Our minds are geared to focus on the negative. Hardwired, in fact. Our tendency is to focus on what’s wrong, not what’s right.
Our obsession with perfectionism is a consequence of that. While the label of “perfectionism” is theoretically positively framed, in reality it is anything but. It is an obsession that highlights and dwells on every miss, every error, every blemish and every flaw. What is a theoretical emphasis on perfect is in reality an avoidance and intolerance of anything imperfect.
You can see this in the reactions of those with excessively-honed perfectionist tendencies (to frame that politely). Successful accomplishments get filed away as done. There is often minimal celebration, if any; simply an acknowledgement that what was anticipated was delivered, often followed by a “what’s next?” Failure to deliver what was expected, however—or at least instances of encountering problems, issues and defects—are responded to stridently. Where success is just delivering on expectations, its absence—which is more often than not a blip rather than a catastrophe—is a mortal wound.
These reactions are essentially a byproduct of the fight-or-flight response in unproductive overdrive. This mechanism originally evolved to respond to actual threats to our corporeal being. In a time when we could predictably expect to run into things that could kill or severely maim us, this was a reasonable response. Now that mortal threats are in decline, however, rather than standing down, our defensive mechanisms have simply shifted focus. Instead of reacting to perils that could hasten our actual demise, they now respond to affronts to our perceived infallibility. The stakes may have shifted, but the intensity of the reaction is still the same.
The consequence is a mindset that excessively highlights doom and gloom over pride and accomplishment. This is not a particularly healthy place to be.
To the curmudgeonly perfectionist, the Monty Python song of “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” is an impractical and idealistic ode to Polyanna-esque optimism (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about here, you simply must see Monty Python’s Life of Brian. My wife would also strongly and enthusiastically encourage you to take in Spamalot).
It is an unquestionably ridiculous song, I will admit. It is also the only song that my father explicitly sanctioned playing at his funeral. The ludicrousness is actually the point. It is not our natural tendency to take the positive and optimistic view. But it really should be, and we would be a lot better of if we could manage doing so on a consistent basis.
To those who look upon sunny optimism and hopeful idealism with scorn and derision, there is actual science to back this up. Happiness studies is one of the fastest growing domains in the field of psychology. It is also the basis of one of the most popular courses in the history of Harvard University. The roots of this movement can be found in the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, chairman emeritus of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, and the author of Flow (a book I have recommended more than once). Martin Seligman, a recognized figure in the movement, highlighted in his inauguration as president of the American Psychological Association the need to not just focus on what was wrong in terms of mental illness, but what sustained and contributed to strength and positive mental functioning.
One of the strongest influences on success was highlighted in the Study of Adult Development, more informally known as the Grant Study, at Harvard University. One of the most significant and longlasting longitudinal studies of human development, it examined 268 Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939-1945 to try to identify the factors that most contributed to success. Rather than genes, wealth, lineage or education, one single differentiator stood out: the quality of your relationships. (If you are looking for an overview of the study and its results, I strongly recommend Aging Well by the third study director, George Vaillant). The short and simple conclusion of a great deal of research: the happier you are in your primary relationships, the greater your overall well-being.
Not only do we dwell on the negative personally, we also do so organizationally. A case in point is the lessons-learned review that should theoretically occur at the completion of each project. There are three essential questions that govern this process: What worked? What didn’t work? What should we do next time? Having audited numerous projects, read dozens of these reviews, and facilitated several dozen more with actual project teams, the insights I can offer about this process are several, all relatively damning.
For starters, asking the question “What worked well?” usually results in deflection, embarrassed sideways glances, much clearing of throats and the occasional offering of a relatively innocuous outcome. Asking “What didn’t work?”, by contrast, results in a litany of complaints, faults and problems that is in equal parts comprehensive, exhaustive and exhausting. Problems outnumber successes by a ratio of somewhere between five and twenty to one. I wish I were exaggerating, but sadly I am not.
Moreover, the emphasis on “What should we do next time?” usually gets interpreted as “What should we do DIFFERENTLY next time?” This shift in focus is important. Rather than highlighting the practices that have worked and should continue, this is often a focus on the solutions that should be implemented to respond to the problems that were encountered. The focus is on the fixing the negative, not reinforcing the positive.
