Leadership and maintaining discipline

I’ve covered before the fact that a title of “Leader” doesn’t actually make you a leader. Simply being in charge doesn’t bestow leadership, which is active, example setting, and interactive. There’s a reason the phrase “lead by example” exists, and countless tales of commanders leading men into battle having more respect than faceless commanders elsewhere.

Yet still one of the most pervasive ideals of management roles is “maintaining discipline”. That sounds reasonable at a glance, right?

 Well, let’s look at what it really means:

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So, realistically we’re talking about conditioning, control, enforcement, self-control, or punishment. Only one of these things speaks me me about a skilled worker effectively getting their job done; see if you can spot it. The rest all speak only of a sense of power.

This might make sense in a military setting, but in business, in a socially complex and multiple-industry environment relying on innovation and progress, it makes a lot less.

What I find interesting is that when you look back, the idea of maintaining discipline is a holdover from the earlier days of Taylorism where it meant ensuring people in a factory production setting essentially acted like components in a machine, and “discipline” meant removing as much humanity as possible to enforce efficiency.

With the changes of the modern world and market, as well as the advanced complexity and role requirements, this is distinctly anachronistic; if we’d had the capabilities then we do now, we’d have automated all that from the get go, and I think modern worklife would look very different.

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You can’t break down something complex into smaller pieces, only something simple or complicated. Most business is complex.

But how do I maintain control of a workforce?

The idea of requiring discipline, as if a company is an army, makes a mockery of the mutually beneficial contract between company and skilled workforce, who are supposed to fit together to produce something of worth. Workers are adults; if you don’t trust them to do their job, work from home, be sensible – whatever it is – and have to micromanage them or police them to ensure they are not falling out of line, why have you even hired them? What culture does this suggest you have? How do you get things done efficiently? And what management style have you been conditioned to?

This is an issue I’ve seen with a lot of MBAs in the past, and I’ve had people who teach them at prestigious business schools (such as the London School of Business) agree on this point: the core, traditional business concepts are still taught, despite having never been truly fit for purpose, and because it’s a qualification, it’s taken as the be all and end all of management science, despite having hardly changed since Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor created the core concepts! An MBA is a definite achievement, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not simply an argument-ending mic-drop. There are huge benefits to studying for one, because you’re not only taught traditional management, but we need to also treat things with insight and curiosity to move forward and find better ways to do them.

A qualification is the start of true learning, not the end of it.

Just because something has always been done that way… it doesn’t automatically follow that it’s the best way to do it.

But some people need discipline!

If you impose strict restrictions and policies on a workforce that is not invested in the system, you invite gaming behaviour, cynicism, sycophantism, and lack of engagement. At this point, yes, people are perhaps acting in a less adult fashion and require discipline to realign them with the company’s expectations – but that’s the whole point. This is not a healthy expectation in the first place.

The same ideal of “discipline” also sees the repression of the innovators in a company – the heretics, mavericks, outliers. Discipline becomes about fitting in, meeting metrics that are more important than the outcomes they purportedly measure, and – essentially – supporting a rigid hierarchy.

The very fact you have created an environment like this as a role-titled leader has two effects:

Firstly, you have now invited the very behaviour you tried to avoid, allowing those who game and manipulate politics, rules and policies to hide behind and actually be disruptive to work for personal gain; in other words, you have encouraged a toxic culture and atmosphere. These people – who aren’t invested, don’t care about the company or their coworkers, and will do anything for themselves to get ahead – do need discipline, but they are rarely the ones that get it.

If you worked on a basis of investment and mutual trust in the first place inside a healthy culture, they’d have far fewer places to hide and could be mitigated or removed much more quickly and cleanly – or not invited in in the first place!


Culture is defined by the actions and inactions of leadership. If discipline is required company-wide, accountability for this is held only in one place.

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Secondly, you’ve set up fertile soil for the Cycle of Woe:

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When the hierarchy in a company matters more than anything else, the system isn’t working. If you truly lead – without relying on your training of the bureaucracy being the structure to maintain – people will invest in you and the company, and you won’t need to “maintain discipline” outside the very few actual troublemakers, and each of those needs to be dealt with in context. Not all troublemakers are troublemakers; sometimes they just need to do things differently, but can then deliver outstanding benefits.

