“You’re being negative!” Recently I led a team building workshop, and that was a federal government Division Director’s reply to my questioning, “Why the ‘Front Office’ meeting had not been working?” Preceding my operational assessment a number of people noted:
a) that for several months people were not bringing relevant agenda issues to the meeting and
b) the overall lack of meaningful discussion, especially regarding communication and coordination issues of concern to all staff. Now taking his challenge one step further the Director said, “If you are saying the Front Office meeting is not functional, are you implying that we are dysfunctional?” The Director then proceeded to say how much he respected the talents, hard work and commitment of all his staff. (I suspect this “negative” labeling generated some dissonance for participants as shortly before I had enthusiastically noted the positive energy and lively discussion generated by an exercise, illustrated below.)
My last word, as the Director had to rush out to another meeting, was, “Perhaps we can hold both possibilities, that is, the staff is, in fact, a talented and committed group and that team communication and coordination can also be strengthened…we can improve the communication bridges.”
Actually, setting the stage for this confrontation was first a fun and thought-provoking icebreaker followed by a small and large group conflict resolution exercise. Divided into teams of four, each group identified and attempted to problem-solve an issue related to “Communication Breakdown,” and then reported back to the entire audience for further exchange. The lively and passionate discussion in both settings certainly belied the notion that there weren’t pressing issues on people’s minds. (The exercise does have a somewhat provocative wording – “Communication Breakdown.” However, I see the existence of some breakdown or barriers to communication as a natural part of doing business in a bureaucracy, actually, as a seemingly inevitable byproduct of almost any group-organizational communication process, not an indictment of management, employees or the operational system. Perhaps I will add this message to future exercise instructions. The phrase is used in my workshops because it’s an effective trigger; everyone seems able to provide an example of or an experience related to “message sent is not message received.”)
For this article, I’d like to examine two issues: a) the dynamic nature and appropriateness – upside and downside – of the Director’s specific confrontation and b) the larger issue of the upside and downside of viewing communication in an “all or none” or “positive vs. negative” manner, especially within a team building–organizational openness context. Here are “Two Confrontation-Communication Keys”:
1. Confrontational Dynamics. In hindsight there was some validity to the Director’s comments. If I had the chance to do it again, instead of asking, “Why the ‘Front Office’ meeting had not been working?” I would have said, “What might be contributing to the reduced agenda development and problem solving communication?” In other words, I would have been more specific, descriptive and objective in my wording; let’s call it avoiding a “half empty” approach to giving feedback. This really isn’t a trivial issue. For example, consider this confrontational sequence:
“What’s your problem?”
“What’s the problem?”
Can you give me some specifics?
“How can I be of help?
Clearly the sequence starts off more confrontational and judgmental and evolves into a less contentious more objective and cooperative style. “How can I be of help?” is less likely to feed the defensiveness fire.
On the Other Hand
However, the Director’s confrontation was not especially clear or clean. He took my “why is it not working” question and definitely gave the phrase (as well as my motives) more negative spin than intended or warranted. What was his motivation, conscious or otherwise? Consider some possibilities:
a) the Director was surprised to learn of the number and intensity of staff concerns; a half-full approach might say he was simply misinformed while a half-empty approach might question whether he really wanted to hear “bad news,”
b) that the Director felt challenged as a leader by my ability to fairly quickly elicit the identification of real operational issues and the facilitation of give-and-take discussion and an active problem-solving climate, and
c) by giving me a “negative” label the Director could more readily cast himself in a “positive leader” light.
Apropos of this analysis, many people afterwards expressed surprise by the Director’s reactions to my comments. And finally, I did write a tactful follow-up letter to the Director, outlining how I would have rephrased my question and focused on “strengthening communication bridges.” I also suggested that for the benefit of the division we might want to meet and discuss our different philosophy and approaches to team building communication. I’m awaiting his reply.
