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Passion, People and Principles

Are we too negative?

post # 236 — November 9, 2006 — a General post

I’m doing something on this blog that I don’t like, and I think many of you are doing it too. We’re criticizing way too much, pointing out the flaws in other people.

If you look at some of the topics I have initiated here on this blog in recent weeks (or even months,) I have encouraged discussion of the flaws of managers, consultants, marketing people, lawyers, trainers. I’m getting good at pointing out what’s wrong with the world (and most of you are too). I think the comments have been largely accurate and fair, but taken together, an unfortunate pattern is emerging — ‘let’s talk about what’s wrong with OTHER people.’

I don’t think it’s me alone that’s doing this. When you go visit other blogs, you see lots of criticism, complaints, cynicism and skepticism. You only see a very little praise and celebration of successes, triumphs and things done right. For every blog post or comment illustrating excellence, creativity, trustworthiness or professionalism, there are multiples bemoaning the lack of these things.

Quite honestly, I’m getting a little depressed by my – our? – negative tone. My message in my writings has always meant to have an optimistic one: true professionalism wins, you can have high standards and still get rich, quality beats volume, trustworthy behavior leads to greater riches as well as personal self-worth, treat people with respect and they’ll repay you with their trust and loyalty.

But somehow I’ve drifted here on this blog, and so have many of you. Actually, it’s largely true of the blogosphere in general — more blogs are iconoclastic in the true sense of that word — ‘tearing down’ the powerful or prominent – and very proportionately fewer are about building up useful knowledge, ideas, tips, insights.

Now, I must rush to point out the paradox of these past few sentences. I’m complaining about complaining! Being negative about being negative! (Seductive isn’t it?)

There’s a lot more to say on this, but the first topic of discussion for you all is:

a) Are we all becoming too negative (cynical, skeptical)?

b) Why?

c) Is it worse on the blogosphere than in real life, or is it a reflection of real life?

d) Is it about like it always was, or is it getting worse?


Lora Adrianse said:

Great minds think alike David! I was just thinking the same thing about my own blogs. In fact, just the other day I posted a request for examples of Random Acts Of Service. (http://yourcustomersmatter.com)

The blogosphere has certainly provided a means for people to be heard, but quite honestly I think we’ve been complaining all along. I know chronic complainers who’ve never heard of blogging.

I believe that we choose to be part of the problem (complaining) or part of the solution (helping to solve). And I’m going to make sure my blogs reflects my beliefs (being part of the solution).

I also believe that we find what we look for. If we look for negative stuff we’ll find plenty. If we look for postive stuff, there is also plenty to be found. Sometimes we forget to clarify what we’re looking for.

It’s really all about awareness! Fabulous isn’t it?

posted on November 9, 2006

Danielle Keister said:

a) Are we all becoming too negative (cynical, skeptical)? In some respects, I’d say yes. I do certainly feel more cynical and saddened about certain things or aspects of our society right now. But I’m also hopeful at the same time. b) Why? I think it’s a sign of the times. People know in their guts when something is wrong, and I think those discussions are a recognition and acknowledgement of what we know in our bones.

c) Is it worse on the blogosphere than in real life, or is it a reflection of real life?

I don’t think it’s any worse on the blogosphere than in real life. I think it’s just a more tangible form of evidence.

d) Is it about like it always was, or is it getting worse?

I wouldn’t use the word “worse.” I think it might be increasing, but I think it’s a necessary part of process—sort of like ying and yang. When we recognize there is something wrong, there is a need to discuss what is not “pretty” in the process of getting to solutions.

I do think we (people in general) can get stuck in the “recognition” part and not move past that to work on the solution part, and that’s a hazard we need to be more conscious of. I think questions like yours are a good way to keep balance it encourages consciousness, and keeps us moving forward towards positive resolutions.

posted on November 9, 2006

Danielle Keister said:

Hey, I have an idea if you will permit me (and I apologize if this has already been done in some form or another, which I’m sure it has, but I’m a new reader and haven’t gotten through all the posts yet)…Why don’t you pose an issue that’s been commonly recognized, and ask for everyone’s ideas on the solution? I think that would be not only a positive exchange, it would be fun, too. :)

posted on November 9, 2006

David (Maister) said:

We’ve tried that in an unstructured way, btu your point is terrific. Let me plan on launnching a semi-regular “Solve This!” blogpos series. Thanks, Danielle.

posted on November 9, 2006

David (Maister) said:

This in by email from “Bill”

Are we too negative? – yes

Why? – look at Tuesday’s election results and tone…negative is everywhere….and for good reason!!

Is it ht e blogosphere or real life? – reflection of real life

Is it worse than before? – seems worse but when I look back since the ’60’s, I’m not so sure, perhaps it has been a slow build….little faith in public institutions, leadership, principles.

Have a good day, always enjoy hearing from you….(see, there is something nice)


posted on November 9, 2006

Steve Portigal said:

David – I read some blogs who only post positive stuff. And I find those harder to read than blogs that only are negative. Obviously, like everything in life, we need a balance. Being always positive isn’t authentic, and begins to read like PR and not commentary or insight. Being always negative is tiring.

There is a wide range of tones we can take in sharing information online (or anywhere else) – if I complain, I hope to make someone laugh or at least feel stimulated, rather than gripe negatively.

Many things are neither fully positive or negative and have aspects of both.

