28 Jun Positivity: can you have too much of a good thing?
In a typical weekly team meeting, only the brave will admit when staff morale drops to an all time low, or that a machine operator almost lost a hand rushing to hit production targets.
Instead, you’re more likely to hear glowing reports from people anxious to persuade management that everything’s under control – that there’s nothing to worry about. ‘Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions’ goes the age-old corporate maxim; it seems no one wants to hear moaning at work.
So why do so many companies make their people feel that bringing up bad news is, well, bad news?
Lizz Fields-Pattinson throws light on the situation, inspired by this recent thread on the LinkedIn Positive Psychology Coaching group.
“Positive psychology developed out of a desire to understand how some people seem to cope better with life’s challenges and bounce back quicker than others who faced the same life events. They seem to be happier and more content, and generally healthier in the long-run.
“Research shows that their positive outlook, and the ability to look on the bright side, seem to be an important part of their overall resilience. So positive psychology tries to promote these attitudes in everyone else so they feel happier, more successful and resilient.”
But herein lies the problem: ‘everyone else’ isn’t blessed with natural positivity. We can try to raise awareness of how our negative thoughts affect us and the people around us, but it’s not easy to encourage a change that feels genuine.
“Not everyone feels naturally positive all the time. Most of us are socially conditioned into pessimism, that’s why it’s easier to criticise poor behaviour than praise someone for what they get right.
“Negativity is everywhere – in advertising and marketing, in the media. It exploits people’s insecurities and motivates them through fear. Just look at the EU referendum campaigns. No one wants to read a story in the press about how many people crossed the road safely today. That’s boring!”
If you force people to focus on the positives there’s a danger that you’ll discourage bad news, and repress people’s natural tendency to ask questions. In a professional context, like meetings, this is effectively telling people that they’re only free to speak up if they have a positive outcome.
Lizz has first-hand experience of this happening, in culture assessment interviews with staff at well-known companies, ones who claim to have positive cultures:
“When these people are away from their peers they open up, it all comes out. All their angst gets bottled up. But it has to come out sometime and that might happen one day when they’re doing something hazardous and their emotions get the better of them.
“The thing is though, when we tell managers what their staff really think, anonymously, they always say ‘oh I wish I’d known this sooner’, but these are the same people who only want to hear positive opinions.”
And it’s not just health and safety that exclusive positivity can affect, it has an impact on the bottom line too:
“Leaders end up getting biased reports about what things are like on the front-line of the business. So they make bad decisions using the wrong information.”
Lizz suggests there’s a delicate balance
“Some people always see the best – they’re like a breath of fresh air. But these people are few and far between. Generating positivity is good, but you need to recognise other dispositions.
“People still have valid opinions even though what they say might sound negative or depressing. They just look at things from different angles and need to ask questions before they understand. But the way they come across can sound like moaning and make other people switch off.”
Lizz reckons that if you give people space and encourage them to speak up without fear of recrimination – whatever their outlook, you’ll gain a balanced, more accurate reflection of the values and attitudes that underpin everything you do in your company. Whether that’s in terms of safety, quality or efficiency and profit.
“Is life rose-tinted? No. It’s a mixture of good and bad things that happen to us. Getting people to speak up at all in the first place is the real problem you face, and you need them to do that however they see the world.”