2. Staying Positive vs. Being Negative. Clearly, as a communicator being “positive” is often a virtue. In fact, consider these “Advantages of a 'positive' perspective in a motivational, problem-solving and team building context”:
a) Work with Strengths – focusing on strengths tends to be a more effective motivator; as Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman noted in First Break All the Rules: What the Greatest Managers Do Differently, it’s easier to get people to build on their talents than to try to fill in the gaps or compensate for what’s not there,
b) Reduce Defensiveness – clearly, a “positive” approach elicits less defensiveness; certainly balancing criticism with some positives makes the medicine easier to take; considering how feedback processes often play out though, not surprisingly for many people “constructive criticism” often is an oxymoron, and
c) More Efficient and Focused – my early training in psychotherapy was in “Crisis Intervention and Brief Treatment.” Most clients were not expected to dredge up or dwell upon past painful or “negative” memories, but were encouraged to achieve a clearer, more objective cognitive and emotional understanding of one or two pressing problem areas. It was called a person-situation assessment. (The benefit of working with people or teams in crisis is that the crisis state not only focuses people’s attention on the present issues but crises naturally surface those painful, seemingly “negative,” often unresolved emotional issues. Heartfelt tears of grieving actually help cleanse old wounds. This grieving process, embracing the “negative,” eventually frees up problem-solving energy for working intentionally in the present.) Then together we would rapidly design behavioral/task-oriented skills and “positive” strategies (taking into account the client’s strengths and resources) for engaging the critical issues that the client wanted to work on. Staying focused on the present, tapping into a sense of urgency and outside resources, allowing the client to lean on me psychically for support during this vulnerable period, the goal was to achieve some meaningful problem solving within a six week period, as one to six weeks is the typical life of a crisis state. Beyond six weeks some level of post-crisis coping – adaptive or not – will occur.
Some cultures have historically understood the double-edged nature of “crisis.” For example, Chinese iconography, eschewing “an all or none” perspective, reveals the dual aspect of crisis with two characters – one character depicts “danger,” the other “opportunity.” Most of us have learned firsthand an ironical truth: sometimes an issue posing danger or uncertainty, that is, a “negative” situation, is required for “positive” or novel problem solving to occur. As I once penned:
For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!
d) Create a Virtuous Cycle – while a uniformly negative approach can quickly spiral downward into pessimism or personal finger pointing and blame, by finding positive common ground, even among the most diverse groups, you likely will foster a sense of tolerance and empathy. One exercise that achieves this effect is having diverse groups, “Share an Embarrassing Moment.” Status differences quickly fade as everyone has a story; all can relate, reveal and empathize…and ultimately laugh together. By throwing in some spicy humor (a humor that allows folks to both poke some good natured fun at their own and others’ flaws and foibles; see the “Embarrassment Exercise”) you just may build a vibrant culture that will likely have: a) leaders becoming more down to earth, that is, individuals with whom most can relate and connect, b) group members positively feeding off each other’s differences as well as c) evolving team spirit building on palpable and mutual energy, enthusiasm and support. (Having lived in N’Awlins for sixteen years I call it a “gumbo” culture. All the varied ingredients contribute to a great stew.)
The Problems of Attributional Bias and of Being “Too Positive”
Of course, despite all the advantages of being “positive,” there’s no shortage of negative and judgmental commentary. Leaving aside personal predilections for the moment, why is it that finger pointing rarely goes out of fashion? In addition to people basically needing to get a life or to stop placing people on unrealistically high pedestals (e.g., Elliot Spitzer or Tiger Woods; we seem to enjoy tearing down our icons), I believe it has something to do with a social psychology construct called “misattribution.” Attribution theory primarily examines why and how a person makes judgments about other people’s motives and actions. Self-attribution also comes under its purview. We tend to make either a:
a) personal attribution, that is, explaining someone’s motives or actions as reflecting something about their personality makeup or b) situational attribution, whereby the individual’s environment or external circumstances is seen to play a decisive role in assessing the individual’s motives and behavior.
Let me illustrate. If a relatively new colleague came to work late a couple of times there’s a tendency to start questioning his or her commitment, capacity for organization or scheduling, personal sloth, etc. In other words, you might make personal attributions. However, what if you had an unexpected run of lateness? What would be your self-attribution mechanism? I suspect you’d likely quickly note the effect of “Beltway traffic,” the weather, a child’s illness, daycare mishap, etc., etc. Clearly, these occurrences reflect situational attributions. And in this scenario, surely, the personal attributions have a more negative slant while situational attributions are more face-saving.
Actually, the tendency to overplay personal attributions and overlook external factors with others is called “attributional bias.” Of course, a person also can excuse away his or her own actions by looking for external factors, thereby deemphasizing or denying personal responsibility. Conversely, one can over attribute success to personal qualities, minimizing how much support was received from other people or outside resources. Regarding this last point, there’s attributional research showing that those in power often underestimate the advantages bestowed when having access to inside or “early warning” information. That is, bosses tend to overestimate their own skills and knowledge while evaluating subordinates as less knowledgeable/less smart on a personal level. In reality, often the differential factor is “situational,” that is, whether one does or does not have access to relevant, often selectively filtered or guarded information.
