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Optimism is the Engine of High-Performance Team DNA

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

Note: This is part three of a 4 part series on the building blocks of high-performance team DNA: work-ethic, heart, optimism, and maturity

“We always hope for the easy fix: the one simple change that will erase a problem in a stroke. But few things in life work this way. Instead, success requires making a hundred small steps go right - one after the other, no slipups, no goofs, everyone pitching in.” Atul Gawande, Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance

As a leader you are paid to guide people and organizations to the promised-land of high achievement. A big part of accelerating the journey will be your team's ability to anticipate and solve problems along the way. Experience is part of the answer but a bigger element is each individual's outlook toward barriers. Will they see impediments to progress with extreme pessimism and quit on the job or will they be resilient enough to break down the issue into it's component parts and then work diligently until resolution is achieved?

I think you will agree that solution-oriented individuals are worth their weight in gold on teams. They are persistent. They are strategic and analytical. And they never lose hope.

When a team is made up of optimistic people the pervasive feeling is one of dogged determination. These people love resolving problems and anticipating what might trip them up next. Success is regularly wrestled from the jaws of defeat because of teamwork and dogged persistence. Since problem solving is the basis of what we do together in business, why is it so difficult to compile a group of people who excel in this area?

This attribute is actually the most wrongly assumed to be in place based on resume based interviews and the least quantified before hiring!

Optimism relates to agility, flexibility, judgment, and resilience and is extremely difficult to suss out in a traditional interview. Optimistic people fail forward. They ask questions and are not satisfied with generic answers. They don't allow the stress of doing overwhelm them. Teams high in this aspect naturally diagnose, discuss, debate, and decide faster than teams low in this aspect. As a leader of such a team, your job is merely to encourage the dialogues that will result in the best solutions by generating more options before opting for a course of action..

What should you be listening for as a candidate details their approach and attitude toward problem solving? In my opinion, optimism is a combination of capacity (someone's ability to take on a lot without burning out), positivity (someone's ability to manage their attitude despite what's happening around them), and continuous improvement mindset (someone who uses failure to advance further). So therefore I have designed a questionnaire that specifically allows me to investigate these attributes. I ask each candidate four specific questions related to work-ethic and score each answer from 1-5. I'm looking for a total score of 15 or above in this category as an indicator of above-average work-ethic.

Here are some of my favorite optimism questions (for the rest you can download the template in my new book Leader Board: The DNA of High Performance Teams):

  • Tell me about a time when your manager came to you with a problem they wanted you to fix but you didn’t know how, or what to do.

  • What are the biggest failures of your career so far?

  • Describe a situation where you had to collaborate with a difficult colleague.

  • Give an example where you helped a teammate achieve a goal where there was nothing in it for you.

Solution-oriented people always keep their eyes on the goal and don't allow the process to get there to deter them. Believe me when I say you can't have enough of these people on your team! How would you rate the importance of sourcing for optimism attributes in your new hires? Let us know in the comments below. If you enjoyed this article please like and share with your networks.

Stay tuned for part IV of this series: Maturity is the Insulatator of High-Performance Team DNA.

Omar L. Harris is Associate Vice-President and Country Manager for Allergan PLC in Brazil. He is the author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams available for purchase in ebook or print on Please follow him on instagramtwitter, and/or LinkedIn for more information and engagement.

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