Are sales professionals better off being Optimists or Realists?


Is the glass half full or half empty?

“Both!", says the realist.

And so it goes...

Many believe that a glass half full is the best way to look at the world, and I usually agree. But sales is difficult, and I think the answer is a bit more nuanced. Which of these three attitudes; optimism, pessimism, or realism serves us best in our sales career?

Good question!

Some would say optimism. After all, how do you embark upon a career full of pressure and uncertainty, where a significant portion of your income is based on the results you are able to generate, if you are not an optimist? This career demands the best of us. It demands our most hopeful, faithful self. How do you face objection, failure and occasional derision if you’re not an optimist? Simply put, you don’t.

But others would say realism. Understanding your clients well and your real chances of delivering a product or service they would value requires a willingness to be realistic and rational about your chances, how much time you should invest, what obstacles need to be overcome, and so forth. Being overly optimistic creates opportunity for missing key details, or subtle hints your buyer may be giving you. To say it another way, too much optimism can lead to “happy ears”; that symptom of hearing only the encouraging things and none of the warning signs. Realism prevents this missing key queue that guide adjustments in your approach and use of time, the only resource you can really control.

And of course, no one answers that pessimism is the best strategy! 

I don’t subscribe to a negative outlook, but maybe we should take a closer look at the virtues of a little bit of pessimism. If the right kind of negativity can be applied judiciously we have the ability to go beyond realism and see things hidden under the surface. By asking ourselves “what am I missing here?” or “what could go wrong?” or “what might my competitor be doing to give themselves an unfair advantage?”, we use a negative perspective to shine a brighter light on what could be working against us, and bring in more realism as a result. 

When we have a healthy dose of skepticism we balance optimism more toward realism. 

In my experience, while every sales professional is unique, it seems to me that excessive optimism is often the greater hindrance to success. As in all things, balance is the key. 

Use optimism when you are setting your goals and vision for the future. Use optimism when you are making that cold call, or walking into that critical vision. Visualize the best outcome and have it set in your mind as a target you wish to achieve. Then use that optimism to energize and guide your best actions.


...introduce a bit of pessimism/realism:

    “What have I not thought of?"

    "Is there any preparation I haven’t done yet to better prepare myself for this call or meeting?"

    "Is there something my client is trying to say to me that I haven’t heard completely?"

Wouldn’t it be good to get this out in the open? Wouldn’t a dose of reality allow me to address what’s really happening, and IMPROVE my results? 

Couldn’t realism potentially vastly improve my relationship with my client and set me apart from my competition?

In my experience it does. 

Go ahead, if you tend to be a very optimistic soul try introducing a little bit of healthy skepticism to bring you closer to a balanced sense of realism. If you do, I suspect you will see the picture a bit clearer and take better, more effective, actions as a result.

Happy Selling!

Steve McCullough