Applying Learned Optimism
that individuals with the most talent are not always the most successful? Why are others
over-achievers? Based on
years of research with over
million participants. Dr. Martin Seligman
and his colleagues have uncovered
significant new predictor of achievement—optimistic expecta-
situations that require persistence
overcome adversity, such
words, research has finally turned common sense wisdom into scientific fact: Expectations of success
often self-fulfilling prophecies. Moreover, this fact has been taken
expectations can now be measured quantitatively and training programs can transform pessimism
into optimism. The benefits of optimism have been proven—increased motivation, superior achieve-
various domains (including greater sales productivity), and better physical health. These
findings have important implications for salesperson selection, training, and organization design.
that individuals with
most successful? Why
ers over-achievers? Why does the best 20 percent of
a sales force typically bring
how the individual handles adversity.
The traditional view is that there are two person-
ality traits that determine achievement—ability and
over thirty years of research involv-
ing more than
been uncovered—^the expectation that
one will succeed, ranging from optimistic
always enough with-
belief that one will succeed. Someone with
absence of that
This is particularly true when
hand is challenging and requires persis-
It is the nature of selling that even the best sales-
person will fail
more often than succeed, so opti-
ing the salesperson overcome the inevitable adver-
sity. Resistance, rejection,
over and burnout rates.
finally turned common sense wis-
dom into scientific fact: Expectations
often self-fulfilling prophecies. The
lief that one will succeed is the engine that inspires
the efforts needed to overcome obstacles and achieve
Research has shown that the belief that one
will succeed produces over-achievement
belief that one will fail produces under-achievement.
This scientific fact has been taken
and training programs
into optimism. More on these practical applications
Peter Schulman has
Economics from The Wharton
Research Manager of
Martin E.P. Seligman's
Learned Helplessness Research
Lab at the
Pennsylvania's Department of
also president of
Foresight, Inc., a human resources consulting firm.
research interests include stress management trainingprograms,
the factors that impact sales productivity and the relationship
of achievement. His
been published in several journals of the American
The author gratefully acknowledges Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman
Shatte for their valuable support and contribution
this article. The theories and research presented in this article
are based largely on the work of Dr. Seligman.
Learned Helplessness research. The Learned Help-
lessness theory states that
lieves he has no control over
desired objective will
be unlikely to make
effort necessary to achieve
that objective (Seligman
There are three psy-
Personal Selling & Sales
Number 1 (Winter 1999, Pages 31-37).
Joumal of Personal Selling & Sales Management
. . Optimistic expectations are critical to success by
helping the salesperson
. . . adversity.
chological consequences of this
One, there is
a loss of
Two, the individual feels anx-
ious and has lower self-confidence. Three, the indi-
difficulty learning that
he or she has
control, even when there is evidence that an objec-
achievable. These three symptoms,
way, characterize clinical depression when they
appear in an extreme form, which is why effective
treatments for depression have been based, in part,
on Learned Helplessness research.
question: Why do some people
develop the belief that they are helpless to achieve
their objectives? We all experience uncontrollable
bad events, large and small—airline flights are de-
layed, the weather does not cooperate with outdoor
loved ones pass away—^yet we do not all de-
velop Learned Helplessness.
What divides those who learn helplessness from
those who do not? Why
some people beaten
dovirn by life's adversities while others become cap-
their destiny? The answer
environment, upbringing, and willpower all
figure into the equation. Learned Helplessness also
major part of the answer: expectations.
Learned Optimisni and Great
explain why some people tend
adversity while others persist and overcome,
necessary to introduce the concept of "explanatory
Explanatory style is the habitual way that
an individual explains setbacks
(Abramson, Seligman andTeasdale
et al. 1979).
There are three dimensions of an explanation—
stable/unstable, global/specific, and internal/exter-
These three dimensions address the following
questions, respectively: How long-lasting
cause of the bad event? How much
the bad event? Did
cause the bad
event or did external circumstances cause it? There
very different causes
didn't make the sale." Here are some examples of
explanations for this bad event:
"I'm a lousy salesperson." This is internal, but
not as stable and not as global
This is internal,
moderately stable and moderately global.
"I couldn't sleep last night." This
unstable and fairly specific.
reflexively make stable (the cause
is going to last
long time), global
undermine many areas of
life), and internal
is my fault) explanations
bad events are more
likely to give up and suffer Learned Helplessness
than those who offer the opposite explanations for
is isolated to this one situation) and external (I'm
not to blame).
It is important to note here that we are not advo-
cating that people should avoid taking responsibil-
their actions. The internal versus external
different issue: some-
times people automatically and excessively blame
themselves without justification. When
of a setback is unclear, or if there are many causes,
habitually blaming oneself can undermine confi-
dence and impair performance.