And this attitude of hierarchy being all is instilled from the very first interview, with many companies ghosting prospects, demanding what they will offer whilst wielding contracts stating more hours than contracted are expected to be worked, and treating the process as if prospects are vying for a great honour – rather than looking at fit and human skills to move forward to mutual benefit.

Leadership relying on enforcing discipline simply isn’t Leading.

This is why I find the entire concept a barrier to business, to trust, and to human interaction. When a manager says “I need to see what you do with every minute of your day” even though you deliver consistent, excellent results and outcomes, what they’re really saying is “I feel the need to exert power over you”, and I can virtually guarantee they are bad at their own job and not thinking about benefiting the company if they’re spending their time micromanaging yours. When they say “I need to maintain discipline”, it’s worth asking why. Is this one problem person? Is it everyone? Is it really a problem, or just something requiring a paradigm or interaction shift?

If the answer is simply “because I’m in charge”, there is a major problem.

I once had a boss tell me I wasn’t allowed to do something I needed to do for my job, and effectively block my career for his own purposes (along with constant micromanagement, isolation, and offline talks to other management, as well as directly breaking my professional trust). When I inevitably had to do what he’d told me not to to actually do my job, and I then raised this issue to his boss, he used this as a demonstration of how uncontrollable and untrustworthy I was. HR’s response – even though they found on my side! – was “but you disobeyed a direct order”(!). To which my response was roughly:

“What is this, the army? Am I doing the job better than anyone else?”


“Do you want this to continue?”


“Then please stop ‘disciplining’ me and let me get on with doing that.”

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Being a “boss” or “in charge” doesn’t make you a leader or give automatic respect. It’s also worth noting you can be a leader without it being in your role description; anyone who influences people positively within the company is a leader, whatever their actual job. Look at how they enable, invest, and encourage – without the power inherent in a title, or from the bureaucracy – and you can see how leadership works, and discipline is reduced to the only beneficial form: self-control. 

Don’t just take my word for it – there is a wealth of decades of evidence, studies, and frameworks designed around this very real problem. People are complex, and not perfect; companies need to truly understand how to manage them. Realistic expectations must be set either side.

There’s a lot more to this, and it integrates into a lot of areas, but for now:

I’d suggest it’s time we rethink our conditioned ideas of command and control, and maintaining discipline. 

How to be Positive 2: Positively Negative

In Part 1 I spoke about Positivity, what it is, and where it’s been going wrong. Now I want to explore more deeply to further identify what is Toxic vs what is Genuine and where we often lose the sight of constructive positivity or negativity.

But before that, I want to clarify that there are two types of “negative” I refer to in this article (which should be obvious in context!):

  • The concept of negative as “not being positive”
  • Something that is actually damaging to us

Firstly, I want to look at why people might be negative – and to point out that it is almost impossible to be 100% positive or negative all the time, so we should probably stop blanket-accusing people of this. It’s a very inaccurate and unhelpful habit which can reinforce problems.

Negativity sucks

There is no denying that toxic negativity is vampiric. No wonder we try to avoid it! Sometimes people are negative to harass, to bully, to compete, to divert, to assert power or control; people can be negative through personality trait or experience. Some people are cynical to a degree where they impact getting things done. Sometimes people are negative as a result of being a jobsworth, or from a limited, rigid mindset that sees little growth. Negativity is also habit forming, and there is a perverse pleasure to always picking the negative path – at least you won’t be disappointed, right? It’s very hard to be motivated when you think like this exclusively.

All of this is negative negatives, and we all know how draining it can be. But I want to expand on negatives that can actually be positives, ignored to our detriment and damage, and also highlight how disturbing and damaging it is to invalidate valid negativity.

Some “negativity” is actually simple constructive criticism. So how much of what’s being labelled negative is toxic? Perhaps not as much as we think. When beneficial information to resolve genuine issues is automatically ignored because it isn’t positive, problems increase. An attitude of relentless “only provide solutions, not problems, be positive” no matter what is not always realistic or pragmatic.

