One of the great things about blogging or having a personal web site is that I can look back and find things I wrote years ago and still agree with. (The opposite is also true, though not as frequent for me, but that’s a subject for another post!)One such post is this one from before I entered the MAPP program: “Do you dare to be an office Pollyanna?” It’s just a brief comment about a story in a Quebec paper I read while traveling, but I was positive about the concept. I still am, but I am also more attuned to the daring aspects of such an effort.
One aspect that makes it daring is the the need to earn respect and trust. I am involved in an engagement facilitating resilience and positive psychology training. The folks in this organization have never worked with me before and didn’t contract directly with me. So, they are forming their judgments as I deliver. I recently finished a second major contact with this group, and, along the way, I’ve been asked, “How do you think it’s going?” Each time, I’ve responded that things are going well, and I’ve followed that up with specific observations about participant engagement, questions, and so on.
In one recent exchange, however, one of the folks in the conversation asked a question along the lines of “Would you say if it were not going well?” These are really smart folks at a top-notch organization, and I understand a bit of skepticism. Of course, as the party delivering, they are asking me to critique my work, and there should be some skepticism about that. But, I felt this went more to my overall positive and optimistic tone and response. (Should anyone who knew me in my earlier days when I was practicing law or even thereafter read this and start to choke, call me, it’s true!)Optimism, a positive emotional base, hope, happiness, a strengths orientation and an appreciative inquiry approach to improvement: these things work. But, they don’t necessarily scream “smart, smart, smart — this guy is smart!” Criticism, negativity, and finding the fly in the ointment may serve that purpose better.
At least, that’s what Teresa Amabile’s work suggests. She found that experimental subjects rated the writers of negative book reviews as more expert and competent than the authors of positive book reviews, even though independent experts in the field came to just the opposite conclusions! The belief that happy, optimistic, hopeful individuals (Pollyannas) are air heads who are out of touch with reality is alive and well in most of the working world. So, being such a person has its risks, at least on first impressions. Being a person who admits to consciously having chosen to think in such ways, even when one can back it up with solid science, likely exacerbates those risks.
My response? That’s ok. Over time, opportunities come up to show that you can deal with tough situations, recognize times when things aren’t going well or when individuals aren’t performing well in a position. But, when you can still deal with those challenges in a positive, hopeful, optimistic, caring, building way, one not only wins respect for intelligence and competence, but admiration and good feelings as well. Remember, we like positive people. Most of us would much rather work with such individuals. We want them for co-workers, bosses, employees, friends, and mates.
So, those who would join me in Pollyannahood, be of good cheer! You may not impress folks right off the bat with your devastatingly brilliant critique of all the problems. But, your creativity, perseverance, and pathways thinking will wear better over the long haul and, in the end, they may well think you are plenty smart, but they are also more likely to think you are the kind of person they want to work with again. You could start a long-term, collaborative, supportive and satisfying relationship, both professionally and personally. That’s worth a little risk of the Pollyanna perception on the front end, don’t you think?
Amabile, T. M. and Glazebrook, A. H. (1982). A negativity bias in interpersonal evaluation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 18: 1–22. Abstract.
Gibson, B. & Oberlander, E. (2008). Wanting to appear smart: Hypercriticism as an indirect impression management strategy. Self and Identity, 8(4). Abstract.
Porter, Eleanor (1913). Pollyanna. Sterling Unabridged Classics.