Daniel Pink, in his book To Sell Is Human says, “Affirmation feels good, but it doesn’t prompt you to summon the resources and strategies to actually accomplish the task.”
I’ve always been a kinda “glass half empty guy” by nature, while at the same time possessing the necessary optimism of the dreamer. For me, my caution and negativity have always been a salubrious balancing mechanism to the ridiculous faith necessary to create the impossible—i.e. a new entrepreneurial company. (Note my New Year’s column from this year. [‘The Upside of Negativity for Entrepreneurs‘]
We American entrepreneurs (and Americans in general) are historically an optimistic lot. We have what neuroscientist Professor Tali Sharot calls “optimism bias.” This is a process by which we tend to look at the upside of just about everything.
For example, in her 2012 TED Talk Sharot points to a poll she did which indicated that most optimists thought their chance of developing cancer was about 10%. The actual chance is 30%. However, even after being told the actual figure, optimists still only rated their personal chances of getting cancer at 11%. Not realistic.
Note the recent book by Adam Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, which I discussed in my column last week. Grant makes a compelling case that successful entrepreneurs are much more cautious than is commonly assumed. They intuitively protect themselves from their own optimism bias. They anticipate the worst. Grant notes in point of fact that studies reveal that new companies bring in less revenue when they are highly optimistic. They take on more risky debt and can recklessly “swing for the fences.” [‘What It Takes to Be a True Original in Business‘]
In addition to Adam Grant’s new book, there is a growing corporate movement that is seeking to harness the positivity of negativity for the sake of work process efficiency. Some companies are pushing workers to drop superficial positivity and niceness in favor of “radical candor.” Indeed, The Wall Street Journal did an article at the end of last year titled “‘Nice’ is a Four-Letter Word at Companies Practicing Radical Candor.”
For example, Ray Dalio, founder of hedge-fund Bridgewater, feels conflict is good for corporate health. He wants all his employees to “elevate people accurately, not kindly,” according to his website. He demands that personnel at Bridgewater not “depersonalize mistakes,” according to the WSJ . He states, “A common error is to say, ‘We didn’t handle this well’ rather than ‘Harry’ didn’t handle this well.'”
Gulp. I sure would not want to be Harry.
The Wall Street Journal also notes Randstad, a holding company in Canada, encourages “mokitas,” or the truths that workers are afraid to say aloud. (The word mokita” actually comes from a native expression of Papua New Guinea used to describe “that which everyone knows and no one speaks of.”) Susan Scott, of training company Fierce Inc. in Seattle, a consultant for Randstad, encourages companies to hold “mokita amnesty days,” where every corporate associate can share fears, worries, and complaints without retribution.
I must say this radical approach to unbalanced positivity seems harsh and somewhat risky for corporate culture. It appears to me there is a danger of individuals just getting their rocks off by venting and bullying, rather than by rendering helpful, practical, collegial truth-telling and illumination.
Nevertheless, though positivity clearly fosters energy, creativity and a sense of well-being, it is dangerous without the leavening ballast of strategic pessimism. While we don’t necessarily need a war on “nice” and on optimism, an occasional deep gaze into the business abyss may be germane to business soundness, whether it be by way of radical candor, mokitas, or simply conjecturing what can possibly go wrong in this best of all possible worlds.
Or perhaps we’re just arguing here about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
George Carlin says simply: “Some people see the glass half full. Others see it half empty. I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be.” Thanks, George.