Leadership lessons: Poison positivity

So, what’s wrong with a positive attitude? And what’s wrong with asking people to avoid negativity in the workplace?

Well, plenty.

The devil, as always, is in the details. More specifically, the problems associated with poison positivity center on intent, authenticity, and effective communication — or the lack thereof.

I don’t believe anyone would argue that in a perfect environment, there is power in positive thinking. A positive mindset will generally produce better results than pessimism. A positive attitude towards others usually generates more harmonious and productive outcomes.

Having said all that, let’s make sure we’re not wearing those proverbial rose-colored glasses. Without sincerity, authenticity, and appropriate context, positivity can be, well, positively destructive. Poison positivity will erode respect, foster distrust, dilute credibility, and destroy lines of communication.

Antidote to poison
A good friend sent me this: “I read something recently about workers being discouraged from any ‘negative’ comments and to always have a ‘positive attitude’ no matter what. Personally, as a leader and manager, I don’t want my people to self-censor. When something is not right, I want to know about it, analyze it, and make corrections as needed.”

Let’s unpack that a bit to shed a little light on the antidote to the poison in positivity.

I’ve already said that generally, a positive attitude is more productive than negativity. However, you can’t mandate a positive attitude. Telling people to have a positive attitude “no matter what” is at best obtuse, at worst brutally authoritarian. You may as well tell them up front that you just don’t give a damn about their concerns or feelings, especially when they experience conditions and situations that they see as counterproductive, destructive, or even dangerous.

But let’s not assume the worst. Let’s assume that your intent is to help people maintain the most positive outlook possible even in the face of adversity.

Pay attention. Acknowledge that there’s a negative vibe going on and get to the fundamental concerns. This means asking people what they’re worried or angry about and listening, actively, sincerely, and without judgment to what they say, if they’re willing to tell you.

I say without judgment because judgment at this point impedes understanding. Stephen Covey preached, “Seek first to understand.” That should be the top priority when people are upset and willing to share their concerns. There’s plenty of time for judgment later. Though when we truly seek to understand, we usually find a better way.

Bad news
As my friend said, “When something is not right, I want to know about it, analyze it, and make corrections as needed.” In fact, how can you possibly know when something is out of whack if your people are afraid to share their concerns or come to you with problems?

Look, nobody wants to hear bad news. I get it — I’m no different. But as leaders, we’ve got to learn to appreciate it. It’s up to us to flip the polarity from negative to positive— to transform bad news into productive responses.

So, while we generally want to promote a positive attitude, take care that your intention is not to avoid pain, difficult conversations, or conflict. Be sure you’re not insisting on positivity just to make your life a little easier.

Avoiding self-censorship
Let’s address my friend’s other concern: “Personally, as a leader and manager, I don’t want my people to self-censor.”

Damn straight!

One of the most flagrant examples of poison positivity is this too-oft issued edict:

“Don’t bring me a problem unless you have a solution.”

First, the person with the courage to bring you the problem might not have the power, authority, experience, or expertise to even suggest, much less provide a solution. You want people to share a problem when they see one. It’s your job to take that information and direct the right people and resources to find a solution.

What are the costs and consequences when people are discouraged or prohibited from sharing their concerns? Particularly if they’re discouraged for the sole reason of preserving some illusion of the positive?

And I do mean an illusion. Real concerns and dangers do not evaporate simply because you mandate a positive attitude or tell people not to bring their problems to you. From your perspective, they just go unmentioned or undetected, and ultimately, unresolved. Ignorance and avoidance are fertilizers that help problems grow.

More than 2,000 years ago Lao Tzu preached:

“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small.”

Addressing a problem when it’s small might just save you from later catastrophe.

Your greatest opportunities might be hiding behind what seems to be the most insignificant concerns.

Specific, genuine praise
Before we wrap up let’s talk about another danger when positivity is over-emphasized. Too many leaders think the only way to motivate people is with praise. Let me share a lesson I learned early as a new sensei.

Imagine your first day as a martial artist — as an adult. The first thing we do is stick you in a pair of pajamas and give you the ultimate symbol of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing: a white belt. The next thing you know you’re standing in front of a wall of mirrors trying to keep up with students who seem to have been doing this their entire lives. You’re feeling awkward, uncoordinated, and downright stupid when a well-meaning instructor pats you on the back and says, “Good job!”

Through the years I heard hundreds of students share some form of this experience with me. Instead of feeling encouraged, most people think, “What the hell is this guy looking at?”

I used to train my instructors to encourage their students. The key element was that if you’re offering praise, make it specific and genuine. It’s your job to find something that someone is doing well or highlight a specific improvement — no matter how small. Praise that instead of offering a general attaboy that might just make your student, or employee, feel as if you’re just not paying attention — especially when they’re struggling. You’ll find in most cases that correction or critique will be better appreciated and effective after a sincere dose of authentic positivity.

Borrowing a quote from an old movie, “Be nice. Until it’s time not to be nice.”

When it comes to underperformance due to negligence, laziness, or complacency, there’s no need to sugarcoat your response. You still want to maintain your composure. It’s usually not productive to lose your temper or resort to insults or embarrassment — though I can think of situations where that would be forgivable if not outright warranted!

When it comes to bad behavior, especially behavior that denigrates or harms others, then nothing but a strong, direct response is appropriate. You don’t have to be “nice” in these situations. Handle the problem. That’s the best way to express compassion to the other people involved who most deserve your full support.

In these cases, being too “soft” or trying to be too positive is actually perceived as a weakness. Trying to be too nice can be interpreted as being insensitive to a real problem.

I don’t want to leave on a negative note. Most of us do genuinely prefer a positive environment. As I said earlier, a positive attitude is usually more productive. Praise does generally inspire better performance than constant criticism.

The key, as it often is, is balance. To accomplish anything, we need both. It is the flow from negative to positive and back again that drives every source of power we know — electric, magnetic, gravitational, and — human.

Our job as leaders is to direct that flow and transform that negative energy into positive power. 


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About the author
Jim Bouchard | President/Owner/C-Level

Jim Bouchard is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer, executive mentor, and author. His books include “The Sensei Leader” and “Think Like a Black Belt.” You can connect with Jim on LinkedIn at http://linkedin.com/in/jimbouchard and contact him directly at [email protected]. Phone him at 207-751-4317.