Can You Be Too Positive?

Last Updated Feb 4, 2009 6:19 PM EST

While I have been critical of The Emotionally Intelligent Manager: HOW TO DEVELOP AND USE THE FOUR KEY EMOTIONAL SKILLS OF LEADERSHIP by David R. Caruso and Peter Salovey, there was one concept in the book that I found compelling: namely the usefulness of negative emotions.

What was interesting was that it was completely at odds with a major theme at the seminar where I bought the book --- Positive Psychology. I would estimate that at least one-third of the seminar Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace was devoted to the importance of Positive Psychology. The best explanation of the concept is from the Positive Psychology Centre of the University of Pennsylvania. Positive Psychology says that instead of looking at what is wrong with people, we should study what makes them right. The Positive Psychology movement gained real impetus under the leadership of Professor Martin Seligman when he became President of the American Psychological Association in 1998. While the saying "Laugh and the world laughs with you" may be too simplistic, the movement has defined three components of happiness --- getting more pleasure out of life by savouring sensory experiences, becoming more engaged in what you do and finding ways of making your life feel more meaningful.

In complete contrast, The Emotionally Intelligent Manager repeatedly suggests that when considering such matters as budgets, project plans, investments and business plans one should be in a risk-adverse, double-checking, pessimistic frame of mind. These are the occasions when a negative outlook is far more likely to ensure success. Optimists are good at the big picture, but it is well known that the devil is in the detail. Cynics are good at checking for errors.

Sydney Finkelstein in his book Why Smart Managers Fail also says that mangers and salespeople with a relentlessly positive attitude are dangerous to an organisation. The upbeat mindset shuts out critical information from outside the company. Salespeople in particular may regard customer criticism as "sales resistance" rather than the best source of information about a customer's needs and desires.

Is it possible to be too positive?