When Being Positive Can Cost You

by Monica on January 15, 2010

Susan Mazza’s leadership blog, Random Acts of Leadership is one of my favorites! So when she said she was inspired by my post on positive thinking, I invited her to post here! It is my great honor to welcome her to this space and to share her thoughts with you.  Every time I have talked to her I have found insights and inspiration. Susan is passionate about her work with organizations and leaders and has helped them improve their performance and that of their people for over 20 years. A real treat and more proof that I have some smart and generous friends!

Thanks, Susan!

In Monica’s post titled “Positive Thinking Might be Your Demise” she articulates the distinction between positive thinking that moves you forward and positive thinking that is nothing more than wishful thinking.  And as I read her great articulation of this important distinction in terms of putting positive thinking into practice in a way that works, I began to reflect on the more systemic implications of positive thinking in organizations today.

In 1952 Norman Vincent Peale‘s now famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking was published.  The power that positive thinking can have in our lives is today an instilled cultural belief: positive thinking is a good thing and being positive is a good and the right way to be.  So true, yes?

Then again, maybe not.  Could being positive turn out to be a bad thing sometimes?

While most of us, at least those who are passionate about making a meaningful impact wherever we go, would rather be surrounded by people who have a positive, “can do” attitude, I have seen far too many examples of this desire feed a culture of people who are afraid to say anything that could be construed as negative.

The problem comes in not because people have both positive and negative things to say, but rather when there is a belief that positive is “good” and “negative” is bad.  This can become perilous for any leader or organization when people either withhold the bad news or sugar coat it with a positive spin that clouds the real issue.

Sometimes the bad news is what needs to be shared no matter how negative it might occur.  And sometimes what may occur as “negative” is actually a very good thing for business.  Yet many leaders fear it.  They fear what will happen if they allow a negative conversation to go too far – that somehow negativity will take over and they will lose control.  It seems far safer and even smarter to deal with the complaints one on one, behind closed doors.

But it is perhaps the ultimate illusion that we can control what people really think and believe or what they will talk about.

And the more we try to prevent honest, authentic communication from happening openly in the name of “positive is good and negative is bad” for business, the more interesting it becomes to people behind the scenes.  In the open in can lead to constructive conversation.  In the background it rarely leads to anything more than gossip that distracts us at best and fuels resignation and cynicism at worst.

And that is when “positive” really costs you.  It’s easy to listen to the good news, the positive messages.  It is a lot harder to listen to the bad news, the negative messages, especially when they are directly about us or something we did.  Yet it is how openly we can listen to the things that are hard to hear that will tell people whether we want to hear what is good for us or whether we want to hear what is real for them.

What message are you sending?

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Dorothy Dalton January 16, 2010 at 3:54 am

Susan and Monica – this is a great idea and one worth talking about and airing! We live in a “can do ” culture where there is a feeling that positive thinking will be sufficient to carry us through to goal achievement. To some extent it certainly will, but it has to be underpinned by at least some realistic analysis of situations, events, skills etc. So acknowledging the negative in even a basic SWOT analysis ( Strengths, Weaknesses, Oportunities,Threats)doesn’t necessarily lead to negativity, just to being better informed. Positive thinking really does become powerful when coping with negative information.

Monica January 16, 2010 at 6:37 am

My mentor, Will Schutz, noted to me once that what we tell eachother is neither positive or negative. It can be true or untrue, given honestly or with a bad intention. Still, when we listen to it, we give it an emotional charge whether we consider it positive or negative. The most useful truth telling in organizations (and in life) is that in which we create a relationship where we can potentially talk about ANYTHING, and don’t find a need to do that compulsively. One in which it is a POSITIVE thing to be honest, straightforward, comfortable, about anything that might help us build the reality we seek. My take is that it takes a little relationship building for that to happen. If we focus on the constructive, we can get to a point where the relationship is strong enough so that you can hear even the bad news from me and not have your defensiveness block it out…More on that concept in a future post on the Otheresteem Blog 😉 Thanks again, Susan for your thought-creating thoughts here!

Susan Mazza January 18, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Thank you Monica for the opportunity to continue the conversation you started on Positive Thinking on your Blog. It is an honor!