An example will help flesh out what I mean by an
explanatory style. Let's say
recently hired sales-
person has just made
When something unpleasant
ask the question, "Why?"
remedy the situation. The
answer to this question will determine how the in-
dividual subsequently feels
people will answer this question very differently,
even if they experience the same bad event.
Let's start with an example of a pessimistic inter-
pretation of this bad
A pessimist might think:
wrong with me? I'm just not cut out for this (inter-
guess I'm not good with people
persuasive (stable and global)."
An optimist, on the other hand, might say: "That
best of them
Maybe they don't need what
. . optimism predicts sales productivity among
salespeople in various industries and companies.
were too busy (external). Also,
takes time and practice to leam
the ropes and sharpen my sales pitch (unstable and
As my boss
said, this is a numbers game—
customers who are interested enough to buy."
be very different consequences for these
likely to feel overwhelmed by cold calling,
other work to do around the office besides cold call-
ing, dwell on defeats, procrastinate future cold call-
ing and lose self-confidence. Expectations of failure
might lead to excessive aggressiveness or passivity
in future cold calling, increasing the odds of failing
again. Cold calling that ends in failxire will be used
as evidence to confirm feelings of inadequacy, con-
tinuing the cycle of pessimism and avoidance that
might eventually lead to quitting.
The optimist, though, is more likely to see adver-
sity as a challenge, transform problems into opportu-
put in the hours to refine skills, persevere in
finding solutions to difficult
fidence, rebound quickly after setbacks and persist.
each person's prophecy
As this example illustrates, pessimistic explana-
bridge between experiencing
developing Learned Helplessness.
Pessimists are most susceptible
the ravages of
Learned Helplessness, whereas optimists are most
resistant to it. In the words of Shakespeare, "There
is nothing either good or
but thinking makes it
there are events that just about anyone would con-
sider bad. The key point here is that a bad situation
how it is interpreted. The expectation
that one failure will multiply
and into many different situations can turn an iso-
lated bad event into sustained feelings of helpless-
ness and even hopelessness.
changed? More than thirty years of research in the
lEirge and growing field of cognitive psychology has
determined that the answer to both of these ques-
"yes." Cognitive training techniques can
turn pessimism into optimism and reduce the
defeating beliefs that afflict many of us at one time
Benefits and Applications
One of the fruits of cognitive psychology is a user-
the field of psychology.
assessing expectations. Learned Helplessness
has led to the
Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ: Peterson
et al. 1982; Seligman
al. 1979). The ASQ mea-
sures optimism by presenting the test-taker with
series of hj^pothetical failures.
asked to write down the major cause of each hypo-
thetical failure and to assess the cause on each of
the three explanatory dimensions—stable/unstable,
global/specific, and internal/external—rating each
last two decades, over 500 studies con-
ducted around the world using the ASQ have re-
vealed the benefits of optimism—increased motiva-
tion, superior achievement
sports), and elevated mood
and well-being. Research
found that pessimists have
than optimists, make more visits to the doctor, and
are more likely to die from coronary heart disease
(Buchanan 1989; Peterson 1988; Peterson
The ASQ measure of optimism has been able
distinguish the high performers from the low per-
sports, optimism predicts perfonnance among na-
tionally ranked college swimmers (Seligman
In academia, optimism predicts
Peterson and Barrett 1987).
business world, optimism predicts sales
productivity among salespeople
tries and companies. Studies conducted with two
for example, found that sales-
people with optimistic explanations went on to sell
Joumal of Personal Selling & Sales Management
significantly more insurance and were less likely to
quit than those with pessimistic explanations. The
optimistic salespeople sold 35 percent more insurance
likely as the optimists to quit by the end of their first
year (Seligman and Schulman
(1990) have also
found a relationship between
Pilot research with salespeople in various indus-
tries—telecommunications, real estate, office prod-
auto sales, banking, and others—has found
outsold the pessimists by
20 to 40
Optimism has an impact on sales productiv-
ity regardless of the industry, whenever persistence
is required to overcome adversity.
The ability to bounce back from frequent failure
appears to be the exception rather than the rule,
which is one of the reasons why the best 20 percent
of a sales force typically bring
Salespeople have higher
mism (on the average) than any other group we
have tested—^higher than managers and higher
than world class athletes. Optimistic expectations
appear to be an important part of what it takes to
succeed in high stress positions like sales.
How to Change
Can optimism be learned? The good news is that
cognitive styles like pessimism can be changed
through cognitive training techniques and individu-
als can learn ways to overcome self-defeating be-
liefs (Beck et al. 1979; Seligman 1991). Even the
diehard optimist will occasionally have pessimistic be-
liefs when exposed to extreme or prolonged stress and
of these proven techniques.
