Intelligent Optimism – A Privilege of Naïves?

Last week I followed a report on Estonian National TV on how to handle the corona crisis in our healthcare institutions. One of the doctors mentioned during her interview that she was very worried before entering the emergency room filled with corona patients for the first time, but just one look at the naturally behaving and self-confident nurses helped her to calm down. ÜLLI KUKUMÄGI, (currently a coach, lecturer, and Ph.D. student at EBS, who earlier has trained nurses at the Estonian Union of Nurses for many years) watched this reportage and felt relieved – “yes, I have done something right in my life… “.  I would like to call her “an intangibility expert” as her interests and expertise cover the aspects of our personal life and career which are somewhat difficult to measure. You name anything to do with body language, therapies, energies, or emotions and Ülli will be involved with this, let it be from the practical (therapy, consulting) or research angle.  Nevertheless, my intentions to interview her were down to earth as I just wanted to know how Mrs. Kukumägi, who according to her own words, has lost everything in her life twice (except the kids and health) is optimistic in spite of everything. Our interview covered not just optimism, but also fear and psychopaths in work life.


Successful people usually have very concrete goals, and they regularly monitor them. Having a Life Board (or sometimes called Vision Board) at home, in a place you constantly notice it, might be a good start for realizing your dreams. It is something that works very well through the symbols/pictures used there. Even more, the Life Board is a way of dreaming as it creates a condition where you feel motivated – it raises the level of dopamine, and the brain starts to look for solutions to make your dreams come alive. One could name it neurolinguistic programming.  

Emotionally, we are continually collecting the moods of the people around us. Thus, you can become a winner yourself, once you interact daily with the optimistic “high fliers”. Everybody whom you meet affects you and research has shown that when happy and successful people meet similar kinds of people, their chances to achieve even more, improve a lot. Ordinary people usually think about “living today “and are limited by boundaries and restrictions. In case you do not believe me, let me tell you a story from my own life. Some years ago, my kids said to me with great surprise that I have suddenly started to whine. I took a moment to think about it – I had had a very challenging business partner for the last ten months, and it seems that he had managed to make me whine as the result of his negative attitude towards everything. No doubt, people around us can take away our dreaming skills.  Thus, also the story of Tim Tyler losing his laugh must be true. Knowing this, I understood that the fear of corona and the tension it arises is killing more than all the viruses together.


Fear is one of the basic emotions and it guarantees us survival. Thus, fear has its positive sides, but it also has a negative side. Imaginary fear, for instance, in a situation when we think about potential danger, also activates neurobiological reactions in our body – as a result of this, our clear way of thinking is limited, and we are not able to enjoy the life in its full colors. A human being will experience fear also if he/she thinks about it. Thus, watch your thoughts! And of course, as a result of this, our body reacts. This linkage needs to be broken. One way to do this is to think sensorially on something else, thus moving your attention consciously to the positive side of the situation or just dreaming yourself shortly away to calm down.

Also, looking at the broader picture and changing your body position always helps. Emotional tensions are commonly physically located in the upper part of the body (the neck, back shoulder, and upper chest) and this tension blocks the brain. By just changing the way you sit or stand, breaks the neurophysiological linkage. Also, shaking yourself (like animals do) or tiring yourself up, feeds your brain with fresh blood again. Otherwise, your brain is focused on how to survive. This is harmful because when a person focuses on surviving, he or she does not see options A, B, C, or D anymore. These options may come to your mind once you relax for a while, for instance, through moving your body. Changing attitudes works the same way – by creating a new link. Milton Erickson used storytelling for this purpose – by telling stories (instead of presenting the “right option “) a person finds himself the linkage needed. Of course, deep breathing, every kind of stretching, Tai Chi, Qigong, etc. may work as well to overcome tensions.


Before telling that, let me tell you an interesting fact – in conditions where a leader can be chosen and is not put on a leading position, a team chooses their leader approximately in 30 seconds. When a manager has no leader characteristics, it is difficult to win the support of team-mates. Therefore, I do not fully believe it is possible to develop your leadership skills up to a maximum without having some pre-conditions filled. First of all, a leader has to be fair and act like a parent – motivating staff members to act. I doubt if a non-empathic leader could move to the top. Also, the mood of the leader matters as this influences the working environment a lot. Primarily the mood, but also the jokes and smiles – are the best tools for leaders. Employees around a good-tempered leader can feel relaxed, and once there is joy around – they want just more and more, and their brains work to the fullest.


Leaders take responsibility, and their level of dopamine is higher compared to their subordinates; their way of thinking could be called intelligent optimism.  Thus, their brain works differently. While the white-collar psychopaths are non-empathic, rules-driven, narcissistic, often paranoid, pathological liars, and enjoy belittling others, etc.  Look for more at Robert Hare or Adrian Raine’s studies, and you understand why such leaders lead organizations to a crash sooner or later.

When a leader gets along with himself well, the organization he leads is much healthier. One crucial skill of a leader is the ability to carry out meetings – based on that he either has or has not the needed information. Once I consulted a Swedish company, based on the recordings of their meetings – this video material told me everything about the health of the organization that I needed to know. The team leader was seemingly calm, her body movements, tone of voice and harsh behavior showed constant aggression and contempt against others. As a result, she entirely blocked the group dynamics – people were afraid of making suggestions or asking for advice and continuously felt injustice. Usually, as a next step, people start feeling that they cannot cope with the situation and fall into apathy. The bravest leave and some burnout. A leader who does not respect or humiliates its team members can strike one’s self-confidence and self-esteem even for two years! 


It is important to develop yourself in a way that you can get yourself into Flow. I personally have some pictures and stories that get me there. And I think that we need to be passionate about what we are doing, especially when your work requires direct interaction with other people. Teaching should never be only about the theory, sophisticated words, and fact-dropping as your message shall be remembered only when it is emotional. For students to Flow, you need to create positive conditions. Peaceful, lower voice works well, and in case of video lecture, show at least not only your face but also your hands’ movements (as we have even a special section in our brain that reads explicitly other peoples’ hands movements). During an online teaching session, when also the students have joined the lecture with video, it takes away the attention – if they are moving, it changes the focus. On the other hand, it is also difficult without seeing and feeling their emotions.  Thus, it is good to see all of them on screen, but for focusing purposes, it is better to reduce at least constant chatting.


The core assumption of my Ph.D. research is based on a belief that we do not match with everyone. We are not expected to marry some random people, but in the working environment, we are expected to come along with everybody. Having understood this was the starting point of my academic research. I tested 108 people by dividing them into pairs (some could choose their team-mates, some I matched based on their potential match and some I put together because of the obvious mismatch between them).  As the first stage, I asked my participants to assess how pleasant they perceived their pair-partner and in case not really, to open it up (rating the disliking level of their partner on scale 1-5). On the next stage, I showed one of the partners a drawing of a lying dog for 30 seconds. Afterword’s their task was to describe this picture to their partner, who had to draw it (without any time restrictions). When analyzing the drawings, I assessed the similarity between the original and the interpreted drawing based on the following categories: dog, lying, hat, and scarf. The findings show that the best results were achieved by the teams where two partners liked each other. Disliking each other affected the results even until 34%. My explanation for this is that once we do not like a person, we start avoiding him/her. Therefore, my suggestion to leaders would be, that whenever possible, allow individuals to pick up themselves with whom to co-operate. It is a cheap and easy way to raise your organization’s effectiveness!

By Marge Sassi, Flow Enthusiast, and FLIGBY lecturer at Estonian Business School.