How often have you been to an event where a ‘Life Coach’, ‘Inspirational Speaker’ or ‘Motivational Guru’ has told you in no uncertain terms that what we need to be happier and more productive in the workplace is a POSITIVE ATTITUDE? And that to be truly OPEN MINDED in the workplace we have to applaud all new ideas in meetings just because they are new ideas?
While happy workers have been found in independent academic studies to work harder, and there is evidence of increased staff retention as well as reduced sick leave in an happy office environment, it’s not always true that positivity is a driver of workplace happiness. Indeed, as Davies has noted, we don’t even know what constitutes happiness, and given emergent knowledge about motivation in the workplace, there is no evidence at all that a positive attitude is what makes people either happy or productive.
To put it bluntly, people who tell you that you need to be positive about everything in the workplace are fundamentally wrong.
And there’s a very good reason why: positivity without critical reflection is mindless. Just as your support for a local sporting team is entirely tribal, and your choice to maintain support is more emotional than rational, when you unthinkingly support ideas in the workplace just because they have been proposed, you are generating a tribal response, rather than a rational one. And this can quite badly damage the perceived value of ideas in the longer term, because it can be difficult to distinguish between positive responses as a matter of tribal celebration, and positive responses after careful consideration.
I think most of the theories around happiness, positivity and productivity have made a fatal error in synonimizing openness with a positive attitude. Instead of reflecting on ideas and opportunities in the workplace with calm and rational thought, the idea of applauding all new ideas has been posited as a means of improving the team culture, and the collaborative spirit. It’s seen as a way to encourage openness to new ideas, and even new risks, instead of closing ideas down.
But the opposite of ‘being closed-minded’ is not ‘being positive’. It’s ‘being open-minded’. That means challenging and being challenged by ideas, not simply accepting them (or rejecting them) on face value. True openness is when you don’t really have either a wholly positive or wholly negative response to any idea, but you are willing to have value demonstrated, and to participate in a collective assessment exercise.
As a commentator on, and facilitator of innovation, of course I am of the opinion that workplaces need to be more open to risk. But I am not a fan of the cult of conviviality as a means of facilitating risk adoption. Instead, I encourage people to challenge ideas, to critically review and assess. And when an idea looks like it might be truly transformative, it is the right time to come together and celebrate that potential.
About the author – Joanne Jacobs
Joanne is a Digital Strategist & Company Director based in Sydney – with a background as a consultant, running social media production agencies, in research in interaction design, and as an academic, teaching strategic use of IT and communications.
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