Silver Lining Leadership

Did you know that research shows that pessimists can become optimists?  Yep, learned optimism is a concept from positive psychology’s founding father, Martin Seligman, which argues that we can cultivate a positive perspective. With a more joyful outlook on life, he explains that we’re in a much better position to enhance our well-being.  For me, I am an eternal optimist or a silver lining kind of girl.  My parents always said I put, “10-pounds of potatoes in a 5-pound sack.”  In other words – I believe opportunities are endless.  I believe that anything is possible.  I believe we can achieve our intentions  and I believe if you set your sites high you have a pretty good shot at getting there.   Of course, you know that the downside of this is that us crazy optimists may bump up against reality…and sometimes we may even bump up against negativity.  I know for me, when I’m around negative people,  I find that they suck the life out of me.  A negative person tends to knock the wind out of my sails, demotivate me and makes me want to disengage from them.  But you know what?  Those kinds of people exist in many of the organizations we work with and, I’m guessing, there may even be some in your personal and professional  life as well.

Years ago, a friend of mine, Bryan Adkins, President of Denison Consulting, introduced me to the concept of CAVE people. These are individuals within an organization who are extremely negative and critical about any kinds of change efforts or change in direction.  They are the Citizens Against Virtually Everything.  These employees have a toxic effect, poisoning the attitudes of coworkers and building a wall of resistance. When they complain, undercut and criticize, they are highly influential. Research shows that employees who exhibit negative mindsets and behaviors can have four to seven times as much impact as those sharing positive intentions. And the bigger the change in the organization, the louder the rants from the CAVE people will be and the more negative a work environment may become.

Whether it’s office politics, hostile relationships, or lack of trust, a negative work environment can lead to disengagement, lower retention rates, decreased productivity, and sheer misery all around. All stakeholders suffer when the atmosphere at work is negative–employees, leadership, customers, and ultimately the company and its bottom line.  Research from The Gallup Organization has found that disenchanted workers who tear down what their engaged colleagues are trying to build up cost the American economy up to $350 billion a year.  So what can you do about it?  While it’s not always possible to avoid negative workplace dynamics, you can implement strategies that help create a culture that feeds on hope and helpfulness, rather than dysfunction and disillusionment:

5 Positive Actions You Can Move On Today

  1. Hire Eternal Optimists. If negativity is a problem in your organization, work on hiring different types of people who are upbeat at their core. During interviewing look for candidates who show a strong belief in the good of other people and their ability to succeed. While negative people assume others don’t know what they’re doing, positive people assume the opposite. There are all kinds of strategies you can incorporate here and to leave less to chance, one option is to consider utilizing personality assessments in your hiring process (we use Hogan Assessments).  While a CAVE may be able to bluff their way through an interview, it’s difficult to hide a negative personality behind validated assessments.  You’ll be happy you took this extra step.


  1. Strive For Healthy Conflict.  Another way to eliminate  negativity is to fuel passion through healthy conflict and good ideological debate. While the words “conflict” and “debate” may bring to mind negative interactions, it’s important to understand that there’s a big difference between healthy, passionate conflict and dysfunctional negativity. The difference is that healthy conflict is focused on increasing your understanding of someone else’s position, learning from each other, and finding new solutions. In other words, healthy conflict is about inquiring first and advocating second.  Healthy conflict fueled by passion helps teams find the right answers and brings everyone’s perspectives into the discussion. The back and forth may feel contentious at times, because often it is. But if that emotion is channeled towards collaborating on what’s best for the company, the outcomes will be positive, not negative.


  1. Provide Complete Transparency. When people feel out of the loop and don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes at your company, it can lead to dysfunction and disengagement. You can counteract this as a leader by providing  radical transparency throughout the company, which will diffuse early seeds of negativity. Instead of letting situations fester and imaginations run amok, you can provide communication channels to foster better understanding of key issues and decisions.  Weekly company-wide meetings and consistent one-on-ones between leadership and team members can promote transparency in working relationships and a valuable feedback loop.


  1. Don’t Make Work So Serious All The Time. Another way to quash would-be haters from your team is to build opportunities for fun into the workplace. Whether it’s catering monthly lunches where people can socialize, holding holiday parties during the workday that go all out (think Thanksgiving potlucks and New Year celebrations), or quarterly happy hours that begin at 4 pm, integrating some opportunities for play within work teams can foster healthy relationships and build trust among colleagues.  Promoting events like these helps to create a sense of community and knowing each other outside the walls of the office.


  1. Commit To Cutting Team Killers. When you think about what’s at the heart of negativity, it’s really about people who don’t offer solutions. They see the glass half empty, focusing only on the problems, not how to work through and solve them. They’re like grenade launchers, hurling bombs around them and blowing things up, leaving others to rebuild in the aftermath. They’re poisonous to any environment, which is why it’s so important to have a strategy to deal with them.  Believe me, your people are watching and you as the leader must hold the team killers accountable.  Ultimately,  if after a discussion change is not forthcoming, leaders have to be willing to let go of that person to preserve the culture for everyone else.
In the end, always remember that 70% of a culture is influenced by the leader.  Setting an optimistic tone and establishing a strong value-based culture is crucial.   Whether you use optimism, transparency, amazing hiring techniques, incorporate a little fun or firmly hold people to the core values…all of this is directly on your shoulders.  Now that you have the awareness and a few tools…chin up – get out there and make it happen!