I seek out (and to tell) stories that are real, human, engaging, personal, insightful. That needs to encompass all points along the continuum.

posted on November 9, 2006

Bruce MacEwen said:


This is a fascinating question, and I think the allusion to Tuesday’s elections is actually an insightful one. Why? Because negativity gets attention. Study after study has shown that campaign ads that discuss real issues are forgettable whereas those that demonize one’s opponent show very high recall rates.

That said, I don’t believe for a moment that negativity is the way to go (color me “non-expedient,” if you wish). Some of the very politicians who find themselves officeholders-to-be today, thanks to negative ads, are now going to have to actually develop fruitful, productive policies—and work with their former opponents to get it done, or the people will lose patience. All I need say is “George Bush/Nancy Pelosi.”

But back to our little corner of the online world: On my own site, I try consciously not to be negative. In fact, I’m quite confident you could troll through the entire archives of my site going back nearly three years without finding a single piece criticizing an identifiable individual or firm. I of course reserve the right to point out better and worse ways of doing things, and I hope that’s a service I regularly provide my readers, but one needn’t crucify anyone in the process.

One last point that I believe is deeply related: I’ve long believed that the most loyal client is one who experienced disappointment with a service provider, pointed it out, and had it remedied far beyond their wildest expectations. It’s the “silent type” of client, boss, or employee who’s disappointed with you and quietly walks away that is truly the dangerous “negative” to one’s career.

As I tell everyone I work with, I need to hear the bad news first. The good news will take care of itself, but if I don’t know what’s running off the rails I have zero chance of correcting it.

Best regards,


posted on November 9, 2006

Andrew Smith said:

Cynicism and negativity are usually the outcome of disappointment – which in turn is related to a failure of expectation.

Here’s a theory – look at all the management literature on leadership in the last decade or so – an underlying assumption is that: you too can be a leader! But we all can’t be leaders.

And then the other common meme of fostering team spirit – but hey, we’re all supposed to be leaders!

Similiarly, everyone is exhorted to: Be The Best! But we can’t all be the best. Of course, getting everyone to strive for the best should raise the overall bar – but that still means more disappointed people than satisfied.

If we were all terribly fair minded people that wouldn’t be a problem – but human nature being what it is, there is a natural tendency to think – it’s not my fault, it’s somebody elses.

(Sidebar: does this mean that the number of complainers will always outnumber the positivists?)

Something else I’ve noted is the “Yes, that could have been me” tenor of discussion. “I had that idea but” “I could have made that investment but”, “He got that promotion because” “They won that account because”, etc.

Again – its always somebody else’s fault.

As George Bernard Shaw said: “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”

Don’t come to me with a problem, come to me with a solution is a management cliche – but is the current atmosphere of negativity a result of people’s sense that even if they do suggest solutions, nobody is actually going to take any notice?

Alternatively, have we all developed a collective sense of cognitive dissonance in terms of what say and believe and what we actually do? For example, front page of The Times here yesterday had a great story on the disconnect between what Brits say they are doing for the environment and what our behavour actually is eg 74pc say they recyle as much as they can whereas official figures show households are recycling less than they were 5 years ago.

To your point about trust, it is all very well bemoaning others, but are we just being less honest with ourselves? Can we honestly say that we are actually DOING what we all appear to be saying ARE the things we ought to be doing?

Is that why we have all just turned into a bunch of whingers?

The point about the blogosphere is that in the past, one’s ability to moan about things were confined to a small audience (ie one’s colleagues down the pub). Now you can vent your spleen on a global stage – so are we now all involved in one great blamestorming session?

To end on an optimistic note, to quote another George (Burns in this case):

“I look to the future because that’s where I’m going to spend the rest of my life.”

PS Don’t ask me for a solution – I have to get my own house in order first ;-)

posted on November 9, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Andrew, great contribution. But I do want to find a solution, at least for me. I want to find a way to look for success storiess to celebrate, and to find the good parts. Seligman has this wonderfuil book called “Learned Optimism.” i need to go back to read it, and figure out how I can be net, net, net the opponent of negativity, not the reinforcer of it.

posted on November 9, 2006

Duncan Bucknell said:

a) Are we all becoming too negative (cynical, skeptical)? Yes. b) Why?

It’s easier to do. Entropy increases – it’s a fact. People will naturally tend to do the easier (lower energy / effort) thing.

c) Is it worse on the blogosphere than in real life, or is it a reflection of real life?

Seems similar to me.

d) Is it about like it always was, or is it getting worse?

About the same.

posted on November 9, 2006

Mike said:


Great post. I’ve been mulling the same thing as you and Lora (I’ll except myself from the great minds club, thought) lately. While negative posts tend to generate plenty of interest, what kind of legacy am I building with them? Not the one I want.

In answer to your questions:

a) Are we all becoming too negative? No, but ‘evidence’ of the opposite is easy to find. News media is filled with negative stories because ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. Everyone seems to be driving as though they’re auditioning for a Mad Max movie. Business publications and blogs talk incessantly about how we live in times of unprecedented change and pressure. And if we uncritically let these observations control our orientation toward the world, it seems that way. But you could just as easily decide to seek out and observe good news, like infant mortality rates and life expectancies or stories of achievement and humanity, and you would realize that we live in pretty awesomely good times. During what other period of history could I strike up a conversation with an author I greatly admire but have never met on the spur of the moment?

b) Why? It seems that way to many of us because as I pointed out in this post, when we rush and let our r-Complex reptile brains lead our decisionmaking, we act out of fear of negative consequence.

c) Is it worse on the blogosphere than in real life, or is it a reflection of real life? I suppose there is some magnification of the negativity due to the relative anonymity one can have here in the blogosphere.

d) Is it about like it always was, or is it getting worse? People are about the same today as they have been for thousands of years. Same hopes, same fears, same aspirations. Of course, many probably FEEL things are worse because they’re actually so much better off. Instead of worrying about real threats such as being eaten by a predator or losing a child to a flu epidemic, we have the luxury of occupying our time arguing about the high price of luxuries our ancestors could not have imagined!