Personal performance reviews suffer the same problem. So much so, in fact, that the process has its own—not terribly positive—descriptor: the feedback sandwich. The rules are relatively simple: start with positive feedback, then offer the criticism that you wanted, and then follow up with some more positives. Refinements take the shape of condiments between the positive bread and the negative meat: after your first bit of positive feedback, highlight their strengths, then provide criticism, then reinforce their strengths, and finally wrap up with a bit more positive commentary. The theory is that all of the positive wrapping makers the critique a little easier to swallow. Mostly, though, it just results in indigestion.
We’ve already discussed the fact that we are overly sensitive to negative feedback. That we are tuned to look out for it. More particularly, we tend to react strongly and disproportionally when something goes wrong. So any negative feedback isn’t likely to go down well, no matter how much you butter it up before hand.
That’s not to say that you won’t at times have to critique performance or provide constructive suggestions on what to do differently. It’s going to happen. In those instances, be clear, be confident and be constructive. Don’t beat around the bush, don’t soft-pedal what you are trying to say and don’t risk a situation where your attempt to downplay what makes you uncomfortable results in you being misunderstood—or worse, ignored.
On the other hand, don’t pretent that criticism is going to necessarily result in positive change. It may address situations where there is fundamental non-compliance with expectations. But it is not a way to motivate or inspire.
If you want to encourage a positive shift in approach, then you need to emphasize delivering supportive and constructive feedback. That means reinforcing the things that you want to see, not critiquing the things that you don’t want to see. Examples might be statements like, “I really appreciated when you did this in that situation; keep that up!” or, “Thank you for the way you handled that situation; I really admired when you did this.” Or, “The way you approach this kind of work is exceptional. I value how you do this particular thing.” You are highlighting the behaviour that you want, and encouraging its repetition.
Sometimes you might have to wait to see the behaviour that you want, in order to have the opportunity to highlight it. It may even occur accidentally at times or as an unintended consequence. Whatever the situation, don’t hesitate to positively identify and reinforce what you valued and appreciated.
The essence of this lies in the psychological principles of behaviourism, which involves conditioning. Classical interpretations of behaviourism identify both reinforcement and punishment as instrumental to behavioural change. The essence of behaviourism is associating an action with a consequence—either positive or negative—for engaging in that action.
While it is important to acknowledge that both carrot and stick can have an impact, other research has highlighted the greater value that positive reinforcement provides. Going back to the field of happiness studies, some of the early work of Martin Seligman identified a phenomenon he called “learned helplessness.” In response to conditioning experiments, test subjects learned to behave helplessly after experiencing situations of adversity. This was true even when provided with the opportunity to change their circumstances.
In other words, negative experiences and feedback can not just be received badly, but give rise to circumstances where people feel helpless to do things differently or escape their situation. Negative reinforcement can be not just counterproductive, but debilitating. By using positive encouragement in response to an action, you are providing reinforcement stimulation that promotes engaging in the behaviour again in the future. You are amplifying what works, not punishing or criticizing what doesn’t.
There is an entire model of facilitation and exploration built around examining the positive. Appreciative inquiry is rooted in the questions that we ask and how they are framed. Like psychology and its emphasis on fixing what’s wrong—not amplifying what’s already awesome or at least pretty good—organizational questions typically seek to understand problems. “What’s wrong?”, “What’s not working?” and “What needs to be fixed?” all accentuate deficiencies that need to be resolved.
Appreciative inquiry is built around a positive orientation that focuses on what is right, what is working and what people care about. Its central principles are that the stories we tell ourselves create our shared reality, and that stories that guide ourselves to our future—and that frame that future and the work to get there in positive terms—are most likely to result in being successful. Just like addressing what makes you unhappy won’t actually get you to happy, simply focussing on what is wrong won’t get you to right. Appreciative inquiry emphasizes what is exciting, aspirational and positive about the future. It starts with what is working ands adds to it, rather than just trying to fix what is wrong.
Being optimistic is about having a positive stance in moving forwards. It is believing in the possibility of a positive future. It doesn’t deny that there might be problems or challenges in the world. But it does presume that just fixing the problems alone is not sufficient. You need a positive goal that you care about, that you value and that you are committed to working towards. You can spend your time chasing down problems, or you can focus on realizing the future that you want. The bright side of life beckons.