Something else to also bear in mind is that all of this can depend on whether people are also trying to sell stuff. Negativity cuts through falsely positive bullshit and is often straight-speaking. Sales pitches, manipulations, and cons are almost universally positioned as positive. People say they value straight-shooters, but most of us don’t like anything invalidating a positive message. This becomes a rabbit hole of whether positives are really negatives and vice versa, so ask yourself when using or confronted with either:

Are they genuine, constructive, meaningful and appropriate? If so, chances are they could be valid, and you should pay attention and not just dismiss them.

So now we’ve had a think about that, let’s look at several ways positives can actually be negative when out of context or balance.

Belief in yourself

It is an amazing realisation to believe in ourselves – to realise that we are capable of so much more than we limit ourselves to. Self-limiting beliefs are responsible for much of the dissatisfaction we may feel, or our apparent inability to achieve things.

But we also have to acknowledge true limitations, and the fact we do not control every single aspect of our lives.

It is as much of a lie to tell ourselves we are totally limit-free as it is to tell ourselves we are too limited.

The tendency of humans to not find balance and veer between the two means we form very destructive patterns and imbalances (more on how we form mental patterns and make decisions here in The Decisive Patterns of Business).

So how can unlimited self-belief be harmful?

Let me ask you a question: If you are told you can never fail if you believe hard enough in yourself – that you can do anything – and you believe that truly; strive, and do everything you can to achieve it; and for whatever reason (life decisions, chance events outside your control), you just don’t achieve what you have set yourself, no matter how hard you try…

Who will you blame?

Being sold this personal maxim constantly means that if we fail, we are likely to believe we are at fault, that we just didn’t believe hard enough. And although I say there is no failure, only feedback, and indeed speak about failure being necessary for learning, growth, and success, here it is often taken as abject failure; not a lesson, but a lessening.

And that’s fundamentally not right. Let me explain.

Self-belief cannot be rigidly applied to everything in life. For every incredible story, every driven hero of mine who has achieved incredible things against the odds – Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example – there are hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands that had the same drive and determination, but didn’t get quite the same opportunities at the same time, whose contexts were just different.

For instance, by telling schoolchildren they literally cannot fail and removing fails from exams, we set unrealistic self-belief and expectations for the real world, where failure is an inevitable lesson.

Your personal drive and belief are incredibly powerful; never believe I am not supporting that. Have that goal; use that drive. Be inspired! Removing limiting self-beliefs allows you to achieve your full potential, but that is not the same as being able to literally do anything, and I think this is an important distinction.

For example – you only have to look at the diminishing returns of the fastest sprinters in the world, Usain Bolt and his ilk, to know that there is a literal human limit to what can be achieved. He ran 100m in 9.58 seconds, achieving a peak speed of almost 28mph, after years of incredibly intensive training. Men who are likewise ludicrously fast (many of whom have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, so are in a way superhuman) have come close to this, although this record stands out from even these scores, but most of them are mere milliseconds apart. So to remove self-limits and say you will train and one day compete, equal, or even beat Usain’s record may be vanishingly small, but it’s something you can still possibly achieve if you start from the right context.

But you also have to be realistic. If you say you will, as a baseline human, beat an 8 second 100m world record, it is inhumanly unlikely. Add to that the fact that the people who get to this level have decades of training, manage to avoid career-ending injury, have superior genetics for this event, and all have different context in life for many of us – they were the best of the best, naturally in most cases, to even begin training – and you can see how it’s just not possible for nearly anyone to say only self-belief stands between them and Usain’s record. A whole range of factors, including serendipity, are involved.

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We must all acknowledge that sometimes, we simply can’t close that gap between dream and reality. Life is not a level playing field, and treating it as if it is is wrong. Perhaps chance, or genetics, or a situation stops you doing what you want to the degree you wish to. Not everyone is equally unconstrained by choices. The people who achieve their perfect dream may be driven, excellent at seeing opportunity, or have the means to make a good start, but that doesn’t mean they would still achieve it in another context.