Great point Dorothy that positive thinking is not always sufficient to carry us through to achieving our goals. Using a practice like SWOT is one way to open the door to honest assessment of a project or situation in a culture where “positive” is the default. Despite what isn’t working now, or the breakdowns we may encounter, it always helps to bring forth a sense of optimism and possibility about what can be to propel us forward.

Absolutely Monica. The emotional charge is an important element that can make the difference in how “negative” feedback is both delivered and heard. Constructive feedback requires a sincere intention to move things forward in the desired direction, and as you point out, the trust to be able to say anything that might help us build the reality we seek. You remind me that while a culture of “positive is good” can result in people pushing things under the rug, it natural to feel unsafe in any domain when delivering a tough message. To build and sustain a culture of honesty and authenticity we must create an experience of safety. That requires our practices for building and repairing trust to be exceptional.

Jennifer V. Miller January 18, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Monica and Susan,

This is why the two of you are among some of my favorite “thinkers” out there! Susan, this is a thoughtful commentary on how something that’s become a mainstay in our culture (and for good reason) still has its drawbacks.

To add to your observations . . .

You say that leaders “fear” bad news. I’m not so sure it’s fear as much as concern that the negativity will run amok if they open the doors for opposing opinions. It’s a delicate dance that a skilled leader performs…one of encouraging open dialog yet setting an expectation for a positive work environment. Many seasoned leaders say they’re looking for “solutions” not problems, but that position has its drawbacks as well. Sometimes a problem is easy to identify, but the answer is elusive. Does that mean employees shouldn’t mention it if they don’t have a solution at the ready?

To me, the key is to encourage the discussion of all aspects of a situation—they good, the bad and the ugly. If leaders are clear that all contributions are welcome as long as the dialog is people are respectful, then they can count on getting all the information.

lawrence berezin January 19, 2010 at 5:36 am

I feel like a blog groupie, following your posts wherever they may lead. I’m really enjoying this “concert.” Great post as usual, and wonderful food for thought comments. I’m wondering, if you are retained to work with an organization, or group within an organization, that fosters the “can do,” only positive thinking culture, what action can you take to promote construction criticism, and honest feedback?

Can a successful sales team exist with any negative thrown into the mix?

Monica January 19, 2010 at 6:23 am

Hi, Lawrence! Glad you landed here by following Susan! She’s a good one to follow 😉 ! With regards to your question (that I am sure Susan will answer soon) I wrote in the previous post that she mentions that you can create productive positivity by a number of steps, including “Being mindful of whether your thinking moves you forward or holds you back.” If you are going to teach a team that is retaining you something about this, it might be that! Not mindlessly subscribing to a way of thinking, but being mindful of where it is taking you. Honest feedback is best built when team members learn that feedback is always a gift, even if it is not always comfortable. As I commented before, it is only our interpretations that make things “negative”. Susan does a great job in this post of explaining how it works. The “negative” can be also viewed as “constructive” “needing improvement or change”, etc.

Susan Mazza January 22, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Thanks for following me here Lawrence. I thought you would enjoy Monica’s writing and thinking too so I am glad to see you here! It is kind of like a concert :-)

On the other side of the tough conversations, the straight feedback, and authentic dialogue about unpleasant surprises and revelations is often a boost in morale and energy. For me it is only “negative” if the outcome of the conversation brings you down rather than creates new insight, action, a sense of connection, and ultimately fuels the belief that we “can do” whatever we set out to do. The key is to have the real conversations and move on. Dealing with the “negative” is healthy; dwelling in it is destructive.

How do you foster a culture that promotes constructive feedback? I think the leaders need to ask the tough questions and show that they can hear tough feedback as contributing. I also think we all need to learn to listen for people’s commitment. We all complain sometime. If you take the point of view that behind every complaint is a commitment it can be a lot easier to listen through the complaint to actually hear the contribution.

Susan Mazza January 22, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Thanks Jennifer! All great points you make. Your point that the “come to me with a solution not a problem” has it’s drawbacks is I think just another version of the same issue. I think the intent is for people to take responsibility for the problems they see, and not pass them along for someone else to solve. But this can lead to people not sharing the problems they can’t solve by themselves which all too often prevents important conversations form happening or happening in a timely way. It also reinforces an expectation that I am paid for knowing/for answers rather than my ability to think individually and collaboratively.

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