Soapbox

November 4, 2012 11:59 pm

Negative side of positive leadership

Excessively positive thinking can have unforeseen consequences

At the heart of the deep recession sweeping across many western economies has been a particular approach to leadership. Critical thinking, admissions of failure and expressions of doubt have been actively discouraged in favour of high levels of risk-taking and excessively positive thinking. Business schools and other development providers have been culpable of being part of this trend towards what I describe as “Prozac leadership”, where leaders, managers and society as a whole are addicted to an excessive and artificial positivity.

Believing their own words that everything is going well, Prozac leaders discourage open debate and criticism. Unwilling to listen to alternative views, they misunderstand or miss problems entirely, leaving their organisations ill-prepared to deal with unforeseen events and setbacks.

At the same time by insisting that subordinates’ upward communication is exclusively positive, this type of leadership can end up silencing committed employees and punishing those who dissent.

A recurrent theme which has frequently emerged in my own research in UK organisations is that employees often detect inconsistencies between leaders’ excessively positive messages and their practices. Research on two North Sea oil installations, for example, found that despite senior management’s upbeat claims about the company’s safety performance, many offshore workers did not disclose accidents and near misses. Believing that managers would prefer not to hear about any difficulties related to safety, workers deliberately communicated overly positive messages back up the hierarchy.

Beale

In many western societies, positive thinking is now a multimillion-pound industry. Although positive thinking cultures at work encourage optimism, celebrate success and express high expectations, they can lead to false promises, disciplinary pressures and blame. For example, proponents of positive thinking presuppose that if your business fails, or your job is eliminated, it must be your fault – if an optimistic outlook is the key to economic success, then there is no excuse for failure.

In contemporary research in business schools, positive thinking is strongly encouraged by the focus on appreciative inquiry, positive psychology and positive organisational behaviour; themes that are influential especially in the US and increasingly in the UK, Europe and the far east.

The international impact of excessive positivity in scholarly work can also be seen in the hostile reaction of some US scholars to articles which apply a critical analysis to leadership and management. The preference of anonymous reviewers in the US for uncritical studies in many of the dominant US business school journals constitutes a key publication barrier for more critical scholarship.

European schools have the potential to challenge these dominant dynamics and to demonstrate the necessity of critical and independent thinking in their teaching and research – and how this translates into hands-on business leadership which is clear-sighted, willing to confront difficult realities and unafraid to speak in terms of problems when necessary. Research consistently demonstrates that honesty is a key attribute that followers value in leaders.

Being positive can indeed be empowering and transformational, facilitating innovation and enhancing teamwork and in many cases is of course, preferable to its opposite. But positivity is now so embedded, ubiquitous and taken for granted in popular western cultures that it is rarely questioned. The unfounded optimism of Prozac leadership can damage performance by eroding trust, communication, learning and preparedness – either silencing followers or provoking more overt resistance. More effective leadership dynamics are likely to emerge when optimism is combined with critical thinking, when positivity is tempered with a willingness to confront difficult realities and when an upbeat vision is blended with a capacity to listen to alternative voices.

Professor David Collinson, Lancaster University Management School

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