Professor David Collinson discusses the downsides of unremitting positivity in the workplace where critical voices can become silenced

He writes: "Positivity pervades contemporary business and oozes from leaders and managers – in both their rhetoric and actions. It seems ubiquitous in the modern world to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative,” so unsurprisingly, companies and organisations, products and services, employees and departments are encouraged to project their most positive image and identity. This is what Erving Goffman called “impression management” – presenting yourself in the most favourable possible light. Within many workplaces “good news” is the order of the day - and employees are often expected or required to disclose “success stories” so they can be used in the PR strategies of marketing departments.

Positivity is also seen as an important quality of effective leadership. Leaders who are upbeat and optimistic, it is frequently argued, create “feel-good” communities, inspiring creativity and innovation. It is certainly the case that leaders who are also authentic and sincere are more likely to inspire employees and create an inclusive sense of belonging and trust. Yet, there has been little consideration of the potential downsides of the unremitting organisational pressures to be positive or of the tendency for leaders’ positivity to become excessive. There’s no doubt positivity can be empowering and in many ways is preferable to its opposite, but it can also become unrealistic, insincere, manipulative, and counterproductive. In this scenario, critical questioning and cautionary voices are prohibited. They break the positive spell.

In the years preceding the Great Financial crash of 2007-8, excessively positive thinking enabled a climate of reckless selling (of subprime mortgages) that openly discouraged critical thinking. Early in the global pandemic in 2020, leaders of major economies like the UK, US and Brazil adopted excessively optimistic approaches, underestimating Covid-19, attempting to deny (and even dominate) the virus and in some cases, downplay scientific knowledge. In both these global crises the consequences of excessive positivity were disastrous.

Drawing on the findings from various research projects in the UK over the past 40 years, I refer to this phenomenon as ‘Prozac leadership’. Prozac leaders attempt to define reality and inspire others by using excessively positive statements. These leaders are not only over-optimistic themselves, but they also demand constant positivity from their followers. They often refuse to pay attention to cautionary voices and alternative views to their own, effectively silencing criticism and punishing those who dissent. Believing their own rhetoric that everything is going well, Prozac leaders discourage open debate. As a result, they misunderstand or ignore problems entirely, leaving organisations ill-prepared to deal with unforeseen events and setbacks. By insisting that subordinates’ upward communication is exclusively positive, this type of leadership can produce over optimistic projections, poor decisions, lack of timely responses to problems, and the increased potential for business collapse.

An important recurring theme in my research is that employees often detect inconsistencies between leaders’ (excessively) positive messages and their actual practices. This can lead to cynicism and scepticism - not the empowered employee motivation envisaged. Research on North Sea oil installations found that, despite senior management’s upbeat claims about the company’s safety performance, many offshore workers did not disclose accidents and near misses. Believing that oil rig managers would prefer not to hear about safety-related problems, workers deliberately communicated overly positive messages back up the hierarchy.

Employees learn that it may be advisable to comply with the typical mantras of Prozac leaders such as “I only want to hear positive news” and “bring me answers, not problems”. They often end up feeling they have no choice but to perpetuate the cycle of positive impressions by communicating the “good news” that Prozac leaders want to hear. Of course, in other cases, employees may be more determined to speak-up and question organisational cultures of “delusional optimism”, regardless of the personal costs of so doing.

In order to avoid falling into excessively positive thinking, leaders need to ask themselves whether they can honestly say they consult regularly with staff and if they communicate openly with those who might disagree with them? Leaders and managers shouldn’t just accept positive reports from subordinates (“no problems here, boss”) but dig deeper to find out what’s really going on. They should also encourage employees to feel able to express their views openly in order to build trust.

Being positive can indeed be empowering and transformational, facilitating innovation and enhancing teamwork, and in many cases is, of course, preferable to being fiercely negative. But the pressure to be positive is now so embedded, ubiquitous and taken for granted in Western cultures that it is rarely questioned. The unfounded optimism of Prozac leaders can damage performance by eroding trust, communication, learning and preparedness – either silencing followers or provoking their resistance. More effective leadership dynamics are more likely to emerge when optimism is combined with critical thinking, when positivity is tempered with a willingness to confront difficult realities, and when an upbeat vision is blended with a capacity to listen to alternative voices."

*David Collinson is a Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organisation at Lancaster University Management School. He is an expert in leadership, and focuses his research on issues linked to power, positivity and gender.