At the risk of being laughed right out of the comments section, may I suggest you take the time to watch the movie Pollyanna, and then decide if people are more negative now than before. It’s all a matter of focus.


posted on November 9, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Mike, I don’t want to divert the serious part of this discussion, but your reference to Pollyanna is not out of place here. After all, if I can keep referring to Danny Kaye movies, you can ring in – now who was it – Hayley Mills?

Let’s see. What’s our new mash mix?

“Always look on the bright side of life” (Monty Python)

“Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street” (1930s song)

“When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep.” (Irving Berlin)

“You say stop, but I say go, go, go. You say goodbye, but I say hello” (McCartney Lennon)

“Everything is beautiful, in it’s own way.” (Ray Stevens)

“Everything’s coming up Roses” (from “Mame)

There! Does that make us feel any better? Yes, your point, Mike,is that it’s going to take more than that to rein our lizard brain instincts to view the world with distrust.


posted on November 9, 2006

Amanda Horne said:


Thank you – a fantastic blog to get us all thinking.

In the subsequent comments you mention Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism. Well, there’s more.

His whole Positive Psychology field (evidence-based, grounded, rigour) is a great advance from his optimism days. It’s all about refocusing on what’s right with people, communities, institutions. Building strength, rather than just finding and fixing weaknesses. The reality of this field is what makes it so accessible to organisations and serious executives: it’s about negative and positive co-existing, but shifting the balance to more of what’s right and less of what’s wrong. A number of professional services firms are now applying this field, and other related fields, to build stronger, sustainable workplaces.


posted on November 9, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Where would you recommend we START reading about this advanced stuff, Amanda, particularly the application in professional businesses? Is there an easy short introduction?

posted on November 9, 2006

David Zatz said:

Another excellent string of thoughts. I think the pace of social change and a political “down cycle”, if you will (evidenced but the dramatic election results), makes it easier to succumb to human nature in which being negative is easier. Acknowledging the positive requires an effort for most (there are industries earning from this need) but complaining about the negative is easy and natural. I do think the setting of blogs where you’re not communicating face to face facilitates this negativism, much the way that we all communicate differently with email compared to phone or in person. I don’t think it’s getting worse but new tools like blogs provide venues for people who were previously more isolated, to get those messages out there.

posted on November 9, 2006

Lee Iwan said:

Negativism is a part of the US business, political, educational and social structure.

The idea of being critical, of finding flaws is part of the process in order to find ways to make it better, more efficient, and more wonderful. To find out what went wrong (or right) and improve upon the results. The scientific model, trial and error and observation.

We can forget that creativity and innovation is inspired by positive ideas, praise and the applauding of things that work…no matter how obvious.

The old saying “it’s easier to criticize than create” comes to mind.

Try the following experiment for a day. Approach every situation, event or circumstance with the attitude that you will first evaluate what works. No negativism.

If you are writing a blog entry, how can it be written to support and promote the positive and not the negative? For instead of writing “the 10 worst things a leader can do”, try “the 10 best actions of exceptional leaders”.

Solve the problem, give solutions, and don’t talk about how it got that way.

Many times negativism is about blame. We want to find the responsible party or action. We would like to think that everything bad could have been prevented.

I think negativism is the easy way out. It takes much more effort and controlled consciousness to create and be positive.

posted on November 9, 2006

Danielle Keister said:

“If you are writing a blog entry, how can it be written to support and promote the positive and not the negative? For instead of writing ‘the 10 worst things a leader can do.’, try ‘the 10 best actions of exceptional leaders’.”

This is off-topic, but it would be interesting to use this example to test article titles, and see which one attracts more readers.

posted on November 9, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Lee, I know myou didn’t mean it this way, but I don’t think negativity is a peculiarly US phenomenon at all. In fact, the following story was always used when I was growing up in the UK to illustrate the fundamental difference between US and UK cultures.

In the US, the story went, if some workers saw the boss going by in a Cadillac (thisis an old story) they would say to each eother “One day I’m going to own a car like that.” By way of contrast, in the UK, when the workers saw the boss going by in a Rolls Royce, they’s say: “One day we’re going to get that bloke back on a bicycle.”

At least in my version, the US was always the land of Horatio Alger dreams where people actually believed that hard work, hobesty, trustworthiness coulf take you anywhere. It was OTHER countries that were imbued with pessimism and cynicism.

Has that changed? IS the US still a relatively MORE ambitious, idealistic place than other countries. My travels suggest that it still is.

I love your challenge to come up with the ten solutions or ten best ways as a regular way of doing blogs. I’ll try.

In fact I’m thinking of starting a regular series of “Praise Days”- days when we restrict the blog and the comments to acknowledging something or someone we think is done particularly well. If you want to submit something to that but want to do it anonymously, just send me an email about something worthy of appreciation – good management, great marketing, good service, clever strategy.

