In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale‘s 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 right way to be.
Then again, could positivity have a downside?
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, because it drives people to either withhold the bad news or sugar coat it with a positive spin that often clouds the real issue.
Sometimes what may occur as “negative” is actually the very thing that most needs to be heard and addressed in order to move forward in a positive way.
Nonetheless, many leaders fear what seems negative. 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 attempt to deal with any negativity behind closed doors.
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In an attempt to keep negativity from creeping into public conversation, they might ask people to come to the table with solutions rather than problems, thinking that someone who sees a problem and who can’t or won’t also bring a solution is negative and perhaps even part of the problem.
What can make matters worse is when a leader asks for open and honest feedback, and then judges the people who are courageous enough to deliver the bad news as being negative and destructive, rather than honoring them for their commitment and courage to speak up – the very thing they asked them to do.
It is an illusion that we can keep any negativity out of our organizations – or our life, for that matter.
Unfortunately, the more we try to prevent honest, authentic communication from happening openly in the name of “positive is good and negative is bad,” the more interesting those negative thoughts become to people fostering “meetings after the meeting” rather than real conversations in the open.
When driven underground and behind closed doors, the airing of negative perceptions rarely leads to anything more than gossip, which distracts us at best and fuels resignation and cynicism at worst.
The ultimate cost of trying to keep negative conversations under wraps is often both progress and satisfaction.
It’s easy to listen to the good news, the positive messages. It is a lot harder to listen to the bad news, those negative messages and sentiments, 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 just want to hear what is good and comfortable for us to hear – or whether we want to hear what is real for them.