Your boss' 'optimism bubble' can create a workplace disaster — here's how to prevent it


You've seen it before. The boss who insists everything is fine while employees grumble and think the exact opposite. It can present as a tone-deaf companywide call about a pressing social issue. 

In an era of employee activism and organizing, it's especially important for bosses and employees to see eye to eye on how their companies should address important social issues that affect their employees.

The problem, though, is it doesn't seem to happen all that often. And when it doesn't, it's a corporate mess waiting to happen.

According to leadership expert Megan Reitz, whose research focuses on the way people interact in the workplace, there's one major cause behind the discord, what she calls the "optimism bubble."

Simply put, an optimism bubble refers to the tendency of leaders to overestimate how comfortable their employees feel raising concerns at work, as Reitz explained in a September TED Talk.

"As you get more senior, you overestimate the degree to which other people are speaking up. You overestimate your approachability, and you overestimate your listening skills," Reitz said. "And that all means that you underestimate the strength of feeling that might exist with some of your employees." 

A professor of leadership and dialogue at the Hult International Business School, Reitz interviewed hundreds of activists and leaders over five years for a book on speaking truth to power, called "Speak Up."

One of the central components of the optimism bubble is a phenomenon Reitz dubs "advantage blindness." When you possess the labels that convey status within a particular hierarchy — think CEO, director and the like — you're likely the last person to realize how that label can affect your approachability, Reitz explained. 

"In fact, it's not until we don't have those labels that we can kind of look at them and go, 'Gosh, they make a difference to how people can voice around here,'" she added. 

So, what can leaders do about this? Reitz has a straightforward, four-point playbook for helping employers better respond to their workers' concerns around simmering social issues.

1. Listen

Leaders need to routinely ask themselves relevant questions, Reitz said: "Are you a bit detached? How do you know what your employees find matters in their organizations?"

The only way to actually answer those questions is by listening, Reitz continued. "Don't assume you know what matters," she said.

There's plenty of guidance out there on the best listening practices for leaders, but Reitz stressed that the most crucial component is "an understanding that it's almost inevitable that you're detached a bit, and you need to do a lot more work to really find out what matters to employees."

2. Reconsider your assumptions

The optimism bubble is just one piece of the pie, though. Throughout the course of her research, Reitz has asked thousands of people how they define "activist" and "activism," and she's heard enough to know they're incredibly fraught terms. 

"We need to understand the assumptions and the associations that we bring to activism because of course that affects how we respond to it," she said.

By way of example, she cites her time working with the board of a health care organization, where one employee was notably vocal about climate change, regularly critiquing the organization's efforts. 

"It was really interesting, because some of the executives labeled him as a troublemaker, [and] kind of wanted to get rid of him," Reitz said. "But there were a few executives that saw him as a trailblazer, and actually a couple that wanted to invite him into the board to educate them." 

The takeaway? What counts as activism depends on who's defining it, and leaders need to recognize their assumptions so they can "respond with more awareness and more mindfulness," Reitz said.

3. Inaction is not an option

Reitz emphasized that "inaction is as political as action," adding that when leaders say they're apolitical on pressing issues, it's essentially an oxymoron. 

While it would be next to impossible for a boss to speak out on every single societal issue in the news, Reitz said leaders should simply "make conscious, coherent, authentic choices about what [they] will make a stand on and what [they] won't."

That decision needs to be made in conjunction with stakeholders, and, she added, "your employees are one of your key stakeholders there."

4. Start a dialogue

Finally, leaders need to understand what employees have thought of their response to activist efforts so far — and there's a good chance it's not as up to par as senior leadership would think. (Vague corporate platitudes like "listening and learning" probably aren't doing the trick.)

Keeping the optimism bubble in check is a key piece of the puzzle, Reitz said, as is remembering that this kind of dialogue is messy. 

"It's jam-packed full of vulnerability, ambiguity, disagreement. That's why leaders try and avoid it so much," Reitz said. "But you can't avoid it any longer, that's not a sustainable strategy. So we need to get far better at experimenting, at expecting fallout, about learning from mistakes."

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