This is where serendipity and complexity align; opportunities and context may exist for one driven, talented person that simply don’t for another who is equally so. In Cynefin, you realise that finding new emergent paths to success can deliver even better, more achievable goals than the original perhaps unattainable one. I feel very uncomfortable when I see the focus on the people who have achieved something amazing portrayed as “this would be you if you only believed in yourself enough”. Very often, their story is incredible, inspiring, against all odds, and they are amazing people – but there is more to it than just human spirit. It is wrong to simply say that someone in a different context who doesn’t achieve it is always less driven, discerning, or capable. They are not automatically a failure.

Yet that is exactly what we tell people when all they hear is “believe enough, and you can do anything“. It may incorrectly suggest that those who didn’t achieve simply didn’t want it as much.

We need to be super careful of language here. These are true:

Believe in yourself enough, and you can reach your full potential.

We can achieve much more than we believe. We have not failed if we don’t achieve something perfectly.

But this is not:

Believe in yourself enough, and you can do anything.

How are we measuring success? Who do we punish when we can’t achieve it? Who controls this? Dreams and reality must match up at least a little to be achievable.

Speaking of what’s within our control:

Positivity and Control

I constantly say humans polarise very easily. I often here there’s no point trying to do things as we have no control, or conversely we have complete control over our destinies. We also often create false causal links – for example, that anything not intensively positive must be negative. The truth, as usual, lies in a fluctuating balance somewhere between the two.

 I think we need to accept two things:

  •  We can positively control much more than we often realise (Believe in yourself!)
  • Some things we simply can’t control, and that’s not necessarily negative (Don’t believe in yourself exclusively and unrealistically!)

Bruce Lee said that we have a choice; that being constructively positive is how we begin to make changes, and he is absolutely right. I do this in my own life, and it’s incredibly powerful. But we also can’t control everything in our lives, and the myth we can prevents us from growing and learning properly at best, and damages our mental health at worst. As he says, it’s how we begin.

In this video, Derren Brown makes some great points (highly recommended watch):

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It reinforces my points below on happiness, positivity, and optimism not being conflated.

I particularly like his thoughts on why so many of us get it wrong. How much of what we acquire to be happy is actually only to impress other people and project positivity for their benefit? What is our aim, and personal measure, of what happiness means?

You could also define positivity more as:

Instead of wanting what we don’t have, shifting our desires so we want what we already have is truly positive.

He also references the Stoics, and the idea that:

…there are things in your life that you are in control of, and there are things in your life you aren’t in control of; and the only things you are really in control of are your thoughts and your actions.

Everything else is subject to outside influence. What other people do, think, how they act, what happens to them, what the world does to all of you, is outside your sphere of control. You may or may not influence it; but influence is not control, and in an age of “influencers” it’s important to remember this.

So in this context, positivity can simply mean a pragmatic decision that everything you cannot control is ok – not good, not bad, but just there – because you simply can’t control it. And you have to let that sense sink in; mere words are not enough for comprehension. Constructively change yourself positively, but don’t lose sight of reality.

Positivity, Optimism, Happiness, Fulfillment

It is extremely important to differentiate between these, more than ever now we’re bombarded with a conflation of them constantly through social media and work.

We’ve looked at what Positivity is; Optimism, on the other hand, is more concerned with not being worried about the negatives in a situation, a mental attitude reflecting a belief or hope that the outcome of some specific endeavor, or outcomes in general, will be positive, favorable, and desirable, regardless of evidence. Optimism is usually a trait where you hope things will always work out well, where positivity is a choice. Optimism may then be responsible for blindness to realities or problems, because it’s often a refusal to accept they matter – or even exist.

Happiness, on the other hand, can come from enjoying short-term experience, or long-term fulfillment/satisfaction (I’m defining happiness fairly simply here). In Derren’s video he mentions Daniel Kahneman speaking of the experiencing self and the remembering self: if you are given a choice between doing something really fun or doing something meaningful, which one would you say would make you happier?

Many people will often pick the fun activity because the experiencer will be catered to at the time. But the rememberer will look back at the meaningful activity instead, and the chances are you will keep more of a profound, deep sense of happiness from that; in other words, you are more likely to find real fulfillment.

