Every lie and lame idea in the corporate world is now protected by an airtight bubble of positive attitude and yes-men. And I’m sick of it.
A day doesn’t go by where some boss doesn’t shut down discussion of something he wants to do by saying, “You need to have a positive attitude. You need to work on saying yes instead of no all the time.” It’s important to note that this is not an argument on the merits of his idea or the criticism of it, it’s an attack on the attitude of his critics, and really it is no different than if he had covered his ears and screamed “la la la la la, I can’t hear you!”
And the more the boss shuts people down by stressing positive attitude, the fewer people who will speak up even when there’s a problem. Assuming the same number of problems, then it will fall to a shrinking group of people to be the ones who always have to speak up. And those people will get tagged as Negative. Eventually people will avoid running things by the Negative People, and when forced to, chances are they’ll get a negative response because they did all that work without any vetting. Over time the Negative People will quit until there are none. The boss will replace them with yes-men, and those that remain will become yes-men or at least never say anything negative. It is what I refer to as the Cult Of Positive Attitude.
And this Cult Of Positive Attitude is self-reinforcing. The boss thinks it’s working great— when he started, he had lots of resistance, some of it organized, and maybe even had a moment of doubt whether what he was doing was right. But now he’s got a great team that encourages each other and keeps working to get to yes. But really the ideas aren’t better, it’s just that no one argues about how awful they are. And no one tries to stand in the way of the bad ideas, so you can bet that plenty more will end up getting presented to clients and maybe even produced.
If this story sounds familiar, it is. The Cult Of Positive Attitude in business today is really just an update of the fable known as The Emperor Has No Clothes. This is no exaggeration. Because once you’ve suppressed all dissent over whether something is a good idea to do, then when it comes time to report on how well it worked, there won’t be any honest assessments going on. It will be like the meeting I had the other day that lasted 3 hours as the team was asked to pour over the data to try to find something positive. The account director actually said, “We have to find a way to sell this as a positive, even though the numbers don’t show it.” In the end they decided to leave out all the negative data, and just highlight the positives. The final presentation was like leaving out all the points scored by Baltimore and saying San Francisco won the Super Bowl 31-0. And of course if I say something about how it’s all a pack of lies, then I have a negative attitude.
Fuck You and the Positive Attitude You Rode In On, Seth Godin
The Cult Of Positive Attitude is not just limited to the idiots I work with either. Very successful people buy into it. For example, last month Seth Godin wrote a post called A field guide to the Meeting Troll. Because of its meeting-related title, a lot of people forwarded it to me. Here’s a few choice bits:
The meeting troll has a neverending list of reasonable objections.
The meeting troll doesn’t actually want you to fail, but is establishing a trail so that if you do, he’s off the hook.
The very best way to extinguish the meeting troll is to extinguish meetings. The second best way is to not invite him.
Growth hackers look for a yes at every turn. The meeting troll thinks his job is to find the no.
One particularly noxious type of meeting troll says not a thing at the meeting. He uses body language and eye rolling to great advantage, though, and you can be sure that there will be quiet one-on-one undermining going on as soon as the meeting is over.
Open-ended questions that merely hint at failure are sufficient for the experienced troll. He knows that he doesn’t have to kill the new project for it to die. He just has to stir up sufficient unease.
And Seth Godin practices what he preaches— he doesn’t allow comments on the post, so no “troll” can ruin his pontification by telling him how he’s wrong.
I have no doubt that Seth Godin believes all this getting to yes, never hear a no, never listen to problems, just solve, solve, solve, yes, yes, yes, positive attitude, remain positive or remain quiet, there are no bad ideas in brainstorming crap. And you know what? Fuck him. By his definition, any negative feedback makes you a troll, and that’s just wrong.
There’s another side to this Meeting Troll post that is not being told. Let me tell you what I see when I read his post:
I tried to bring up the problems in the meeting, but you wouldn’t listen.
