Is positivity backfiring?

Is positivity and being “nice” getting in the way of accountability, honest conversations and ultimately, getting results? 

Potentially. Victor Lipman, in his HBR article, discusses under-management – the opposite end of the spectrum from micro-management. Many businesses are suffering because managers aren’t managing enough. They aren’t holding employees accountable for results, opting instead for being nice and being liked. 

One assertive young manager I know is all about getting results. He cracks the whip and he makes sure that things get done. He rails against what we do in the world of coaching and leadership development: “positivity” he says with a snarl, “soft skills” with a smirk; “what we need is results and these leadership trainers are all wrong – they’re distracting us from achieving results!” 

Since I’m one of those accused “leadership trainers”, I find his perspective and sharp reaction unpleasant.

But he is right.

And the need-for-positivity perspective is also right. Businesses need BOTH – a positive approach and an unapologetic focus on results.

We need both backbone AND heart. A backbone to support us to hold boundaries and accountability and a heart to care for our people. Most of us have a preference for one or the other, but we need both. Embracing the part that is less comfortable is the personal work we need to do if we are to do our jobs well and lead a profitable and sustainable business. 

Lipman says that, “too strong a desire to be liked can get in the way of fully productive management because it can make you reluctant to do the things you need to do.” Indeed, from a brain perspective, our innate needs (our preferences for belonging and certainty, for example) will get in our way. The brain does not want us to threaten a sense of belonging or to rock the boat, so it will make sure we avoid conflict, confrontation which often means avoiding holding someone accountable to results. 

But we need to be able to set our personal needs aside, and instead, appeal to what’s best for the organisation. It will be uncomfortable – but only until we build strength and and see the beneficial results.

Backbone:  If we have a preference for being nice, we need to pay more attention to results. To accountability. To consequences when things don’t get done. And follow through on agreements we have with people. There is a psychological contract with employees – the company pays them and they have a job to do. We need to uphold this deal. 

Heart: If we have been focused on results, especially if it’s been at the expense of peoples’ well-being and sense of self, then we may need to pay more attention to positivity – including care for others. We need to be aware of our impact and what it gives or costs others. Find a way to focus on results without creating a fear-based culture. Stop with the whip and the blame and shame game, it is not a requirement for holding accountability.