There are many
of self-defeating beliefs that
cognitive training seeks to change, of which pessi-
mistic beliefs is only one type. Two other kinds of
irrational assumptions and
errors in logic. Examples of irrational assumptions
"I should be liked by everyone" or "To be suc-
cessful, I have to do everything perfectly."
One type of error in logic is "personalization," for
instance: "My boss just passed me in the hall and
did not even look at me. He must be mad at me
about something." (There are other reasonable in-
terpretations of this.) Another tj^e of error in logic
is "magnification" and "minimization," in which
someone exaggerates the negatives in a situation
and discounts the positives. Imagine, for example,
that a salesperson submits a report for review by
management and the feedback he or she receives is
that the report is good but one of the sections needs
some work. The salesperson becomes upset, focus-
sing primarily on the negative. These are just a few
many kinds of self-defeating thinking.
Here's a review of the cognitive training, in a
nutshell. The first step is to identify self-defeating
beliefs which the individual may not be initially
aware of, as well as identify the events that trigger
these beliefs. Most of us have to perform some ac-
tivities that cause us to "hit the wall," activities
that slow us down or even stop us dead in our
tracks. For some, it is giving a presentation, or it
could be making cold calls, asking the boss for a
vsrriting a report, trying to motivate employ-
or trjang to resolve an interpersonal conflict.
The second step is to gather evidence to evaluate
the accuracy of the self-defeating beliefs that are
triggered by these activities. The goal in this step is
to learn how to be more scientific in one's think-
ing—to be a detective and collect evidence to deter-
mine whether the evidence supports or refutes the
Often, such beliefs are just bad hab-
its picked up in our distant past. Like any bad habit
they can be changed with practice. In the third
these maladaptive thoughts are replaced with
more constructive and accurate beliefs.
To illustrate these techniques, let's carry forward
the example of the pessimist's explanations in the
previous example, using the
Albert Ellis (1977):
stands for adversity: "I was rejected in 20
straight cold calls."
"What's wrong with me?
I'm just not cut out for this (internal). I guess I'm
not good with people or not very persuasive (stable
of those beliefs,
both emotional and
dwell on my past defeats, procrastinate future cold
calling, lose self-confidence and motivation, and
eventually give up."
We have added a'T)" to the ABC model:
stands for dispute and
is the all-important intervention to turn things
around. Once the self-defeating beliefs have been
identified, as well as the adversity that triggers
them, it is useful
Here are examples of disputing and de-
rejections in a
Sales is not
games but that
ily say anjrthing about
and I'm sure not get-
If a sales position requires a high degree of persistence ...
select individuals with a higher degree of optimism.
ting anywhere feeling sorry for
told me that to get one sale, I have to get 5
prospects interested and in order to get 5 pros-
pects interested, I have to make 50 calls. So I
have to make 50 calls to make 1 sale and no
matter what I
I'll get turned down a lot more
get the sale. And if someone hangs up
hefore hearing my sales pitch, that obviously
has nothing to
"Even if I'm not
I'm new at this.
My boss said he struggled for his first couple
learning the tools of the trade, building
his network and client base. A couple friends
who went through the training with me said
they're having similar experiences. It takes lots
of hard work and practice
at any skill
and sales is no exception. I'll start taping my
sales calls, get feedback from the
with friends, and
practice, I'll be able to handle prospect's objec-
tions more confidently and maybe I could make
a sale every
calls, instead of every 50."
"What's the worst case scenario? Even if I'm not
the best salesperson around, that doesn't mean
I'm a failure. If I'm not cut out to be a salesper-
son, that doesn't mean I'm not good at other
Selling is a tough
and not for every-
I've heard that the average worker changes
over a lifetime. If sales doesn't
have an opportunity to find out
what I'm really good at."
When using disputation techniques, it
ask the following
sometimes get stuck
in certain habits of thinking that can cause trouble
and these questions can help us break out of the
self-imposed box. What is the
ports this explanation? Most events have more
than one cause, so what are the alternative
nations that could fit the evidence? It is more use-
ful to focus on the causes that can be controlled
rather than wasting energy on the causes that can-
not be controlled. Even if
is correct, what are the implications of this? That
consequence of the explana-
tion? Many people automatically imagine the worst
case scenario and catastrophize, but asking the fol-
lowing question is useful
the best or most likely consequence? If the evidence
this event? Whether or not the belief is accurate,
is it to dwell on this belief right now?
In certain situations, it is not constructive to take
the time to examine a
If, for instance, some-
one is about to give a sales presentation and is
flooded by fears and anxieties about the presenta-
tion, it would not be constructive to focus on these
negative beliefs just prior
the presentation. There
are various distraction techniques that help
porarily steer attention away from negative beliefs.
These techniques include: use a thought stopping
technique that breaks the train of pessimistic
thoughts (such as focusing on the surroundings or
snapping a rubber band on one's wrist), schedule a
time to think things over later, write down the
troublesome thoughts (if there is time for this), en-
gage in mental games such as counting backwards
by increments of
and use positive imag-
ery such as vividly imagining a pleasurable experi-
ence from the past or recalling a success.