My concerns are real, I think, so it’s my duty to try to get them heard.
In meeting after meeting you deny me a fair hearing, so I got exasperated.
And when you stopped inviting me to meetings, I had to resort to going around or over you to undermine it. What choice did you leave me if what I believe you’re doing is going to get us all in trouble?
I’m not the smartest man in the world, but I know that when people aren’t listened to, and aren’t respected, then they will try to undermine you. They have to if they want to stop you from gambling the company, which they too are part of, on some unexamined scheme. But, hey, Seth Godin, you believe you’re smarter and, you know, better than other people, so you keep dismissing concerns as the work of trolls and do it your way. Not me. I believe in checks and balances— sometimes an idea is bad, risky, or stupid, and when it is, it’s better for everyone if it we don’t spend the next month working on ways to make it work than to just shut it down now. But we can’t shut it down if it doesn’t get a fair hearing.
Not Hearing About Problems Doesn’t Make Them Go Away
In the past few months I’ve watched the Account Director bully people over their “negative attitude” which kept her from hearing such trollish complaints as:
- That outside website is not secure enough to accept HIPAA data
- Leaving that line off the email will violate CAN-SPAM
- The contract hasn’t been reviewed by Legal
- Oprah will never in a million years endorse that product for the measly little sum you have left in the budget
But, of course she didn’t hear anyone out, so firm in the belief that every rule and process doesn’t apply to her, that she’s better, smarter, and destined for great things. She’s so high-level that it would be a waste of time for her to listen to the concerns of little people.
Of course all of these things ended up failing. Someone intervened at the client and shut it down, or it failed on its own, but in all cases weeks of time were wasted that could have been saved if we discussed the problems up front. Instead, she complained when things blew up, saying “Why didn’t you warn me?”
She was like the man whose house is in the way of a flood and is told to evacuate, but he stays home. The sheriff comes to evacuate him, and he says, “No, God will save me.” Then the flooding starts and a boat comes, and he says, “No, God will save me.” Then when he is out on his roof with the water still rising, a helicopter comes, and he says “No, God will save me.” Eventually he drowns. He asks God, “Why didn’t you save me?” And God says, “I tried. I sent the sheriff, the boat and the helicopter.”
A Consensus of Yes-Men Means Nothing
Building a consensus is usually a requirement for taking a big risk at companies, as it should be. Companies have something to lose when they make changes, and if they make ill-considered moves they might lose everything, which is why they’ve created processes to vet ideas, and set up departments to check each other, so that they only make big changes when there’s a consensus.
But if you stack the deck with yes-men, then consensus means nothing: A very large organization which we’re all familiar with had a leader who insisted on positive attitude and people who work to find solutions and make things happen. “Can-do attitude” was very important. So in a short time they were racing to the launch of his big project. The consensus within his team was that it was a good plan, with one department head even calling it a “slam dunk”. If anyone had any concerns, they stayed quiet. The project ended up a huge disaster despite a very impressive first month, with lots of back-patting and one group even declaring “mission accomplished”. In the end it:
- Turned out to have been sold-in with faulty information.
- Had a promised price tag of $60 billion, but exceeded $1 trillion.
- Was supposed to take 3 months, but lasted over 8 years.
It didn’t turn out too well for that leader either. Sure, he has his pension, but he’s a pariah now, invited to nothing, and trying to make the best of retirement by painting pictures of animals.
Conclusion: Grow Up and Learn To Argue Like An Adult
So listen up, you thin-skinned little weasels. You’re not always right. Sometimes the only constructive criticism is to tell you it’s impossible. Sometimes you have to stop trying to “find the yes” and accept the no. And along the way you’re going to have to accept that other people have valid opinions, even facts, and that if you don’t listen to them, then they will get mean and combative. And you had it coming.
Of course I might be wrong, so if you have something to add, leave me a comment. I’M not afraid to hear criticism.
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