Another way to consider it is short-term gain requires a constant re-buzz, whereas long-term satisfaction sustains you.

Ask yourself; are you being optimistic, genuinely positive, or toxically positive to achieve happiness – and which of these really fulfills you?

The conflation of these terms and our lack of awareness of these two selves shows most of us have a very poor understanding of what really fulfills us a lot of the time; and until we experience something traumatic enough to force a reframe outside our set mental patterns, we probably won’t gain a new perspective.

Trying to fulfill ourselves by “patching” or “hacking” with quick quotes and memes is anywhere near as useful as a genuine depth-of-character change. That short dose of inspiration doesn’t last, but a profound memory does.

But what about expectations around being positive?

Societal and business demands for Yes! Can-Do! and other immediate “positives”

This is something we do a lot. Removing significance from everything non-positive as simply “negative” is profoundly damaging, and these demands from establishments or other people can become quickly ingrained. They ignore reality, and tie straight into the short-term fulfillment and experiencing self mentioned above. They invalidate any concerns or emotions, and demand intrinsic optimism regardless of consequent cost. Once you set this as a pattern, like any other habit humans create, it’s hard to break.

I made a video on the “can-do” attitude a few months ago:

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And again, in context, the concept of can-do and not being immediately negative is great – it gives clients confidence, it sets initial goals, and much more. But too often we see can-do as a substitute for able-to-do. It’s not enough to just say yes if you can’t achieve things. That’s not positive; it’s disingenuous (and from 22 years in DevOps, it’s something I have seen an awful lot in tech!).

A short story: I was once asked to write a technical presales proposal for a current customer; my first draft was very technical and not dressed up. I was told it was too negative, and they wouldn’t buy it – which is fine, you have to highlight benefits. So I rewrote it. It was returned again. I was to remove anything even remotely negative, meaning that any realistic cautions would be ignored. I reluctantly complied, objecting on the grounds that proposing this just to get a sale would mean an implementation standing an unacceptably high risk of falling over within 3 months. I was told we’d worry about it then and to just fulfill it now, and also to rewrite again and remove anything even neutral.

At this point, it seemed ridiculous – to sound positive enough to get a quick sale, a technical consultant was being asked to essentially write a marketing document which was false and high-risk to the solution and the long-term reputation of the company (also, since I would implement it as well, I stood a high chance of being blamed when it almost inevitably fell over). This is a great example of toxic business positivity. There was no balance, realism, or care; it was false-positive to achieve a short-term, selfish singular goal.

There is no point in saying yes to everything you’re asked in life, because you simply can’t deliver it all.

Yes-ing is also a problem internally for leadership because it leads to sycophancy and a ungrounding from reality for leaders making decisions; this isn’t positive. It’s harmful. Having auto-validation is an extremely bad thing – in business, in friendship, in life in general.

Before you automatically condemn something as “negative”, take a reality check and look to see if it it, in fact, constructive and realistic – and if it IS, you stand a good chance of being immersed in a toxically positive atmosphere that is detrimentally skewing decision-making.

Remember: you can approach a realistically negative situation in a positive manner!

It isn’t just actions and situations that positivity is demanded in, however: emotions are perhaps a far more important area where we make unrealistic demands. I’ll go deeper into the harmful side of memes when they suppress valid emotional negativity with examples in Part 3, but first I want to go deeper into why suppressing negative emotion is terrible for our mental health.

The denial of non-positive emotion

This is one of the most harmful possible outcomes of toxic positivity. When someone is fake-happy, positive-toxic, it’s actually invalidating themselves and others. The demands of toxic positivity can lead us to do four terribly harmful things:

  1. Minimalise valid concerns and feelings, leading to saying our big problems “aren’t big at all” because all we have to do is “stop being negative”
  2. Comparing and contrasting issues, fostering a belief that all our emotions and circumstances can be ranked on a shared scale – that we all experience our troubles and feelings in exactly the same way regardless of context
  3. Negativity shaming, which denigrates and excludes people socially because they aren’t bubbly, happy and at ease all the time. This dismisses natural, valid emotions and forces faking positive vibes to the point you refuse to acknowledge anything less than excessive happiness, and also marginalises personalities, cultures, neurologies, and more
  4. Repressive behaviour control, where we deny our own feelings to fit in and not be outcast – important enough that we would rather risk our own mental health than be perceived as being negative. By using 2) to say “we don’t have it that bad”, we try to hide our emotions when we think the cause is too small

Of course, some issues are genuinely more minor than others, but when you look at them from a point of view of trauma rather than just negativity, it changes perspective somewhat. We all experience trauma differently.