I don’t know if we can pull this off. In past blogposts I’ve asked you all for examples of great marketing and great management, and, well, too be factual about it, the participation dropped off immediately.

Maybe it’s problems with privacy and non-disclosure, but it appears to be difficult to cite evidence of success stories. Why is that?

posted on November 9, 2006

Andreas said:

David, isn’t it a sad fact in life that all that is negative is search after, while what is positive is deadwood? There were newspapers that specialised on positive news only but they went out of business or only have a very limited circulation.

Once I started to talk more positively in my blog, my readership dropped by 1/2.

You are right! We focus way too much on the negative because it is easy to do so, especially when it is outside of us. And what will happen to our minds? Well, since I believe in “mindwork”, I also believe that we are training our minds to become more negative over time. Hmm – makes me think!

There is much more to say, but this would result in an entry of its own.

Thanks for bringing it up, and make your life a wow!

posted on November 9, 2006

Tyler Allison said:

I was listening to the ‘Manager Tools’ podcast this morning and an old comment was made that fits nicely. It went something like this…

Do something good and the person will tell one other person.

Do something bad and the person will tell 10 other people.

Or more directly related to consulting….customers tend to complain more than they compliment. Which can throw a wrench in the customer surveys that are tied to consultant compensation (I believe a topic of one of your other blog entries)

I think it is human nature to find fault in people, situations, etc. I do not believe that can be used as an excuse to walk around all day with a negative outlook on life. However it seems to be easier to complain, than to praise. And just because we want to be positive doesn’t mean we will be. As you said in your latest podcast (roughly applied to this topic)… When you find yourself being negative “What are you going to do now? Withdraw, or renew your efforts?”

All the more reason that we should compliment co-workers, employees and peers, even the boss when we see something good. They get enough bashing from everyone else.

It feels wierd for a pessimistic realist like myself to say “good job” when my brain is saying “yeah..so..you did what you get paid for”, but I have noticed a friendlier attitude with co-workers since I actively started trying to be less negative. I don’t think I can be positive…but less negative is something I can do.

posted on November 9, 2006

Amanda Horne said:

Hi David

I’m working on getting information to you re your previous request. For now, a longer read is Martin Seligman’s book (2002) “Authentic Happiness” which explains Positive Psychology.

Regarding your comment about finding 10 best things, and having praise days: do it! One of the tested experiments in positive psychology had people writing down three things that went well every day. The researchers found that happiness increased, depression levels decreased, the focus shifted to a greater balance of positive v negative. It retrained the brain’s pathways.

Tyler Allison comment is great: notice the effect on others when you shift the focus. Re-balance.

And finally, connecting this conversation to your comments on Bob Sutton’s work (no jerks…): doing more of the positive means being less of a jerk.

posted on November 9, 2006

Jim Belshaw said:

David, I normally post wearing my professional services hat. This time I am posting wearing my personal hat.

On my personal blog I have been trying to explore as a social commentator the nature of the changes that have taken place in Australia since the war. Certainly some of those changes have been negative. Further the feedback that I have received suggests that the sense of disconnect, the feeling of discomfort that comes from the feeling that things are not quite right, is not limited to Australia.

That said, I remain positive for two reasons. First, things tend to self correct with time. Second, there are also positive elements in the change process. It’s not all negative.

I see blogs such as yours as playing an important role in shining a light on issues. I do not think, and this picks up an earlier comment, that it is necessary to be positive all the time. I do think, though, that it helps to be able to show examples of success.

posted on November 9, 2006

Ted Harro said:


I’ll follow my grandmother’s advice here: “Confess your own sins.”

The tide of skepticism and cynicism in our world has threatened to wash over my head many times in recent years. It’s easier to point out problems than to come up with real solutions. I found myself just yesterday saying to a client (basically), “Here’s a major problem your organization needs to face,” and in the next breath saying, “I know that’s easy for me to say. Fixing it is much more difficult and I don’t have brilliant solutions for you.” I suppose honesty about my limitations was better than just dumping the problem in his lap, but I wish I could have done better and more.

Why? Again, my own sins, no one else’s. I find an incredible temptation to do anything I can to stand out from others, to show that I’m smarter, more capable, more creative than competitors, clients, and colleagues. Unless I catch myself, I find myself wanting to make a distinction between my point of view and another’s SIMPLY to be different. It’s embarrassingly difficult to simply say, “Hey, that’s a great idea. No but, no push, no caveats.” I’m honestly not sure my colleagues would believe it even if I said it – we all assume that others are criticizing us privately even if they compliment us publicly.

A little discipline I do for myself and some of my hyper-critical clients – when getting them to give themselves feedback, I demand at least three positives from them and limit them to ONLY one self-criticism. They find it incredibly difficult. And I confess, so do I.

posted on November 10, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Ted, I think you’re right.


I should stop there, according to your principle?

I guess I have to!

(Athough I’m dying to say more about what you left out.)

Next time.

This time I’ll try to acept your wisdom and come across as positive and supportive, instead of critical ands negative.

Let’s see how long I (we?) can sustain it.

posted on November 10, 2006

Lance Dunkin said:

Aside—I’m going to use the terms “leader” and “leadership,” which I know can be quite controversial. Let’s consider them in the broadest since. It will just help me to not have to translate the article I want to talk about.

