The dangers of a “No negativity allowed here” culture
It occurs to me that positive thinking, if not balanced with a good dose of critical thinking, risk assessment, and thoughtful disagreement, can do more harm than good.
In a time when the multi-billion dollar self-help industry promotes heavily the idea that negativity is the root of all evil, I believe that this oversimplified message can mislead many people who may end up confusing prudence, risk assessment and disagreement (albeit based on evidence) with negativity.
I’ve seen it happen in all areas of life, and I’ve noticed how this approach can kill not just relationships and careers, but also businesses.
I’ve been a witness of several cases in which business leaders who bought the idea of positive thinking, found themselves in a deep hole dug by their own confirmation bias.
They ended up neglecting any form of feedback from the market, hiring or keeping only the yes-men and women who could – genuinely or not – cope with their manufactured enthusiasm, and destroying years of hard work and team spirit.
Politicians often label those who oppose their vote-triggering initiatives as “negative”, but given the extraordinary rate of incoherence of the political sector, we can assume this is mainly a communication strategy based on the most extreme form of cynicism.
Unfortunately, this strategy seems to work with politicians contradicting themselves on regular bases, yet growing in popularity and consensus every time.
The business world, however, is very different.
A company cannot just say “I changed my mind” or “I’ve been misunderstood” to try and save all that was destroyed in months and sometimes years spent neglecting feedback under the slogan “No negativity allowed”.
Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest private hedge fund in the world, with over 160 US$ billion under management, has repeatedly defined himself a pessimist; someone who instinctively thinks of the worst-case scenario.
Not only has this mind frame helped him develop innovative investment strategies that provide his clients with asymmetric risk/reward (in which the risk is minimized in comparison to the potential gain) but also a rigorous management style based on two pillars:
1. An idea meritocracy
2. Thoughtful disagreement
In the idea meritocracy, only the best ideas prevail, whether they come from the CEO of the company, or from a new recruit.
This form of meritocracy can only happen within a group of people who seek disagreement, who know how to manage it, and who weight people’s believability based on their individual track record, rather than their adherence to the leaders’ beliefs and biases.
Obviously, none of the above can be achieved with a mainstream positive thinking attitude.
Entrepreneurs, managers and investors often fall in the trap of positive thinking when they experience a certain level of success.
A few years back The Economist published an interesting article titled “The worse loans are made at the best of times”, which found confirmation in the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 when banks landed money to a legion of unaccredited investors to buy overpriced homes.
On this regard, it comes to mind the book “Oh. Yeah?” a 1932 compilation of pre-Depression wisdom from businessmen and political leaders.
In retrospective, it is appalling to see how many qualified and authoritative public figures totally missed the economic downturn that was about to happen.
“I cannot help but raising a dissenting voice to the statement that prosperity in this country must necessarily diminish and recede in the future ” said E.H.H.Simmons, President of the NY Stock Exchange, January 12, 1928
US President Herbert Hoover, said on October 25, 1929: “The fundamental business of the country is on a sound and prosperous basis….”
Risk is an important factor to take into account in any decision-making process, it would be foolish to label it as “negativity” and one should accurately factor the quantity of risk she or he should take in any given situation.
Investor Howard Marks explains: “I want to make a clear distinction between risk control and risk avoidance. Risk control is the best route to loss avoidance. Risk avoidance, on the other hand, is likely to lead to return avoidance as well”
As you can see, a balanced approach can’t be labelled as “positive” or “negative”, it actually implies that all the extremes are dangerous simplifications.
In 1985, the psychologist Edward De Bono had created a framework for group discussions or individual lateral thinking, called Six Thinking Hats in which all views – neutral, positive, negative etc.. – have equal dignity and all of them contribute to the conversation.
The framework works as follow:
Every hat represents a point of view (white is neutral, yellow is optimistic, black is negative, green is creative, red represents feelings and emotions and blue stands for rational management) and every person participating to the decision making process has the right to express their view, provided that they label it in advance ( Ex: “Wearing the black hat, I see a potential treat from regulators if we decide to pursue this acquisition strategy”)
Disagreement, when managed and labeled property, can be an incredible force for good for an organization.
You may remember the case of Dolce & Gabbana, the popular fashion brand that a few months ago totally destroyed their business in China running an offensive (as per Chinese standards) advertising campaign followed by an even more disruptive reaction of Stefano Gabbana on social media right before a multi-million dollar live event that should have consecrated the brand in the most important fashion market in the world (Chinese consumers account up to 40% of the turnover of many fashion and luxury brands).
The problem was that they approached a strategic, yet profoundly different market like China with the same communication style, filled with irony, stereotypes, and sexual double entendre, they successfully used for years in their domestic market, Italy.
It’s hard to believe that such a successful company wouldn’t have access to someone sensitive enough to the cultural side of things to warn them and avoid such a gross mistake.
Apparently not only they didn’t, but their competitors didn’t learn from this mistake either.
No longer than a couple of weeks ago, Versace was strongly criticized in China for releasing a series of T-shirts showing the list of their mono-brand stores around the world in which was printed “Hong-Kong – HONG KONG” as if HK was still independent to China.
Little has helped that the company’s spokeswoman, Donatella Versace, apologized publicly on social media.
I believe such mistakes reflect a company culture in which disagreement is stigmatized, feedback is less than systematically triggered, and positivity hides a certain level of arrogance of the top management.
If this article has given the impression that your truly has a negative approach to life, this couldn’t be further from reality.
I have nothing but gratitude for my life, I wake up almost every morning with a smile that I carry with me all day long, and I do think that the best way to define me is “an optimist”.
However, I also think that thoughtful disagreement coming from believable people is the most precious commodity when trying to grow and succeed in our ventures.
I’ve seen firsthand the damages done by business leaders who wouldn’t tolerate anything but a confirmation of their opinions, and I hope this blog may open someone’s eyes and help them see – to say it with Tony Robbins “Reality for what it is. Not worse than it is, but just as it is”
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