Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Being too positive - the Hitler Syndrome

"Don't bring me problems bring me solutions."

"S/he is always negative"

"S/he is always positive"

"No problem"

"What's with all of the negativity?"

"Why can't we just be positive about this?"

What happens inside when someone walks into your office or calls you up and says "We have a problem?" I will lay 10 - 1 odds on that you have a sinking feeling or something similar. Join the rest of the human race.

A problem arises when the following unquestioned associations are frequently arrived at:
  1. Problems = bad = failure,
  2. Being positive = nice/good = success.
Many managers and leaders don't want to hear about problems, they want to hear about success and they certainly don't want to tell their bosses about problems that they have, they would far rather let them know about successes, especially about successes that they brought about. Unless that is of course to tell of someone else's problems and failures, the reflection being that "Look there was a mistake I wouldn't make, idiot!"

One of the worst things that you can be seen as in any business is someone who is has failures (this is seen as the person being a failure, which is interesting and faulty logic). The next worst is being seen as someone who just sees the negatives, the problems that exist. One way to be left alone and not get invited to meetings is to stop being positive and start to see the problems in things. I won't take long in most corporate environments for you to become blissfully meeting (and promotion) free!

Many corporate (and governmental) cultures are now so full of spin that no one really knows what is true anymore and as a result many largely suspect most of what is said, especially by the management is spin - a polite word for lying.

The effect of all this positive glossy 'don't bring me problems, you are too negative' culture? Eventual crisis usually. The most immediate affect is that people don't really know what's going on, what the reality of the situation is. If they don't know what is really happening then they can't make good judgments, solve the most urgent problems and make great decisions. Hiltler so berated his commanders when they either provided a critique of his tactics or gave him any bad news that in order to save their careers and in many cases their skin, the rule became never to provide a critique and never ever tell him of any losses. As a result he was committing divisions to battle that were so depleted that they had zero tactical impact or in many cases simply didn't exist any more. I have seen similar situations in many organisations where every project works (according to the evaluations conducted by the project owner), where large programmes keep going as per the plan because anything else would show that the plan (and therefore the authors of the plan) was wrong, even though all the data suggest that the plan now needs to be changed or even scrapped. The vast majority of projects are admitted to be failures long after everyone (privately) really knew that things weren't working. This isn't the effect of hindsight.
We have tracked a number of projects where the warning signs that things need to be changed were clear to the project participants and others. During interviews people would say things like "this is madness, it isn't going to work, but I am not going to be the one who is seen as the barer of bad news." When you interview a number of people who all say very similar things in the same company you do start to realise that there is disease in organisations where critique and critical thinking is seen as being negative which can get you labeled as a blocker or a problem.

When I interviewed a group of successful entrepreneurs what was interesting in this context is not that they never made any mistakes not that they had no failures. Indeed quite the opposite was true, they spoke at length of the failures and mistakes and importantly what they had learnt from these mistakes and how they had used to learning to turn failure into success. When you think about it when a child is learning to walk, for example it doesn't give up the first time it falls over. It just keeos going and keeps learning. It is only later in life that they get the idea that feedback from failure is a failure in its own right. Feedback, honest critical feedback is a necessary component of learning and it is only though learning that organisations and ourselves can be successful as we navigate territory that is ambiguous and uncertain. To deny the organisation and others that feedback is to condemn it. Without critical feedback development becomes slow and at worst stops completely.

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