Thursday, January 8, 2015

"Be Positive" is Not a Strategy

Image courtesy of Will S.
Have you ever felt like the picture to the left describes your workplace?

Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude. -Thomas Jefferson

When I was in sports in high school, I was told that a positive mental attitude was everything - you can't win without it. I agreed, and I still believe a positive mental attitude has many benefits. You have to agree that moping around, being a Debbie Downer, and thinking you can't do something will certainly set you up for failure. And, quite frankly, that's depressing. It's way more fun to be happy.

OK, so let's think positive for a minute. Or forever.

Let's think about your workplace and your culture within. Assume it's a stressful time - the winds of change are swirling about at tornadic speeds. There's little clarity in your role, and no clear vision has been communicated to the company at large. Everyone knows that it's a challenging time for the organization, and yet you're silently pulling for the good guys. You know they can do this.

Then one day, finally, you get a message from company leadership. Yay! It's the clarity you've been waiting for!

You read the message, and it says, "Be positive."

You sit there, perplexed. Your mind begins to swirl with that same tornadic speed as the winds of change. This is going to be our big change strategy? Everyone needs to be positive?

This is a problem because, when everyone is/acts positive, we...
  • fake greatness
  • sweep the dirt under the rug
  • have no problems (right?)
When in reality, it's just a mask, just a cover-up. There's no...
  • root cause analysis to understand the issues
  • addressing the root cause(s)
  • real clarity for the organization
  • vision to follow
  • leadership accountability
It's all a sham. With hopes that "positive will be the new black." After all, isn't that the goal? Employee happiness? So if you want to be happy, be happy - damnit!

There's a quote from Ralph Marston: Being positive in a negative situation is not naive. It's leadership.

I get it.

And I get that being negative is easier than being positive. Human nature has us focusing more on the negative, for whatever reason. Misery loves company, I suppose.

But in a company with 1,000 employees, for example, I can guarantee you that less than 10% are true leadership material. And for the other 90%, being positive in a negative situation feels naive. For them, seeing leaders being positive in a negative situation feels a little phony, no?

I'm reminded of the Titanic: the deck is clean, the rats are gone, and the band is still playing. Can't be all bad, right?

So let me get to my point: "Be positive" is not a directive that facilitates or creates engagement. Being positive is not an employee engagement strategy, a leadership strategy, or a directive to drive culture change. Being positive without considering or acknowledging reality is dangerous. Ignoring reality doesn't make it go away. Positivity without reality can only yield a bad outcome. While it makes for a nicer, friendlier environment to be in - in a fake sort of way - I think it's shortsighted and ignores the obvious - that positive energy does not fix what ails you.

What we have here is a leadership problem.

I'm reminded of this statement - "We have a crisis in leadership in this country" - that Bob Chapman (Chairman and CEO of Barry-Wehmiller) made in his Tedx presentation. Take a look at my post about his talk; he says: "7 out of 8 employees believe they work for a company that doesn't care for them." The reason: leadership and leadership's misguided focus. Looking at the scenario I describe above (tornadic winds), I believe the company doesn't care about its people.

I think positivity is a good thing, has its time and place, and takes a real leader to (know how to) pull it off during hard times, but when employees know that the ship is sinking, telling them to "be positive" either makes them think that you're stupid or that you don't care about them. You pick.

Don't pretend there are no issues. Or don't try to mask the fact that there are issues. Don't avoid the issues when asked about them. All of these are almost worse than having issues.

What can be done?
  • Uncover the root causes
  • Address the root causes
  • Solve the problems, eliminate the negative
  • Communication often
  • Communicate openly, candidly, and transparently
  • Communicate in a timely fashion
  • Communicate to get ahead of the curve and ahead of the negativity
  • Communicate with details, not with half details or teasers of what's to come
  • Communicate when you know something, when a concrete decision has been made
  • Make sure communication is meaningful
  • Provide clarity
  • Don't leave employees hanging
  • Be proactive
  • Answer employee questions about the situation in a meaningful way, not in a way that creates more angst
  • Ask employees for their feedback
  • Trust employees
  • Empower employees
  • Celebrate the good, the wins
  • Provide as much guidance as you can, but don't micromanage
  • Don't give employees a reason to focus on the negative 
  • Give employees a reason to focus on the positive
  • Give them a positive (many positives) to focus on
As you can see, communication is probably the most important tool you have in your toolbox to overcome some of the angst and anxiety that your staff is feeling. (I should add: meaningful communication is key.) Keep the lines of communication open; allow it to flow both ways. Don't hide in the ivory tower. Give employees a reason not to focus on the negative.

Fix what ails you. And communicate while you're fixing it.

Instead of leaving you with a quote today, I thought I'd share this brief Monty Python video. Enjoy.



2 comments:

  1. Annette, I like your point that positivity without reality is a bad thing. And "be positive" hardly counts as a strategy, but without positivity life is hard.

    There is a great video by Amy Cuddy, if you haven't seen it I think you will enjoy it. http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are?language=en

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    1. Thanks, James. I'll check out the video.

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