Toxic positivity tells us it’s not okay to feel down, especially if the rest of your life is going great. This isn’t right. No one should feel like they have to hide their true emotions because society plagues us with this artificial idea of a happy, positive life, especially online.

This is especially hard-hitting when you consider how many people suffer from real depression, bi-polar and other personality disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, or traumatic events. Invalidating neurology, chemical imbalance, or personal trauma is hugely damaging, and we do it to ourselves as much as others with this constant air of “just be happy!”. This is terribly insidious – tendrils of it touch male mental health, suicide, female mental health, dismorphia, dissatisfaction, burnout, and so much more.

In addition to that, we’re not even addressing the source of this negativity in a realistic fashion, but marginalising it in favour of just somehow becoming positive.

Genuine positivity is finding constructive ways to get the best out of a situation.

Work is a prominent example. Many of us know how damaging is it to us to feel trapped in a career we may not like (up to 85%). Simply demanding you feel happy or make a change doesn’t fix it – some people have no other job to go to for supporting their family, or may be too anxiousor stressed for a host of reasons. So the answer may well be to change job – and for some an inspirational sudden change may well work, but not for everyone.

We then also look at corporate culture issues like praise addiction where we demand positive praise to the point where it doesn’t matter if we have earned it or not as long as we feel good and get a bonus, or we look at the demands in companies to accolade others to the point of it being almost policy, and the web becomes ever more entangled. Toxic positivity is everywhere.

Again, this isn’t defending toxic negativity – far from it. But rather than getting advice on mental health from the average life coach, it’s worth talking to psychologists and psychiatrists who have to deal with the mental health fallout and who actually know about this.

So should we be negative?

Everything needs context. We should be negative where appropriate in its many meanings, because we’re human. Sometimes that means being realistic. Sometimes it means being sad. Sometimes it means not invalidating the experiences or situations of others. Being human is about balancing and fluctuating between many states, including positivity and negativity.

If we didn’t have the negatives to deal with, we wouldn’t have a basis for comparison for being positive. Demanding we simply remove it all wholesale from our lives is therefore ridiculous.

 “Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.”

Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

All this means accepting that the negative is also part of us, that it can ground us, balance us, and that it can be constructive and appropriate – and thus actually positive in context!

In part 3, How to be Positive 3, we will summarise and take a look at examples, things we can do, and ways forward.

How to be Positive 1: Positivity

I’ve been meaning to post on this subject for some time, as I think it is extremely important to have a conversation about, both personally and professionally.

Now, before I start, I’ll be very clear – positive mental attitudes and mindsets are invaluable. Finding the positive outcomes and lessons in any possible situation is also invaluable. These enable us to move forward, be productive, and enable growth.

But as with everything I speak about, there must be both context and balance, and both are now often lacking in our daily drive to be positive.

Let’s explore what positivity is, how it can be both beneficial and surprisingly damaging, and what we can do to maintain that context and balance, and use it to help instead of harm.

As this is extremely important to understand, it’s in-depth over 3 parts – and a little contentious in places.

Positivity is Positive!

It is critical to clarify what these articles deal with. Positivity is not only one thing, although it’s often referred to as such, and here I look at the current societal focus on positivity as a set of concepts and a choice.

Just say yes! Don’t be negative. Can-do! Always focus on the good. Don’t let the negatives drag you down! Life throws things at you, you have to laugh and move on! Laugh, and the world laughs with you; cry, and you cry alone. Surround yourself with positive people! If you stay positive, good things and good people will be drawn to you. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade! Could be worse. Always someone worse off than you. Don’t limit yourself!

