the risk management conversation at your nonprofit.

To learn more about the Optimism Bias, watch cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot’s TED talk, which explains why our brains might be hardwired to look on the bright side.

Workplace Stress Risk Assessment

In last week’s Risk eNews, Battling Burnout, I offered to share my own responses to the Workplace Stress Risk Assessment that I dared readers to complete. Hopefully you took the challenge too, and perhaps your answers can offer you insight into reducing stress and finding more optimism in your life! Here are my responses:

  • What are my key stressors at work? Are those truly my stressors or is there something else underneath the surface?I fall into the category of ‘overachiever’-not that I overachieve, but that I think I can take on more than I should. Usually I’ll volunteer to do everything because I want to learn as much as possible, but I end up packing on projects and later feel overwhelmed. I also enjoy autonomy at work, and I don’t naturally ask for help unless I desperately need it. I’ve learned not to wait until it’s too late to ask for help, but sometimes I still feel stressed if I realize I can’t complete a project on my own to the level of quality I envision in my mind. Another stressor for me is balancing the personal and professional elements of life. I take after my dad, who constantly checks his work email even when he is on vacation or he should be sleeping! I often feel stressed when I can’t let go of work to focus on my life. The Center offers wonderful flexibility and a happy work environment, but sometimes I can’t stop thinking about work.
  •  How do I usually deal with work-borne stress? (e.g., vent to my spouse at home; stay secretly mad at my coworkers; bottle it up until it becomes unbearable, etc.) Do I usually cope with stress alone, or do I cope with peers or other people who care about me?My most common outlet is venting to my partner at home. I try not to vent too often-and very little at work, if at all-since I know it kills morale. But sometimes people vent on accident or we don’t even realize how often we do it. Healthy, occasional complaining is normal but frequent complaining leads to unhealthy ruminating. Try to avoid ruminating–that’s when we can’t let go of an issue or we struggle to see any solutions because we allow the issue to grow larger in our minds. I also ‘deal’ with stress by putting more work on myself until I feel completely overwhelmed. Obviously that usually backfires and once I hit a wall, I might experience physical manifestations of stress like headaches, tense shoulders, anxiety, or crying.
  • Is this method of dealing with stress effective? Does it reduce my overall level of stress? If not, what else could I try that might produce more positive results?Headaches, tense shoulders, and crying are probably not the best ways to mitigate stress! While some stress is positive or can act as a motivator, it is hard to identify an effective technique for reducing negative or unhealthy stress. I used to exercise consistently and found that it offered a great way to ‘work out’ my stress.
  • What stress reduction techniques have I shied away from (maybe because they seem cheesy or I doubt they will work for me)? What is one funky thing I can try to positively manage my workplace stress? (e.g., starting a stress-reduction challenge in my office, trying yoga or meditation, playing new games with my kids, pursuing an old hobby I used to love, etc.)I’ve often considered trying yoga or meditation because I’m interested in holistic wellness and alternative medicine. Recently many of my friends have turned to yoga, so now it’s on my list of tricks to try. Just a few days ago, my friend Tina shared a great yoga video resource with me: Do You Yoga. I’m planning to try a couple videos with my sister this weekend. Fingers crossed-I hope it works for me!

My goal is to try this new stress reduction technique during the next month, while being more mindful of what causes me to feel stressed at work. My new technique is: going running with my dog, Hugo.

Since last week’s eNews, I went running four times with my dog, Hugo. I generally consider Hugo to be the greatest stress-reliever in my life, as he constantly models joy, curiosity, unconditional love, and satisfaction with the simplest of life’s pleasures. I find it inspiring and I try to invite those anti-stress sentiments into my own life. But anyway, back to my running challenge. The first run was pretty pathetic and it hurt a lot since I’ve been sedentary lately. Of course Hugo was basically walking next to me while I ‘ran.’ But by my fourth run, I made it to two miles at an active running pace, and I felt more confident that I could get back to the level of athleticism I had once before. It felt great to combine some effective de-stressors: spending time with Hugo; enjoying the beautiful transition into autumn and soaking up the last rays of sunlight after work; and, getting off the couch while earning a little endorphin rush. Now comes the hard part-sticking to it!

Proof that I went running: I’m red and sweaty, and Hugo looks completely fine.

Erin Gloeckner is Director of Consulting Services at the Nonprofit Risk Management Center, where she coordinates and supports consulting projects for a diverse array of clients. She welcomes your feedback or questions about this article at erin@nonprofitrisk.org or 703.777.3504.