Ready to Burst Your Managers’ “Optimism Bubble”?

Training managers and creating protocols to ensure listening—rather than assumptions—guides decision-making.

A manager may think their employees can talk to them about anything, and that everyone in their department is as comfortable and happy as they are. Most of us know that is rarely the truth, but managers who are not trained as Learning professionals may not realize this.

CNBC’s Make it column published a recent piece by Natasha Piñon that points out how different from reality the manager’s vision often is. “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,” Piñon quotes leadership expert Megan Reitz as saying. “And that all means you underestimate the strength of feeling that might exist with some of your employees.”

The Optimism Bubble

Reitz calls the difference between reality and the manager’s perception an optimism bubble.

Listening skills is a huge area where managers frequently fall short. I have personal experience with managers who had brains like sieves. We’d have a conversation and 24 hours later, they had no memory of it. Interestingly, the managers I experienced this phenomenon with were both male. They probably didn’t remember because they didn’t listen carefully enough. They didn’t take in enough information to retain the substance of what their employee said.

This managerial blind spot, or deaf spot, can lead to passive-aggressive behavior from employees. To get the manager’s attention, for instance, the employee might express displeasure to everyone in the department, including the manager’s executive colleagues. The employee knows that when multiple people start talking to the manager about what was said about them, the manager finally will have to listen and take notice.

The optimism bubble also can occur when plans are put in place that will affect an employee without consulting that employee about it. “I know my employees; this new initiative is exactly what they want to do,” the manager thinks. Instead, the manager should be trained to say to themselves: “I’d better see what my team thinks before finalizing this plan. Even if we have to go forward with it anyway, I want to hear their concerns and work with them to prevent those concerns from becoming problems.”

Encourage Proactive Listening

Proactive listening and questioning, in place of assumptions, is the best way to avoid the optimism bubble. This is true on an individual employee level, as well as a group level. For example: “Shirley, I want to share with you a few of the top contenders for a new position we have opening up in our department that is going to affect you. I already have a favorite among these contenders, but without being influenced by my opinion, I want to hear which you think is best and why.” The manager may be heartened to find that the employee picks the same applicant they picked, or may have their eyes opened to how a different applicant would be a much better cultural and personality fit than the one the manager chose.

Discuss Societal Issues

Issues affecting the community and country your organization operates in also affect your employees. For example, after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, there were protests across the country, with a prominent Black Lives Matter movement. Many companies felt urged by their employees to make a statement in support of the protestors, and to publicly state, “Black lives matter.” Yet some companies decided to stay apolitical and silent. Was this non-response in line with the message that the majority of employees wanted to send to the public? It may not have been, but management didn’t bother to find out.

When a major societal event has occurred, and companies are pressed to make a statement or take an action, deciding on behalf of employees what that statement and action will (or will not) be is unfair and can lead to disengagement. Just as managers should take time to discuss the pros and cons of internal decisions, pressing societal matters that affect everyone also should be openly discussed. You could use a town hall format in which people share differing views and a joint decision is reached on how the company should respond.

How do you train managers, and create protocols, to ensure listening, rather than assumptions, guides decision-making?