Leaders have to be positive. After all, how often do people choose to follow someone who’s negative all the time?
Leader: I know it sucks and what we’re about to do hasn’t worked in our previous attempts and we’ll probably all fail again this time, but follow me into the abyss anyway.
Those led: Sure, or maybe I should just shoot myself right now and get it over with . . .
So, being positive is an implicit and necessary part of good leadership. But that doesn’t mean that the people being led will always be positive. In fact, one of the biggest challenges for a leader is to keep people as positive as possible. As all leaders know though, this can be a challenge.
The problem is that many people like being negative. Negativity has this strange attraction like gravity for them. They never seem to be able to break its grip. There are people who always look at the downsides of a situation, searching for failure instead of focusing on success. Certainly, there are infinitely more ways to fail than there are to succeed and many people are more comfortable with the ease of finding what can go wrong than in putting in the effort to seek out what can go right.
Try as you might to weed these people out or to avoid hiring them in the first place, a reasonable number of people are always distracted by this invisible, negative force to varying degrees. You’d think that such people wouldn’t be interested in entrepreneurial companies or roles, but the fact is, they usually don’t see it in themselves. They think of themselves as “realistic.” As such, a leader has to constantly deal with the problem.
What’s a leader to do? Here are a few thoughts:
- Understand that there are people who work for you who are always searching for the dark side – in your own exuberance and given your positive nature, you may forget that there are other points of view and that some of those will be a path to failure. Address it up front, making sure everyone can see why the path you’re on is more likely to succeed than fail.
- Expose the fact that many people are drawn to failure while focus on success is a prerequisite for success – as every entrepreneur knows, a positive attitude is an integral part of creating success. Call it like it is and challenge people who seek failure to make the effort to adjust their focus to positive outcomes. Make it clear that negative attitudes are actually part of the problem. This is a fine line, because you don’t want to discourage contrarian thinking. You just want to eliminate irrational negativism.
- Create a mental image to help people focus on the positive – Help people adopt more positive thinking by giving them a mental model. I always liked to tell a story about looking into the night sky – it’s easy to see the black void, but with a small amount of effort, you can concentrate on the more interesting bright stars. Once one’s focus is there, it doesn’t stray back to black, open space again. Corny, but effective.
- Constantly share your out-of-control, positive view of what you’re doing and where you’re headed – be an evangelist of your ideas and the path you’ve chosen. Never assume that people are happy and convinced. Make the time to spread your excitement and energy about what’s going on.
- Expose incremental progress towards goals – by showing that the organization is successfully implementing along the chosen path, you can debunk nay-sayers and create converts. Some people just need a little proof to throw them over the edge. Organizations generally don’t celebrate small successes enough anyway. Recognition of incremental success can be a great tool for moving an organization in a chosen direction with real excitement and a positive attitude.
- If after working with someone on their negative view of the future and finding that they are adversely impacting those around them, move them or fire them – if you’ve made your best effort at trying to convert someone with a negative attitude who thinks it’s their responsibility to poison the water for others, you have no choice but to make a change. Most likely, their negative attitude has nothing to do with the project they’re on or the organization’s current direction (again, keep in mind that a negative attitude is very different from a contrarian viewpoint), it’s just the way they are. My previous post, When to Get Rid of the “Best” People Who Work for You, covers this in more detail, but in brief, one person’s vocal, negative outlook can kill the effectiveness of an organization.
Positive thinking organizations move faster, more effectively and are simply more successful. As such, every leader needs to make creating a positively motivated environment a high priority. This does not mean that people need to have happy feet every day and be giddy about their jobs, their office and the people they work with, but they should feel good about the direction the organization is heading in, that it will lead to success and that they’re in integral part of it.