Optimism and positivity are the threads that make the fabric of the United States. While some countries may be happier, we are hard pressed to find a more optimistic nation than the U.S. The evidence for such optimism is all around us. Self-help books at Barnes & Noble outnumber almost every other genre. Motivational speakers abound. Even our religious establishments are markedly more positive and optimistic compared to others.
In this sea of optimism, however, there is still a place for negativity and pessimism. These places include nuclear power stations, elite military organizations, oil and gas refineries, railroads, and, certain financial institutions. Research that negativity and pessimism ignite certain mental functions that positivity cannot touch is growing. For instance, in nuclear settings, leaders often ask, “What is the worst that can happen from what I’m about to do or about to decide?” Just assuming that something bad can happen forces us to challenge assumptions, to come up with back-up plans, and think about alternatives. Where positive people tend to greatly under-estimate risk, negativity forces us to confront risk head on. This is of critical importance when dealing with high-risk/high hazard organizations. In fact, most high performing organizations will launch Challenge Boards to do nothing more than bring the power of negativity to conditions of ambiguity. Here, a truth emerges—the more dangerous and ambiguous the future, the more negativity is needed up front.
But here’s the rub. People don’t like to work in negative environments. The obvious drawback is a severe and steady assault on good morale. So, at ELP, we have some advice from thousands of hours of observation. When it comes to procedures, processes, equipment reliability, and technical and most operational decisions, it is okay—if not preferred—to espouse some level of pessimism. However, when it comes to people, and all things people related, be positive and share small wins. The very best leaders that we’ve seen can hold these two contradictions simultaneously—be pessimistic about the processes but optimistic about the people who will decide and execute these decisions.
At ELP, we can help create, foster, and nourish these apparent contradictions. Comment, reach out, and even disagree (there’s some negativity). Visit our website at www.exceleratedleadership.com or call one of our original founders and principals, Robin Bichy, at 703.999.5676 to learn more.