There is an interesting article titled “Leadership Under the Microscope” by Zenger, Sandholtz, and Folkman (I think you can find it on the internet. I would highly recommend reading it).

It basically says that we are taught all of our lives to find and fix weaknesses—we are taught that this process is how we become better at anything. This article was written from a substantial amount of research (360 degree surveys) on leadership effectiveness (ratings on 360 degree levels, profitability of an organization, etc).

It concludes that a leader becomes FAR more effective by adding “profound strengths” than by correcting weakness in him/herself. Further, increased effectiveness diminishes as more profound strengths are added. In conclusion, focusing on and successfully adding one or two profound strengths can make an astronomical difference in a leaders’ effectiveness.

Translating that to our own lives, where we are the leaders or perhaps more closely, the managers, of our situations—we might be better focusing on a few strengths we can acquire to achieve our goals rather than removing the many potential impediments.

Now, you might say, “We’ll what’s the difference between adding strength and getting rid of a weakness (in some cases)?” I think there is a profound difference—does anyone else?

Adding a strength lets you naturally transcend impediments, and after the overcoming of the problem, you are left with a strength to use in the future. Removing an impediment leaves you with a short-term victory and nothing more. You and your character have not necessarily changed, and there will always be impediments—but if you can get above them, they will not be as likely to get in your way—saving you time and effort in the future.

posted on November 10, 2006

Lance Dunkin said:

PS—If you want to read that article I mentioned, here is the URL


posted on November 10, 2006

Spencer Schmerling said:

It seems to be easier to complain and point out things that are wrong in both the business and real worlds. Blogging can be cathartic for some but I think it is an incredibly powerful tool if we learn how to use it right. One of the first steps in that process might be to stop the negativity; use it as a way to swap resources and broadcast useful information to other people interested in professional success. Promoting positivity, suggesting solutions and plans of action are more likely to enhance satisfaction in our personal lives and I can’t help but think it wouldn’t then transfer to our work lives as well.

posted on November 10, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, Lance.

Let me sumarize some themes here (not all, just some.)

We do find it easier to spot and comment on the flaws of others than to either recognize their successes or confess our own weaknesses. Indeed, commenting on other people’s weaknesses may be a way of deflecting attention from our own flaws. (Attack is the best defense?)

Also, we seem to be saying that negativity DOES get more response and attention than positive comments. we may not want it to be so, but as local TV news shows reveal “If it bleeds, it leads.” We may not like it in ourselves, but we are riveted by negativity, and give falling “ratings” whenever someone tries to stick to upbeat stuff.

On the other hand, a lot of people here, like me, find that a diet of one side only is ultimately unsatisfying – we need to find a balance of praise and critique and not to be seen to be too consistently on one side of that or the other.

I haven’t summarized everything, but is that summary fairly accurate?

posted on November 10, 2006

Frank Schophuizen said:

Are we too negative? – Yes

Why? – We are spectators, critics.

Only blogosphere or real life? – Real life

Getting worse? – Yes and No

Blogs have stimulated more global communication, so any phenomena that happens in real life is exaggerated through blogs. So, in that sense it is becoming worse. But in real life, it has been there and it always will and I don’t think it’s ever getting better or worse.

But it is not important whether we are negative or positive, or whether it is become better or worse. What is important is what we DO. I think we should try less to be an spectator, an observer, an audience to the game, but we should be participants, players. Instead of LOOKING AT what we and others are doing, let’s EXPERIENCE.

posted on November 11, 2006

Peter Vajda said:

This country is seeped in a malaise, a low-grade-fever-type of agitation that reflects a basic unhappiness. We’ve evolved to a state where many folks have strived for too long to live the “appearance” of happiness through materialistic obsessison and are slowly and surely recognizing that this appearance is getting them nowhere, resulting in more frustration, anger, resentment than true and real happiness.

People’s Sisyphean efforts to be “somebody” at the expense of being a “nobody” have resuted in in both silent and overt anger, and mental, emotional, and psychological exhaustion, both of which are manifested at lashing out, blaming, nit picking, bullying, gossiping, and finger pointing at everyone and everything else but at one’s self.

Money doesn’t do it, new Plasma TVs don’t do it, new expensive cars, watches, clothes don’t do it, alcohol and energy drinks don’t do it, so what’s left when I’m feeling so left out, so deficient, so resentful, so frustrared that as hard as I try, I often still feel like a “nobody”, alone, even in a crowd, with this empty hole in my gut.

The negativity is an attemnpt to fill this hole of deficiency, thinking that spending time and energy being critical, judgmental, demeaning and disrespectful of others will somehow make me feel “better” at the expense of those who I am stepping on and over in my attempts to get to the top of some ladder (financial, social professional, etc.) that will make me feel like “somebody.”

Peter Vajda

posted on November 11, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Peter – this is astounding! If you’re right (and a lot of it hits home), then whaat’s the cure? How do peple who feel this way turn themselves around? Is it possible for people to “abandon” the search to be somebody? Do we (serious question) all need lessons in Buddhism – the principle that the pain of this world comes from desiring things. Is that aprt of the cure or is there another way to help the people you describe?

By the way, you were being very negative about “them”, Peter, so we are all still in the “pit” together, aren’t we, with our analyses?

posted on November 11, 2006

Peter Vajda said:

Greetings David. Thanks for your comment. Am I “negative?” I’m making an observation about “negative” folks. It is what it is. I’ll let others label it.