“If you are positive, you’ll see opportunities instead of obstacles.” – Confucius

There are a thousand things said in every culture about being positive, especially during times of hardship. We revere and tell inspirational stories about people who achieve this state, often quite rightly. Humans are curious in that when suffering problems we often don’t just get on with surviving, as many animals do, but actively look for ways to still fulfill ourselves where possible; to consciously push through hardship with a smile and find some joy.

Anyone who knows me personally or professionally will tell you I’m a positive person, but I strive to be genuinely positive.

Genuine Positivity is based in empathy and connection, in acceptance and opportunity. Finding ways forward whether the situation is good or bad, and being thankful for what you have; this is positive. Learning from hardship, sharing and laughing with others whatever is happening, accepting yourself mind and body; these are positive. Positivity helps us Dream Big even when we feel we exist small. It helps us find some peace and contentment whatever our situation. And it helps us achieve things we would otherwise consider impossible from self-limitation.

Positivity requires meaning.

True positivity is supportive, sharing, constructive, and beneficial to ourselves and others. It is deliberately applied in context to the person and situation, which helps align you with the universe at large.

Modern positivity is often considered to have derived in part from Stoicism; that is, seeing situations in the most positive light possible and looking for the good in them for the best ways forward. But positivity is also widely being mistaken for something a lot less beneficial, and I see it not just used and said across LinkedIn and other social media, but also demanded within companies and lives as if it’s a hidden policy (this is actually often a Dark Constraint as defined in Cynefin by Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge – positivity is actually a very complex, dispositional area).

In fact, that’s one reason I think positivity as a concept is so popular; in Cynefin terms, positivity is a form of certainty, and it helps avoid the panic-inducing negativity of not knowing what to do, alongside potential physiological responses (feelgood hormones et al). In that respect, positivity provides direction and stimulus, which is good.

Unfortunately, I believe we are actually experiencing a subtle “perfect happiness” pandemic, much of it derived from the relatively new awareness of mental health and social media’s strong and constant influence, and our inability to balance their affects in our lives.

That sounds a little extreme – so let’s explore the idea.

Where can Positivity go wrong?

Positivity can become highly toxic in several ways, especially when generalised, and this can be very easy to mistake for genuine, beneficial positivity – especially online where context is naturally diminished through snippets of narratives. It can be spread anywhere people post words or images without applying them to someone or something through empathy, but instead for attention, for likes, to be heard instead of to listen. It can be spread anywhere people demand happiness through association, via attitude, to aid “hustle”, fulfilling requirements, or in just in general. It is a grey area – but it exists.

I can’t stress this strongly enough: I know people whose refusal to acknowledge negative emotions, or whose insistence on self-belief above pragmatism, has destroyed their lives and relationships, badly damaged their mental health, even led them to suicide. Toxic positivity is not an overreaction, nor is it a joke. It is dangerous and antithetical to society, individuals, and business.

I want to break down something we conflate all too often, here:

POSITIVITY does not automatically equal HAPPINESS, but we are often sold this concept. 

We have this subversive belief that we can force happiness through positivity; that we can use optimism to coast through any barrier; that simply by presenting the face of happiness, we can be fulfilled, or that the universe will align with us.

I said above that Genuine Positivity is based in empathy and connection, in acceptance and opportunity; Toxic Positivity is based in demand, selfishness, and lack of empathy or context. It isn’t supportive. It’s dismissive. It demands to be heard instead of listening and understanding. It says you must be happy, or at least appear happy, no matter what, especially for other people. It is invalidating. It is undermining. It is repressive. And it is incredibly damaging, especially because it’s become ingrained in society, business, and interactions.

It’s led to companies demanding that people and processes not be negative in any way. It’s led to people portraying perfect lives on social media, even as they suffer from mental health problems behind the influencing. It’s led to men “putting a brave face on things” to be unemotional and strong, to entertainers trying to cope with pressure using drugs to because the show must go on. It’s led to quotes and memes being applied to everything, with only a brief dopamine release from gathering “likes”. It’s led to people feeling that they can’t find support from others so as to not commit the social faux-pas of “bringing them down”. It’s led to people focusing so much on finding the good that they don’t deal with or even sometimes acknowledge the bad at critical moments.