These cognitive techniques teach individuals
to tune in to and change the internal dialogue that
goes on within us all but that often goes unques-
tioned and unchallenged. Disputation is a skill we
have a lot of practice using—^with friends, parents,
siblings, and colleagues. We use disputation skills
to help our friends overcome their own pessimistic
defend ourselves against criticisms and
accusations made by others. But when these same
pessimistic beliefs or criticisms emanate from
within, they are usually taken as fact and go un-
challenged, even though we would vigorously de-
fend ourselves against the very same criticisms
made against us
and present plenly
of evidence to prove our case. We believe the criti-
cisms of inadequacy that we launch at ourselves,
criticisms that we would never just swallow from
others. The training teaches people how to treat
these internal criticisms as if they had been uttered
by an external rival, whose mission in life is to
make you miserable, and to dispute that rival.
administered to people
of life—^business people, athletes, di-
Journal of Personal Selling & Sales
vorced individuals, people suffering fix)m depression
or anxiety, elementary
middle school children,
and college students.
has shown positive results
improving motivation, psychological
cal health auid performance (Gillham
et al. 1995;
al. 1994; Seligman
Does this all sound too much like a pie-in-the-sky
Pollyanna? We do not advocate blind optimism or
dismissing the reality in a situation. We advocate a
"flexible optimism"—optimism with eyes wide
open—^that considers the costs as well as the ben-
efits of pursuing a goal. Research suggests that
there is also a time and a place for pessimism, or at
least realism. When the costs or risks of certain
actions are high, pessimists are often better able
than optimists to appraise the situation in a way
that can best minimize the costs and risks.
If someone has been drinking
it does not make sense to be optimistic about his or
her ability to drive home safely. Military leaders
need to anticipate and prepare for worst case con-
tingencies. For a financial officer, it would not be a
good idea to be overly optimistic about cash flow
estimates if there are large payroll and debt obliga-
If a prospect
expresses disinterest and
is getting angry at a salesperson's persistence, it
probably does not make sense to continue the pitch.
Lawyers need to evaluate the legal risks of man-
agement decisions and business executives must
flexibly play the role of a pessimist as well as an
optimist, readying their organization for threats as
well as opportunities.
Optimism is not a panacea and people cannot live
by optimism alone. There is evidence that the pes-
simist in some ways sees reality more accurately
than the rosy-eyed, overconfident optimist. Exces-
sive optimism at the wrong time and in the wrong
situation can blind us to the costly consequences of
certain actions. Every successful life and every suc-
cessful company needs both an accurate apprecia-
tion of reality and an ability to optimistically dream
beyond the present reality.
Many of life's experiences fall into that gray area
between totally controllable and totally uncontrol-
This is where optimism counts most. Since it
is not always clear how much control we really
it is often better to err on the side of opti-
mism—assume the best and act on the belief that
success is achievable. A crucial p£irt of what we call
"reality" does not exist independently of our ac-
our optimistic beliefs can
create a better reality and our expectations can be
The research findings discussed above have im-
plications for selection, training and organization
design. There are three recommendations for orga-
If a sales position requires a
high degree of persistence to overcome adversity,
select individuals with a higher degree of optimism.
Improving the person-environment fit by selecting
more optimists for the high stress positions will not
only lead to financial benefits, by increasing pro-
ductivity and job satisfaction, but will also reduce
the needless human suffering that comes from hav-
ing individuals in environments where they are less
likely to thrive and be successful. Optimism testing
should certainly not be the sole basis for a hiring
decision, but should be used in conjunction with
other valid assessments, such as measures of
related abilities and interviews.
Every company has employees who
are not optimistic enough for certain tasks. These
individuals might have all the right abilities and
lots of desire, so in many cases it would not make
sense to transfer them to other
the diehard optimist will occasionally have pessi-
mistic beliefs when exposed to extreme or prolonged
These individuals can learn optimism
through training programs designed to teach them
how to cope with and overcome adversity.
3) Organization Design. The participative man-
agement movement has ushered in numerous meth-
ods that management can implement to increase
sales productivity and innovation in organizations.
It is beyond the scope of this article to review these
methods in detail, but these include: set clear and
achievable goals, provide the necessary skills train-
ing and management support, increase decentral-
ized and participative decision-making and quality
control, open lines of communication, measure per-
formance and progress toward goals, provide accu-
rate and immediate feedback on performance and
and make compensation con-
performance. All of these techniques have
a common theme—increasing a salesperson's sense
of control over meaningful objectives—thereby un-
leashing vast human potential and linking the sat-
isfaction of the individual's needs with the achieve-
ment of the organization's goals.
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