Attend any industry conference and you’ll find a motivational speaker talking about the importance of a positive outlook. You may even take home positive mantras to paste on your bathroom mirror.
Nothing wrong with that. Leaders are generally optimistic people. Given that predisposition, leaders need to beware that on occasion their bias for the positive can produce negative outcomes.
Be on your guard for editorialized data. When bad things happen to good organizations, the pundits do Monday morning quarterbacking. Shareholders, colleagues, and customers may look at the facts and data and ask, “Why couldn’t they see the writing on the wall?” “Why didn’t they prevent this?” “How could Manager X make such a stupid mistake?”
Often, the answer is simple: The leader never got the accurate, objective facts or data. Instead, the staff passed on editorialized information—to fit their understanding of what the leader wanted to hear. Their understanding may or may not have been accurate. But if you as leader tend to communicate that you want to hear only good news, your staff will typically give it to you—whether accurate or edited.
Most managers say they hate doing performance appraisals, and more and more companies have opted out of the annual performance appraisal. Although part of the problem involves the huge time commitment, much of the dislike stems from the communication process itself.
Managers see themselves as nice people. They hate to give negative feedback to poor performers. So they filter their comments and give fuzzy feedback instead: “I’d like to see you work on improving your project-management skills.” That statement may be followed by a numerical rating of “3” and a “satisfactory.”
The employee walks away thinking, “If I’m satisfactory, why is improvement necessary? If I need to improve, to what degree? Can you give me something concrete to work on? Is my job in jeopardy? Should I be concerned? How do I improve?”
From time to time, even strong performers make mistakes, use poor judgment, or turn in sloppy work. Again, leaders want to be nice people—not hard-nosed, in-your-face, demanding bosses breathing down an employee’s neck. So they may excuse the occasional lapse.
But if you continue to communicate positively about such incidents and let those occasions slide, over time, you lower the standards. Employees learn that attention to details, accuracy, or service to the customer is not all that important.
The everybody-gets-a-trophy mentality, by extension, leads to lack of personal accountability and even acceptance of group failure. The reasoning goes like: If it doesn’t matter how well or how badly you play to get a trophy, then it shouldn’t matter how well or how badly you work if your team fails at its mission. Failure is not your fault.
Leaders who have a bias for positive communication will tell the team they failed because of new competitors in the marketplace, prices going up or down, a bad economy, insufficient resources, confusing mandates from the executive team, or whatever. Rather than creating a culture of “we’ll win or die trying,” that leader’s positive communication creates a team culture of “failure is fine.”
Sure, positive communication inspires people. The world needs more of it. Just navigate around the potholes in the positivity.
For more thoughts on strategic leadership communication, pre-order Dianna’s new book: Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire, and Get Things Done (Berrett-Koehler). Click the image below to download a free chapter.