Taking a closer look at the symptoms and the cure for an always-be-positive business outlook
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The following excerpt is from Benjamin Gilad and Mark Chussil’s book The New Employee Manual: A No-Holds-Barred Look at Corporate Life. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Apple Books | IndieBound
Positivismitis is the obsessive need to smooth, silken, soften, and tone down anything that’s not overtly positive, gushingly rewarding, loudly cheerful, or absolutely complimentary lest someone, somewhere, somehow be offended and start crying (not to mention complain to the ruthless HR department). It leads to smoothing over real competitive issues, stifling debates, and hushing mavericks. And yet research suggests that the eternal optimists aren’t necessarily the best leaders either.
The perpetual need to be positive manifests itself in every area of a Corporate Overconfident, Oblivious Culture (COOC), from managers’ performance reviews to company performance reviews to not commenting on the lukewarm coffee in the carafes brought to a meeting. Positivismitis has become so bad that when executives don’t sugarcoat their views or see the silver lining in every tornado, the business world gasps in shock.
The idea that you must put a positive spin on every situation is deeply ingrained in the corporate mindset. But positive spin, by definition, obscures reality, and without facing reality, jobs and wealth are doomed.
As a maverick, you can fight Positivismitis in your own way. Ask yourself questions like the ones below. The answers tell you whether your company is full or free of Positivismitis.
- Would you have the guts to admit to “a hodgepodge of tactical initiatives” “Yes,” means low Positivismitis. “No,” doesn’t.
- Does bad news arrive at your company from leading indicators? Example: Those newfangled cars are sure to drive down future demand for our buggy whips (low Positivismitis). Or does bad news arrive from lagging indicators? Example: Demand for our buggy whips has been down for several years (medium Positivismitis). Or does bad news not arrive at all? Example: Someone bought a buggy whip last month (terminal Positivismitis).
- Does the word competitor come up often during strategy, sales, marketing, or finance meetings? Does the phrase our plan come up? The higher the ratio of “competitor” to “our plan,” the lower the Positivismitis.
- Does your company ask questions looking for disconfirmation that it’s on track? Example: “What’s interfering with reaching our targets?” signals the inoculation against Positivismitis has been effective. Or does it look for confirmation? Example: “How close are we to our targets?” signals risk of Positivismitis.
The more you scored your company positively on the questions above, the less susceptible it is to Positivismitis. That’s a positive sign.
So what’s the cure for Positivismitis? No, it’s not a counteracting dose of bad old Negativismitis. The cure is confronting reality; the cure is honesty. The willingness to acknowledge and face reality is a prerequisite for developing your skill at competing.
Side Effects of Positivismitis
In psychotherapy, as in 12-step rehab programs, we’re told that until we admit there’s a problem, no progress can be made. Positive talk at any cost is a classic symptom of managers who live in deep denial of a problem. But denying honest dialogue causes the competing muscle to atrophy. So what should you do?
First, you have to be realistic. And sometimes reality itself isn’t very pleasant. Sugarcoating it doesn’t lead to a “better work environment”; it leads to diabetes.
So should you be an optimist? Optimism is wonderful, until it’s not, and it’s not when it gets in the way of reality. However, optimism is not always bad. It depends on the type of optimism.
Sophia Chou, an organizational-psychology researcher from National Taiwan University, described what she called a realistic optimist. Unlike optimists who see only the glass-half-full and limitless possibilities, and unlike pessimists who see only the glass-half-empty and no hope, realistic optimists blend realism (which can have negative implications) and optimism.
According to Chou’s research findings, realist optimists have the positive outlook of the optimists with the reality checks of the pessimist. In the study, they had better grades than the other groups, as they realized they had to study to achieve academic success. And, says Chou, they don’t give up in the face of challenges. They come up with alternative plans. Alternative plans . . . that sounds like our maverick!
So with whom should you replace your company’s eternal optimists? We recommend realistic optimists.