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Leaders, stop trying to be so positive and authentic

A new study finds that striving for authenticity and positive thinking in your leadership style may actually backfire.

Leaders, stop trying to be so positive and authentic
[Photo: Elizabeth M. Ruggiero/iStock]

Stop pushing over-the-top positivity and “authentic” leadership. That’s the message from a study published in April 2019 issue of The Leadership Quarterly. Oh, and while you’re at it, think about doing the same for transformational, servant, ethical, and spiritual leadership.

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“We live in a society where idealized, grandiose images and aspirations dominate,” says study coauthor Mats Alvesson, a professor at Sweden’s Lund University and author of The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work. “Here, as much as possible should be communicated as good and impressive.”

Alvesson says that talk about leadership falls into this trap: popular trends that are light on evidence and create “a misleading, false, and sometimes hypocritical view of the world,” he says. The result is overly optimistic, unrealistic leaders and, sooner or later, cynical, disappointed coworkers and, sometimes, leaders themselves. “Leadership does not work if it is not grounded in reality,” he says.

The negative side of being positive

And while it may seem like positivity is a necessary trait for leaders, the problem with trends in leadership theory is that they’re often based on weak empirical studies, unsupported claims, a simplistic view of corporate life, and other flaws, the authors argue.

It’s a tendency that veteran executive coach Amie Devero sees in the “post-revenue” startup founders and leaders she advises. Her clients are subject to the “positivity trap” because they’re invested in the success of the fast-growth startups they lead. They want to keep their teams energized and focused rather than worried about where the next round of funding is coming from. The problem is that rose-colored glasses seldom work for groups.

“When leaders put on their cheerleading hats despite a reality that is poor, they seem like liars or worse, like they are delusional,” she says.

Being too positive also denies your organization the benefit of your employees’ creativity and problem-solving skills, says Anne Baum, Lehigh Valley executive, vice president of distribution channels and labor relations for Capital BlueCross, and author of Small Mistakes, Big Consequences. If you walk into a room and announce what a great day it is when your company is actually losing $20 million, nobody’s going to believe you. Worse, they might think less of you.

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“But I can look at those same financials and say, ‘All right, we’re $20 million in the hole. Where are the areas of opportunity for us to come back from this deficit? How do we stop the bleeding? What ideas does everybody have around the table to help turn it around?'” she says. If you try to gloss over real problems, your team may not have the opportunity find solutions.

A little authenticity goes a long way

So, being unrealistically positive can be a detriment. But who can knock authenticity? “I think we should acknowledge the imperfections of ourselves and real life and know our limitations and shortcomings,” says Alvesson. “The pressure for conformism is actually often quite strong.”

But when it comes to true authenticity, Alvesson and his coauthor Katja Einola, assistant professor at Finland’s Hanken School of Economics, argue that it’s difficult to truly know our authentic selves. Think about what would happen if we were successful and dropped the social norms people tend to adopt in favor of being “authentic.” We might not be very welcome. Let’s face it: Bringing all of our irritating quirks, unvarnished views, and peccadillos to work every day probably wouldn’t end very well.

“Authenticity would probably lead to conflicts and possibly people being fired. Thinking about the contrast between ideal versus reality is important. Seeking genuine feedback is important, but people are often polite and diplomatic. One option is to interview people who are quitting or retiring about how they see you,” he says. “A glass of beer or wine may help them become ‘authentic’ in their feedback.”

So, if we need to keep our positive thinking in check and reconsider authenticity, where does that leave leaders in their quest for being more effective?

Leave aside the pop leadership theories, and try balancing integrity and honesty against the workplace’s tremendous and increasing demands for conformism and impression management. “We need to strive for a better balance and better maintain integrity,” Alvesson says. “I don’t think people at most workplaces can be authentic, apart from in small circles, but we can try to work against many forms of hypocrisy and also reduce the corporate bullshit that tends to just increase.”

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About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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