Your pointing to Buddhism is, in fact, right on. Attachment is the root cause of pain and suffering. No attachment, no reactivity; no reactivity, then all is, well, just is…

The “cure” (as you name it) is perhaps taking time to turn “inside” on a consistent basis and see what’s causing my unhappiness. The stimulus for my reactivity is “outside” myself, (it, her, them, etc.) but the “cause” of my negativity, my reactivity, my resistance to allowing things to be, is always “inside” me…hard as I might try, to rationalize, to blame others.

Perhaps taking time for self-refletcion on my indivdual values, and why I have the values I have, and whose values are they anyway? Since I wasn’t born with these values, how did I evolve to have them? And, do they really serve me?

The truth is that most folks are 3-4-5 year olds in adult clothing and adult bodies…folks who are reactive and turn to childish (a “negative”, as opposed to child-like, a positive) behavior when they don’t get what they want (mentally, emotionally, physically, psychologically, etc.) at work, at home and at play. Self-reflection is a key to “root causes” for one’s upset, frustration, reactivity, negativity, frustration, etc.

Shakespeare said, “An event is neither good nor bad, only thinking makes it so.” So, why is my “thinking” so negative? What belief systems, mental models of the world and people in the world, assumptions, misconceptions, misperceptions do I have hard-wired into my brain that brings me to reactivity…as opposed to just “allowing” what is…knowing that I can live and be just fine in that space between chaos and order.

Why do I need to be, and choose to be, reactive and resistant to who and what falls outside of my “paradigms”? What do I “get” from being reactive, resistant, and defensive? The short answer is “safety” in some form. That, underlying my reactivity, is some aspect of fear in some way, shape or form.

So, the question is, do I have the strength and courage to go inisde and look at me, to explore who I am and how I am in my world at work, at home and at play and why I am who I am? For 99% of folks, this is just too scary a proposition, to challenging, and so, staying outside and finding fault with “it, her, him, them” keeps me safe…albeit not experiencing true and real happiness and well-being. But it’s “satisfycing” in that some semblance of so-called faux hapiness is better than none.

posted on November 11, 2006

breakingranks said:

I have a theory about this. I think negative experiences create a gap between “should be” and “is” that throws the rational operations of your brain into disarray. This gap can only be repaired by a lot of words – speaking, writing, or staying up all night going over the situation.

It’s not that bloggers are negative people – it’s just that positive experiences don’t stimulate writing as well as negative experiences do.

posted on November 11, 2006

Scott Allen said:

Agreed completely, David. I’ve been seeing it in the blogosphere as well as many of the discussion lists I’m in. I’m grateful to you for speaking up. What I have seen… not in the blogosphere so much, but in the discussion forums and social networking sites, is an odd sort of backlash — a lot of people complaining about the negativity, but not doing anything about it, other than complain and threaten to leave if the negativity continues.

I think that’s no answer either. As the old saying goes, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

I’ve written about it more extensively on my blog:

Online Negativity and How to Deal With It

Interested to hear your thoughts on this.

posted on November 11, 2006

Stephanie West Allen said:

Wonderful topic, David. Please add to your reading list the new book Appreciative Intelligence, certainly one antidote to what is being discussed here. Appreciative Intelligence is the ability to see what is right or working in a situation (or profession or work setting) and can be developed like any of the other multiple intelligences. Here is an interview of one of its authors in which she goes into more detail:


She discusses how this intelligence may apply to the legal profession.

In that spirit, in September I began a series of interviews on my blog in which people in the legal system look appreciatlvely at the profession. I led off with US District Court Judge John L. Kane here:


posted on November 12, 2006

Stephanie West Allen said:

I apologize. I did not make those links live. Here’s the Appreciative Intelligence interview:


And the interview of US District Court Judge John L. Kane:


posted on November 12, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, Stephanie – this will be helpful.

As I tried to absorb all this and think ahead for future blog topics, another obvious point became clearer to me: Our discussion about negativity and consructiveness isn’t just about a frame of mind. It’s also about substance.

Let’s admit it up front: – You don’t need to know much to criticize; but to be constructive, to be helpful, to be positive – you actually have to have some ANSWERS. You have to KNOW something, at least have a HELPFUL INSIGHT.

Now, this is more than a little initimidating. Every writer knows that, when sitting down to write, the biggest inhibitor was (and is) the fear that he or she might not have anything new to say. It’s still my fear. It’s just made worse by having the goal of trying to write an intersting blogpost every day.

I don’t fool myself that I’ll have an unending stream of new ideas or new solutions. Nor do I want to just keep repeating the old ones.

So, I’ll keep up my search and ask for your help, in looking for people, events and organizations to praise. I really do need your help, because I usually can’t disclose client names, and can’t blog about something that’s just happened in my consulting life, even anonymously, because it might be recognized. I have to wait a while to act ethically and protect interests.

But, as I’ve said before, you can help by commenting here or emailing me brief stories of things done cleverly or well. I’ll post them, and we can all continue our learning – from successes, not just from failures.

