The changing workscape: Embracing negativity

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It’s not negativity, dummy – it’s reality. Listen to reality! Do not be held hostage to “groupidity”!

An ongoing frustration for people grounded in reality is the failure of the organizations they work in to listen to and act on the reality of a situation. Today I read in Business Week why negativity is an undervalued – and often completely dismissed and discouraged – aspect of the workplace. We have all worked with someone who constantly “disrupts” the seeming flow of the perfect plan with 100 questions about the real implementation of the plan. Everyone gets frustrated with this because it is almost always seen as negative, dragging the group down and not being positive about the plan. But the truth is – if a group could tap into even a fraction of the “negative doubts” being raised by that one “pain in the ass”, it is possible that a lot of pain could be saved down the line.

“Why did they try to shoot the messenger instead of listening to the message? One answer is that’s what organizations do—especially dysfunctional organizations. As a young IT consultant, I sat through more than one meeting where we, or someone, tried to stop a client from doing something obviously crazy. Usually, the result was that the client did something crazy, and that someone went looking for another job.

Doctor No, that grating in-house critic, can be your most valuable employee—if you can make yourself listen. That’s surprisingly hard to do. Organizations exist for the purpose of doing stuff. That’s what their staff is hired to do. The guy who says maybe we shouldn’t do that stuff—or the stuff we’re doing isn’t working—is not very popular. There’s a large body of literature on dissenters, and it mostly tells you what you already know if you’ve ever been to a project meeting: Nobody likes a Negative Nancy.”

Interestingly, the article cites the Challenger space shuttle launch decision and the systematic redefinition and reassessment of “risk” and risk parameters to justify the launch and ever-riskier decisions and behavior. Of note, back in the late 1990s when I was doing my MPA, the book the article refers to (The Challenger Launch Decision by Diane Vaughan) was a text we used as a case study to look at risk assessment in the public sector. It was fascinating.

“Investigations into the disaster showed NASA had fallen prey to what you might call “groupidity,” a special form of groupthink in which we collectively become willing to take risks we individually recognize as stupid—because everybody else in the room seems to think it’s fine. NASA had been noticing unexpected problems with the O-rings for a while. At meetings about that issue, they systematically redefined what they considered risky, and concerns about the O-rings were downplayed.”

Not all corporate decisions are life or death, as the fateful Challenger decision turned out to be, but can anyone afford to ignore the cold hard facts of reality?

An extension of stifling the “voice of reason” – particularly by maligning it as being a naysaying, nitpicking killjoy who likes to derail things just for the sake of negativity – is that people pay a high price for acting happy and inauthentic. I read an article (kind of a tangent but still came to mind for me) about employees forced to behave in a certain “happy” way in customer service roles, and I would argue that this extends to being forced or pressured to pretend that reality is other than it is (or being sidelined because no one wants to hear your reality), i.e. swallowing the “group truth” to go along with the happy sheep herd of “groupidity”.

“Surface acting is when front line service employees, the ones who interact directly with customers, have to appear cheerful and happy even when they’re not feeling it. This kind of faking is hard work—sociologists call it “emotional labor”—and research shows that it’s often experienced as stressful. It’s psychologically and even physically draining; it can lead to lowered motivation and engagement with work, and ultimately to job burnout.

Having to act in a way that’s at odds with how one really feels—eight hours a day, five days a week (or longer)—violates the human need for a sense of authenticity. We all want to feel that we’re the same person on the outside as we are on the inside, and when we can’t achieve that congruence, we feel alienated and depersonalized.”

This article discusses the customer-facing employee – but what about the employee facing and interacting with other employees within an organization? The “Negative Nancy” illustrated in the previous example article about the benefits of negativity? How is Negative Nancy, with her deep thinking, analysis and bad news supposed to face coming to work every day facing a room full of skeptics who think everything is okay? What kind of emotional labor is she facing?

And how do we handle this in an organization – particularly one that is dysfunctional or downplays/discourages dissent and may even ostracize those who are notoriously critical? (And where is the distinction between “negative” and “critical”!?)

For now, late on a Saturday night, try not to take it to heart, because, as Mark E Smith of The Fall  would advise in his mad genius wisdom, “Life just bounces/so don’t you get worried at all…”. Perhaps this is willfully ignoring reality and becoming a Pangloss (i.e., “everything will be fine in the end because it will turn out how it’s meant to turn out”).

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