Is Being Positive Holding You Back?

As Human Resources Leaders, we represent the whole company. Our contribution is making the whole company stronger.

What about when things aren’t going so well? Some HR business partners become cheerleaders, encouraging better performance or higher morale. That’s a good opener to engage managers or employees, but strength comes from clarity. Being overly positive can diminish the HR role and the efforts to develop the managers they support.

Similarly, managers can fall into the positivity trap. I’ll give you an recent example: Bonnie, a manager who was dissatisfied with productivity in her department, starting running raffles to reward people who were performing their required job. If you did what was expected, your name went in the hat for a basket of goodies.

Her HR business partner questioned this approach, exploring the desired outcome. Incentives sound fun, but in this case, rewards were being provided for just doing the basics. Bonnie was weary of trying to encourage staff members to do their job. In looking to offer rewards and just get on with it, she was taking the “positivity” approach.

“Stay positive” is a popular refrain. After all, what could be wrong with positive thinking?

A few things, actually — depending on the level of control you have over a given situation.

While it’s a good instinct to stay positive, if important information gets obscured, performance and results will suffer. Bonnie was masking her weariness with a distraction and a misplaced incentive. She was being too positive about the potential results of providing an incentive.



Optimism is an alternative, especially when we do have some control. Optimism opens up possibilities and does not sweep frustrations under the rug.

Optimism creates positive energy and leads to asking questions. In contrast, positivity in the face of a stuck situation does not open up any news possibilities.

A simple technique I refer to as “Zooming” can help HR and the leaders they support quickly reframe and view the situation from a fresh perspective. I define four different lenses:  thinking, acting, feeling and witnessing. The process also provides for shifting back and forth from one lens to another, closer in or further out.  Doing so allows us to access new insights into a familiar scenario, and change our approach.

Bonnie had zoomed too far out from her “feeling” lens, which is the lens that supplies us with self-awareness and all-important emotional intelligence. Thus, she had let her emotions shut down. This particular version of positivity actually constricted her insight and robbed her of the energy and options she needed to manage effectively.

Ultimately, Bonnie used the zoom technique to capture the image of her situation as if with a video camera, zooming in close enough to get in touch with the deep-seated discouragement and disappointment her positivity was masking.

Here’s how Human Resources can coach the managers they support:


Zoom in to the feeling of positivity.

Bring the camera lens up close. Is this incentive program working? Do you feel they deserve rewards for just doing the job?

Then keep the raffle and those feelings of positivity and let them flourish.

Then ask whether the positivity is eclipsing other, uncomfortable feelings.

If so, get closer to those feelings and identify them. Are they anger? Frustration? Annoyance? Fear?


Identify the source of the feelings

In this case, poor performance that was not meeting productivity benchmarks. And the manager was disheartened about the ongoing disappointment.


Zoom out from the eclipsed feeling

Zoom away from the feelings and look at the bigger picture around them. Is this experience a consistent pattern or an exception? In this case, it was a pattern.


Be Curious

Rather than judging what you have just learned and observed, be curious. Curiosity is the seed of optimism.  Ask what a possible step would be in a new direction or what experiment might provide a new perspective or possibility.

Positivity is a declaration that locks us into a set thought process. Optimism is a promise that leads us to ask questions and see that there’s always one more action to try, one more thought to explore.


About the Author: Janet Britcher is author of Zoom Leadership: Change Your Focus, Change Your Insights provides executive coaching to managers being promoted. Janet brings 20 years of corporate leadership roles in Human Resources to her leadership development work, and she has personally managed groups of 60 employees. She holds an MBA with a concentration in Organization Development from Boston College. Additional studies include Gestalt Group Dynamics, Myers-Briggs, Jungian psychology, and Immunity to Change. She is a certified executive coach. Her business Transformation Management LLC is celebrating its 15th year.           


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