So, guys, what’s WORKING out there? What good practice or wisdom should we pass on? Pick a topic. I’ll blog about it if I think it’s generally helpful and generally intetresting.

posted on November 12, 2006

Tojo Thatchenkery said:

You have raised an interesting question, David. “Are we all becoming too negative?” My instinctive response is to say “Yes.” For example, it is now accepted in political campaigning that negative advertising helps. But I don’t believe people have become more negative. Our language or discourses have. Stephanie West Allen who responded earlier to your question has mentioned one of my recent co-authored books “Appreciative Intelligence: Seeing the Mighty Oak in the Acorn” (http://www.appreciativeintelligence.com). In that and other books I have shown how language and societal discourses create the social reality we all live in. In their effort to acquire scientific status, early thinkers in Psychology conceptualized people as deficit being, as lacking something, never perfect, and always striving for more (need for achievement). As hermeneutic philosophers say we can only apprehend reality through language. If the language that is privileged is a deficit one, we are unconsciously participating in a critical, skeptical world-view.

How do we change the deficit discourse? I like the Nike slogan here: “Just do it!” Some of us have written plenty about the genesis and dynamics of the deficit discourse (www.appreciativeintelligence.com). But when it comes to changing it, nothing is more practical than just doing it. People with appreciative intelligence have a natural gift to engage in a positive discourse and reframe reality generatively. Others can develop it by practice (several techniques are mentioned in the book).

Thank you for asking the right question, David.

Tojo Thatchenkery

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posted on November 12, 2006

Charles H. Green said:

Hmmm….very provocative question, as usual.

Let me try to up the provocation.

On the one hand, I too try to encourage more positivity (and surely don’t practice it enough myself).

On the other hand, I have to confess that nearly all my learnings come from negative experiences. And frankly, I think that’s true for people in general.

I just don’t learn much from someone saying, yeah me too; or even from someone saying here’s what works for me.

I learn more from deconstructing train wrecks. Heck, come to think of it, even more from watching train wrecks and deconstructing them myself. The danger of ignoring negativity and differences and disagreements is embodied in the notion of PC (political correctness, not computers).

So—just musing here—maybe the right way is to learn to communicate disagreement with respect. Confrontation is not the problem, disengagement is; so how do we constructively confront? Don’t dumb it down to avoid negativity; phrase it in ways we can hear each other.

If we can engage pointedly with each others in areas where we disagree—but do so in a way that inherently respects the differences and opinions of others—then we turn negativity to good advantage.

posted on November 12, 2006

peter gwizdalla said:

Hello All,

I’m going to try and tie some threads together using findings from researched and evidence based sources;

1)The Elliot Wave principle proves beyond any reasonable doubt that there is a natural ebb and flow, or waxing and waning of social mood (positive vs negative) that manifests both within and across cultures and civilizations over time and occurs in a fractal pattern. The current EWP position is that things are turning bad in terms of overall social mood and are going to get a lot worse before improving. The study of this area is called “socionomics”. This current period is likened to the late 60’s when many cross currents both positive and negative were swirling though society and politics before finally entering the dark years of the early to mid 70’s. Now, as then, darker times lie ahead of us with increased tension and negativity. Don’t take my word for it. Check it out and make up your own mind…good places to start learning are http://www.elliotwave.com and http://www.socionomics.org. I hope they are wrong.

2) Carol S Dweck posits that how we fundamentally view our capabilities and makeup (eg intelligence, temperament, physicality) determines much of our reactions to lifes challenges. If you irrationally believe that you only have so much IQ or a particular personality and that these things cannot be fundamenatlly changed you have a “fixed” mindset. If you rationally believe that you can fundamentally improve your IQ or temperament then you have a “growth” mindset. From these two mindsets all sorts of implications flow about how you view setbacks, where you lay blame, how you approach competitive situations, lead others, etc. Both mindsets get depressed and angry and frustrated but they react in very different ways. Sadly, psychology and other related fields have been mostly teaching the “fixed” mindset for decades with the predictable results we have been seeing for quite some time now. Google “Thought Leaders: Dr. Carol S Dweck on “How Your Mindset Impacts Your Success in Business and in Life.”” for an article. The book is an eye opener too…..

To sum up, yes times are getting worse and will get a lot worse before better, but by examining our deepest wrong beliefs about our capabilities and changing them, we can improve our chances of thriving in the tough times ahead.

posted on November 12, 2006

paul buseyne said:

Let’s look in history. We are much more negative than our parents are (I’m 48 year old, my parents are 80, I’m living in Belgium- Western Europe). Why is this? It’s a matter of comparison. Our parents compare these times with the bad times of the second world war. They know it’s much better now. We and our children are spoiled. We are not aware of the good things in life because we never lived the bad ones. So what do we have to do? Enjoy “obvious” things like: being free (speech, thought, friends, space, …), being in good health, being able to blog, and so on, … Why enjoy them? Because they are NOT obvious: whe can see it in the world around us, we can learn it from our parents, we can learn it from history. Being positive is as simple as being negative !!


posted on November 13, 2006

Peter Vajda said:

I’ve just read Peter Gwizdalla’s comments regarding the Research on socioeconomics, etc.: (1) “The current EWP position is that things are turning bad in terms of overall social mood and are going to get a lot worse before improving.” (2) “Now, as then, darker times lie ahead of us with increased tension and negativity. ”


The same type statistics can be said for projected increases in the number of heart attacks, cancer incidents, obesity rates, diabetes, suicides, spousal abuse incidents, etc.

However, that does not mean that I have to engage in self-destrucive behaviors that result in my experiencing and hastening these events in my life. I can choose what behaviors support me to live a healthy lifestyle and which don’t. The same is true for whether I choose to be civil or uncivil, respectful or disrespectful, hurtful and harmful or compassionate and understanding in my relationships and interactions, on blogs, in relationship, how I show up in the world.

