The Downside of Positivity

| | Leading Organizations
The Downside of Positivity

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.

Ask yourself this: how well do you deal with negative feedback?


Enter A Comment

Randy Conley   |   02 February 2015   |   Reply

Great points Susan. I see a big difference being negativity and healthy conflict, which is what I think you’re encouraging in organizations. Conflict isn’t necessarily bad; we just tend to automatically associate it with negative things. All teams and organizations need those people who will point out the flaws in strategies, question why something is being done, or challenge commonly held beliefs. It helps us reach better decisions and test what we really believe.


Susan Mazza   |   12 February 2015   |   Reply

Great distinction Randy – negativity vs. healthy conflict – and yes that is what I am encouraging. Skeptics are all around us and if we are wise we will leverage their insight.

Nisha   |   11 February 2015   |   Reply

I never thought positivity could be negative. Thank you Susan for opening my mind.

Susan Mazza   |   12 February 2015   |   Reply

Or negative could be positive 🙂 Nice to see you Nisha. Thanks for stopping by!

Dawn Riccardi Morris   |   12 February 2015   |   Reply

I absolutely LOVE this post and have shared it a few times already. THANK YOU for writing about this! As someone who values the questions more so than the answers, I feel like you read my mind.

I view a negative comment as a positive action, as it forces us to put our best product, service, you name it, forward. I really doubt that Steve Jobs would been able to deeply impact the world with a product if he settled for something that didn’t match his vision. It’s those who are willing to ask the hard questions who ultimately change the world.

Paola   |   10 November 2015   |   Reply

Positive affirmations are great! What a lot of pelope don’t understand is that the brain is like a computer, you put software in and if that software is corrupt you don’t get your desired outcome. When your brain hears something over and over again, it gets programmed into your head and that’s what you start to do or feel like. An example of this would be if a person was trying to lose weight they would get much a much better result if they were to say I’m going to be healthy, I can do it rather than I’m fat and hate the way I look . Your thoughts can easily effect your entire life, so keep on saying positive affirmations, it’s great for your mental health and overall well being!Sorry if this was a bit more than what you asked for, but I hope it helps!

Susan Mazza   |   30 November 2015   |   Reply

Thanks for your comment Paola – it makes me think of an old adage from my days as an IT Professional – “Garbage in, garbage out!”

Our self talk does have a big impact on our energy and our outcomes. However, being honest with yourself that you aren’t satisfied with how you look in your example is very different from beating yourself up about it though.

I am more talking about being honest as opposed to being falsely positive or fake about what you really think and feel. You can deliver negative feedback in a committed and constructive way or you can use it to tear people down. But pretending a problem doesn’t exist rarely helps anyone.