It’s Important to Be Positive, But Make Sure You Don’t Get Delusional

I’ve written before about positivity psychology in the workplace and the many benefits that can come from it. But there is a risk of positivity swinging into the realm of delusion.

I think of it this way: Does anyone remember the book The Secret that came out a few years ago, which promised to reveal the secret to success at anything? Apparently, if you just thought hard enough and focused strongly enough about something you could essentially wish it into being.

Research reported in Strategy + Business magazine revealed “delusional optimism” like this can rear its ugly head in business in the form of positivity:

But several recent studies have critiqued the positive thinking movement, highlighting the negative personal and organizational effects that can result from “excessive optimism,” ‘irrational exuberance,’ ‘gambling against the odds,’ and the ‘tyranny of positive thinking.’ In short, Prozac leaders can wind up believing their own narrative that everything is going well. As a consequence, they ask fewer and fewer questions and become deaf to feedback that is ‘off message,’ leaving them, and their companies, dangerously insulated from economic and social realities.”

Be positive, but don’t put on the blinders

Am I turning my back on positivity in the workplace? Absolutely not. As much as I think The Secret is bunk, I do think there is great value in focusing your attention on what you need and hope to see. Indeed, it’s just logical that if you focus your efforts, you’ll likely see a desired result.

But there is good warning here in focusing so intently, you put blinders on to any valuable, if cautious or negative, feedback.

By insisting that subordinates’ upward communication [be] exclusively positive, Prozac leaders and the uncritical cultures they encourage can silence committed and concerned followers,’ the author writes. In this context, employees may hold back on their views as a way of protecting their career, reputation, salary, and job security.”

Think of the risk this opens your organization to. The failure points are extensive and worrisome.

Reward for delivering “bad news,” too

Build a culture of recognition and appreciation, yes, but be sure to recognize and reward employees as well for “courage” or “integrity” when they deliver the bad news, too. We strongly recommend to our clients to make their values come alive in their organizations by making them the reasons for recognition and reward. With abstract values like “integrity” this is particularly important.

Article Continues Below

One client wisely gave an example to all employees on what such a detailed message of recognition could look like: “Joe, thank you for living our value of integrity by coming forward to point out the broken equipment. By alerting us to the problem, we were able to repair the machine much more quickly and suffer less downtime.”

Think how powerful that message became when shared through Social Recognition.

Does your organization balance positivity with reality?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *