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Transcript: When a work environment is too positive

KARL MOORE – This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for the The Globe and Mail. Today I am delighted to speak to a colleague from Australia's University of Queensland Neal Ashkanasy.

Good morning, Neal.

NEAL ASHKANASY – Good morning, Karl.

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KM – Neal, you have been doing some fascinating research looking at positive work cultures, which strikes me as it's always positive, but you have found that it's not always positive. Can you tell us a bit more?

NA – Positive work cultures is actually a double-edged sword. You can have a positive work culture where everybody is speaking well of each other and there are good vibes from within the organization, but there is another source of positive work culture and that is hubris. You can have an organization where everybody thinks that they are on top of things, where everyone has a kind of false pride, where there is a euphoria in the organization, and this is not a good thing! This means that people won't pay attention to their errors, they won't engage in negative feedback, etc. So positive is good but too much positive can be a bad thing.

KM – That's a fascinating idea, that we can actually be too proud of our organization so that it blinds us to our problems. Can you give us some examples to make this concrete of how this could and does happen?

NA – A well-known example is the failure of Lehman Brothers where CEO Dick Fuld was quoted as saying, just before the crash, "We are firing on all 99 cylinders." He was geeing everyone up and making the point that this organization is on top of the world and totally on top of everything, and everyone was lulled into a false sense of security, and the rest is history, as the saying goes. They quickly went down and so this is an example of an organization that was very positive, very optimistic, and this leads them to make very poor decisions.

KM – So how does an organization know when it's too positive? How can it figure that out?

NA – It's pretty simply really because the positive that comes from real evidence, if there is something out there that you can point to that shows that the organization is really achieving it's targets, that's going to lead to a positive attitude based on achievement of results. But when you have the positive attitude that is emanating essentially from hope or from hubris or a false pride, then you have got a few problems. So organizations, if they want to be positive, need to actually produce results that will lead them to a positive state.

On the other hand, if the situation calls for being negative then there is nothing wrong with being a little bit negative! So if you say, "We have some real problems here, we have to put our heads down, get together and work on it," this is a case for a negative approach actually being the appropriate environment. This is part of transparency in organizations.

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