The Perils of Being Too Positive
Now let’s return to our workshop scenario and the director’s confrontation. He seemed to be putting my actions and words in a personal/judgmental context -- “You’re being negative!” (There’s a classic blaming “You” message. And remember, consistently throwing around “acc-you-sations” and you may become a “blameaholic.”) But it wasn’t the critical or “misattribution” messages directed at me that was most problematic for a team building process. (Most people seemed to assess our respective communication intentions accurately.) Actually, most troublesome was his need to be absolutely “positive.” What really happens when the formal leader claims he wants honest feedback but his walk indicates he expects people to be positive, including downplaying signs of trouble? Again in a team context, consider these “Limits of 'all or none' positive thinking and communication”:
a) Stifles Openness and Honest Exchange – unless a person or group is ready to challenge a “one-sided” authority, after awhile trying to stay relentlessly positive when there are objectively problematic issues to discuss undermines if not wears down a spirit of genuine give and take; if it goes on long enough, groupthink or rubberstamp decision-making occurs. This reminds me of my “Law of the Loyalty Loop”: Those who never want you to answer back always want you to back their answer. In addition, when an authority who doesn’t deal in “bad news” does give praise, his or her “positive feedback” can ring hollow. Finally, indiscriminate praise that does not at least occasionally reflect individual difference in effort or outcome eventually loses its capacity to motivate,
b) People Tune Out – sometimes the most obvious impact of over-generalized positivism (or avoidance of thorny issues) is that people just tune out; as one participant noted, she simply stares out the window. People realize the leader doesn’t want to hear or engage with “any negative” or “bad news”; sometimes a lemon needs to be digested as a lemon (to fully understand its range of qualities and possible applications) before attempting to turn it into lemonade that isn’t saccharinely sweet,
c) Undermines a Sense of Trust – during my workshops, I use exercises that allow organizational members to, for example, discuss the sources of everyday workplace stress and conflict. (They also have to come up with group pictures depicting these stressors; the result is often hilarious and “out-RAGE-ous,” that is, we turn people’s frustrations, the “negatives” into fun, creative, team problem-solving energy and camaraderie.) At times I need to remind management that people are not being disrespectful. Actually, the great energy and team spirit quickly belies that notion. Most important, employees want to know that management understands the necessity and value of periodically blowing off steam, especially with folks that have walked in your shoes…and can feel your bunions. This need for sharing is especially critical when working under demanding/always on conditions. People want managers who are open to hearing and learning from the folks on the front lines. Once team members start working off this tension productively and evolve a greater consciousness of “we all are in this together,” now people start feeling reenergized and more “positive.” And invariably this workshop/playshop process strengthens a sense of trust between management and employees, and
d) Minimizes Complexity and Collaboration – understanding the complexities and subtleties of human nature or group dynamics rarely comes down to “all or none,” "right or wrong,” “black or white” thinking and assessment. For example, usually some combination of personal and situational attributions is at play when it comes to understanding human dynamics or team motivations and actions. As I like to say, much of the time the proverbial glass is both “half empty” and “half full.”
Finally, when groups do their most creative problem-solving, diversity and difference are often the critical catalyst. That is, genuine collaboration requires identifying and synthesizing an array of real and often conflicting needs and anxieties, ideas and interests as well as pulling out hidden agendas. While this process can be tension-laden (e.g., “why are you being so negative?”) and take more time, the outcome typically reveals a more encompassing and sophisticated understanding of the problem. Collaborative engagement invariably yields more potent strategic options. In other words, everyone being quickly on the same “positive” page often fosters homogeneity and pseudo-harmony. Buy-in is usually superficial and under stress the “one big happy family” façade or “consensus” unravels quickly.
Using a recent team building workshop as a case example, the benefits of being “positive” and “negative” were examined, along with the capacity for confrontation to foster clarity or confusion. In particular, how individuals attribute the motives or actions of others was scrutinized. Overemphasizing personal explanations while minimizing situational factors often yields “attributional bias.” Finally, the perils of being rigidly positive in a team building context were delineated. The dangers include diminished openness and honesty as well as groupthink. In addition, there’s likely to be a problem solving process having reduced member investment along with diminished cognitive-collaborative complexity. Learn to see the glass as “half empty” and “half full” – words to help us all stay real and to…Practice Safe Stress!
Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 13th Expeditionary Support Command and the 15th Sustainment Brigade, Ft. Hood, Texas and the 3rd Chemical Brigade, Fort Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – www.stressdoc.com – called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.