Forget Positive Thinking

We’ve been beaten repeatedly about the head and shoulders in recent years to remember to “think positively”.  Woe to the team member who voices concern.  The trusty contrarian is now disdained and the nay sayers are summarily silenced.

Ironically, by squashing these Negative Nellies we are slowing down positive progress toward our most critical goals.

Research shows that our human brains are wired against change.  Introducing a new direction (information, competition, pace, etc.) causes a physiological stress reaction against the change.

The Value of Venting

Interestingly, one of the fastest ways to reduce the emergency brake effect of this stress reaction is to allow a bit of venting.  “What don’t we like about this news?” “What problems will it cause?”  “What can go wrong?” “Why is it stupid?” What may not have been taken into consideration?”

Our stress response is linked to survival.  Adrenaline is triggered which sets off flight/flight/freeze behavior.  At work this takes the form of the contrarian who fights back, the star team member who dusts off her resume to prepare for flight, the long timer who’ll bide his time, frozen in place.

Brain scan technology shows that just naming the threat – thinking it, saying it or, even more effective, writing it down – counteracts the threat response.  By giving credence to the stress factor and addressing it, we return out of threat mode and can enter a more rational state.

Once all the big bad stuff has been vented, we are in a physiologically more receptive place to ask: “How will we handle this?”

Dependency on External Motivation / Seth Godin

The following post is taken from Seth Godin’s fabulous blog.  See the original post here.  (And subscribe to his feed if you know what’s good for you)


“One of the characteristics of the industrial age was the reliance on external motivation.

Go to work on time or the boss will be angry.

Work extra hard and the boss will give you a promotion.

If you get paid to work piecework, then your paycheck goes up when you work harder.

This mindset is captured by the Vince Lombardi/pro sports/college sports model of the coach as king. Of course we’ll have our non-profit universitiess pay a football coach a million or more a year, of course we need these icons at the helm–how else will we get our players to perform at their best?

I was struck by a photo I saw of male fencers at Cornell who practice with the women’s fencing team. Clearly, they’re not allowed to compete in matches (though the university counts them for Title XIV). I got to thinking about what motivates these fencers. Are they doing it because they’re afraid of the coach or getting cut? Would they fence better if they were?

The nature of our new economic system, that one that doesn’t support predictable factory work, is that external motivation is far less useful. If you’re looking for a big payday, you won’t find it right away. If you’re depending on cheers and thank yous from your Twitter followers, you’re looking at a very bumpy ride.

In fact, the world is more and more aligned in favor of those who find motivation inside, who would do what they do even if it wasn’t their job. As jobs turn into projects, the leaders we need are those that relish the project, that jump at the chance to push themselves harder than any coach ever could.”


It is extraordinarily critical for those of us who are leaders, change agents and educators to understand the implications of this.  Where do we currently build skill in internal motivation?  We understand the why of it.  We need to develop the how.

It’s Your Own Damn Fault

“…she is disrespectful, patronizing, doesn’t understand my value and has taken all my authority away.”

This is one of the many many many complaints I would field from a colleague of mine (for whom I was also “HR”) about her boss.  My colleague is a bright, accomplished, innovative professional in the IT field who has chosen to remain in a less than optimal employment situation. She is not interested in taking her complaint to the source, she is not interested in a mediated conversation, she is not interested in going to her boss’s boss, she is not interested in quitting.

There’s only so much I can take of this behavior and I don’t hesitate to say so.

“…she’s made it clear our jobs are at risk if we say anything bad on the employee survey.  That’s why the scores are always good”

It is not illegal to be a bad manager.  It is not necessarily a crime to demoralize, demotivate, embarrass and otherwise harangue employees.  It’s not illegal to “fix” employee survey results.  Would that it were.   Then maybe I could have ridden in on my white horse and saved my friend from certain disengagement in the name of organizational effectiveness.

What is unconscionable is the fact that scores of employees are “suffering” under the thumb of these ill-equipped managers.  That 60% of workers said they intended to leave their jobs when the market got better. That otherwise decent organizations are dragged down by immature, ill-conceived, ineffective management practices.

But what is even more unconscionable to me is that so many employees put up with this nonsense.  That they feel there is no where else to go, no one to help them, or – worst of all – are content to just bitch about it.

Change your situation or change your expectations.  Leave the job if it’s killing you.  And for goodness sake, don’t waste your life just bitching about it.