The bottom line here, for me, is the degree to which one is “cosncious”. Whether I am consciously aware of how I am and who I am or just being completely unconscious, reactive, with no conscious awareness. (see my posts, above.)

In a climate and culture where most are obsessed with, and driven by, their ego need for control, recognition and security, it’s no wonder that most folks’ thoughts are “killing thoughts” as opposed to “healing thoughts.” It’s all about me! Out of my way!

In a culture where many folks gain their sense of identity (“who I am”) from a direct association with their “information” (the database in their brain), it’s no wonder that there is such incivility and reactivity on blogs, and elsewhere, as the mantra of so many is, “When you disagree with my information, well, you disagree with me”, and that’s just too much of a hit to many folks’ egos…so they sense the need to react (fight, as opposed to flee or freeze). Agreeing to disagree is fast becoming a lost art form in Western cukture.

When folks are “unconscious” of how they are and who they are (refusing to self-reflect) from the inside out, the tendency is to associate and behave with a herd mentality….witness the vitriol, the high-pitch ever-escalating disrespect, sarcasm (in the guise of “humor”), mocking, bullying, that is taking the place of so-called conversation and dialogue….thus the statistics of why it’s going to get worse….the herd and herd-like behaviors enlarge(s).

So, the research is what it is…that does not mean I cannot choose how I want to be and who I want to be in relationship, is dialogue, in conversation.

Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.” Rumi said, “Out beyond right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field, I’ll meet you there.”

Life, after all, is choices. Do I choose to be conscious, and respectfully responsive or reactive, demeaning, defensive,…

How have I been so far today with my thoughts, my words….? Conscious, thoughtful, self-reflective “healing”?….or reactive, defensive, demeaning, destructive, “killing”? ….Why?

posted on November 13, 2006

Dan Murray said:

I have worked both as a consultant and as part of a corporate team that has hired consultants. In both scenarios I’ve seen negativity as a tacit expectation that clients hold.

For instance, consulting engagements often come from some “problem” that has been identified. Part of the dance is to have the short list of consultants come in and assess the problem so they can then propose a solution. However, how much of this is self-serving on a corporate manager’s part? As a manager, if I have to justify the expense of a consulting engagement there had better be a pretty nasty problem to fix. At some level (maybe even unconciously) a manager is more apt to identify with someone who says, in effect, “wow, you’re right, things are bad and getting worse.” The consultant that comes in with a more positive outlook is often labeled as “no sharp enough” or someone who “just doesn’t understand the reality we’re facing”.

I suppose this gets back to one of your major tenents of courage. In this case, the courage to work with clients who try to stay out of the negativity mire. Just a thought.


posted on November 13, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Wow! This topic touched a nerve in all directions, didn’t it? I must try and turn it all into a coherent article if I can (although that would be a challenge – everyone’s raising so many facets of this issue.)

Tojo, I will follow up with “Appreciative Intelligence” and hope that others will, too.

Yes, Charlie, you are “upping the provocation,” and making a great point. The real challenge is not to avoid critique (of self or others) that would eliminate all forms of learning. The skills needed, as you point out (language skill, social skill, conceptial skill) are the ability to confront constructively (and respectfully.) Disaagreement is not a problem. Cynicism skepticism, rudeness are.

Peter addresses both the societal level (are we better or worse off now?) and how we can respsond at the individual level . I’ll follow up with your refernces, too, Peter – thanks for them.

Paul, I agree there are generational issues at work, although I suspect that the “within group variance” is as big as the “between group variance.” I’m reluctant to write off (or praise) a whole generation on this.

Peter Vajda stresses our personal choice, and I think that’s where most of us are coming out in our conclusions – that it is possible to avoid the worst forms of negativity and adopt constructive forms of interacting, even when (as Dan points out) we are being subjected to it by others.

There’s a lot to learn here!

posted on November 13, 2006

Carol Metzker said:

What an interesting conversation here!

When it comes to negativity and positivity (is that a word?), maybe you all will get something out of one of my recent experiences. After living through a tough work situation for a few weeks, I was grumbly, negative, looking for what else could possibly go wrong, getting toward cynical – and I made myself miserable and exhausted by it all. My husband asked (with great patience and a smile even): “How’s that working for you?”

I adjusted my attitude, figured out what I really wanted out of the situation, and sought to find a different perspective to work toward my real goal.

For those of you who ask how to get out of the negativity rut, here are a couple of questions to ask yourself:

1) How’s that negativity working for me?

2) What do I really want?

3) Then if you decide that the negativity isn’t providing you with energy and you really would prefer to do something else, make the conscious choice to look for something different. Tojo Thatchenkery (my coauthor or Appreciative intelligence: Seeing the Mighty Oak in the Acorn) in his comment above has it rigiht – just do it.

posted on November 13, 2006

Greatest American Lawyer said:

Maybe the blogosphere is so focused about changing what is wrong, that we forget to focus more on doing htings right. The right to free speech matched with the power of the internet to broadcast ideas has created the blogosphere. Perhaps after we get our pent up aggression out from the barriers of pre-blog life, we’ll be more focused on the good…

I just posted about the power of positivity here. let’s all remember that change is more about what good will happen next, as opposed to teh bad stuff that happened yesterday.

posted on November 14, 2006