Should compliance officers be optimists?

Optimism generally correlates with success in the world of work.  As  noted in Canadian Lawyer Magazine,( “Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania – who studies positive psychology – found that most optimists do better in life than merited by their talents alone.”

This finding apparently applies across a wide range of professions.  But with lawyers it was not the case.

“Seligman’s survey of law students found that pessimists got better grades, were more likely to make law review and got better job offers.” ‘In law,’ he said, ‘pessimism is considered prudent.’”

This would, in my view, likely not be a surprise to many people. But can something similar about pessimism be said for the compliance & ethics (“C&E”) field?  Does pessimism in the C&E field correlate with prudence (or any other virtue, for that matter)?  

I am not aware of any study like Seligman’s regarding pessimism and the C&E perspective.  However, I believe that having a pessimistic perspective can be important to achieving and maintaining C&E program efficacy. 

This is particularly true with C&E risk assessment.  Among other things, having an appropriately pessimistic view can be helpful in identifying risks that might be missed by a more positive thinking C&E professional. Indeed, C&E risk assessment involves identifying the various ways misconduct can occur and the reasons behind them, making a pessimistic perspective – at least for this exercise – essential.

The benefit of a pessimistic view is also, I believe, important with respect to C&E board/senior management oversight, communications, monitoring, audits and investigations, among other areas.  With each of these, having a suitably dark view of risk can help make those involved in C&E work be more effective than they might otherwise be.

But optimism does have its place in the compliance realm as well.  That is, so much of C&E is relatively new and untested, and an optimistic view may be necessary to secure buy-in to go forward with necessary but difficult measures.

Finally, my own perspective is that generally one needs some of both views.  And, in that connection, I have tried to live by the timeless guidance: one should be cynical but endlessly optimistic.

Reprinted with permission from , Compliance and Ethics:  Ideas & Answers

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