There are a number of things that define Toxic Positivity, which inhibits success as much as extreme negativity, and I want to look at these in more detail.

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Identifying Toxic Positivity

There are a number of ways to identify whether something is genuinely or toxically positive.

“Toxic positivity is ‘pushing down’, denying, or minimizing negative or uncomfortable emotions (and actually, a person’s experience or reality)”

Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP licensed professional counselor

Toxic positivity is a genuine, widespread psychological issue, and it operates at a societal level. More than ever, people are seeking happiness, but you can’t gain that by repressing or ignoring the other parts of your life.

This dark side to positivity comes in many forms:

  • The promotion of belief in oneself being the sole factor to achieving a perfect goal
  • Conflating optimism (a trait), positivity (a choice), and happiness (a feeling of enjoyment/satisfaction/fulfillment)
  • Deliberate ignorance of long-term consequences in favour of short-term gain
  • Demands for Can-Do attitudes, hustle, “just say YES and fulfill later” in business
  • The removal of all emotive response that isn’t totally positive from yourself and others
  • The pursuit of perfection
  • A refusal to acknowledge reality (denialism)
  • An insistence on labelling all “non-positives” as “negative” (a form of emotional self-gaslighting)

I’m sure you can think of others. In context, any or all of these could be detrimental or beneficial. All too often, they are blanket applied.

But surely, I hear you cry, belief in yourself, setting a goal that is a dream, and working towards that is what we should do?

Yes – absolutely. Direction, removing limiting self-beliefs, and achieving our full potential are what we should strive for.

The power of self-belief and following your dreams is immense.

But you also have to be constantly mindful of reality and context; for every person who achieves their dream, someone equally hard working and focused doesn’t, because not everyone starts from the same line at the same time. Life can – and does – get in the way. Some people’s dreams are simply unattainable, and you can actually harm yourself by ignoring opportunities that are better and more attainable in pursuit of perfection. This is inattentional blindness to the nth degree; the treating of life – a complex, unordered situation – as ordered.

Achieving your full potential doesn’t automatically equal being able to do anything at all no matter how unrealistic!

The other danger is that these goals may be achievable, but at what cost? Burning out is not a cost worth paying – I should know, it’s happened to me twice. Achieving something positive even if it breaks you is still a negative. I’ve written about burnout elsewhere, but it’s linked to this, too.

Spreading and connecting Positivity

I’ve mentioned memes and quotes, so I also want to break down in more detail how these can be positive – and not so positive. Bear in mind, I’m not talking about humour; I’m talking about something specifically designed to promote “positivity”.

Many of us struggle for meaning, or have experienced hardship. We want to find or share comfort and support. And that is great. I have no problem with feelgood stuff; I love it. It makes me, well… feel good! Watching someone rescue an animal, watching a little girl dance with her disabled brother, reading a quote or personal story that touches my core and reminds me of the good or profound, that we can move forward and find our way; all of these and many more are good things that can bring some light to our day.

What is less beneficial is the casual posting of positive memes and quotes, especially ones that are essentially meaningless and vague. Many of these are really well-meaning, and designed to tap into the general idea of being positive, but a generic post can be at best an attempt to salve a deeper sense of anguish, and at worst a replacement for actually constructively dealing with problems. I’d rather have genuine support from a connection or friend in context than a generic, borderline toxic “you got this” or “it will get better”. I don’t like hearing “trust the process” unless it’s very specifically applied, either, because not everyone who trusts the process ends up achieving – this links to the unwavering self-belief I mention in part 2. Because of human nature and the dopamine hit they provide us, these posts often end up getting higher engagement than genuine, applicable and beneficial content, which isn’t always a good thing, either for us long-term or the algorithms within the social media platforms. It can end up saturating our attention.

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I genuinely get why we all love these, myself included, and I certainly think they have a place on, say, LinkedIn. It’s so easy to post a quick quote that has some meaning, maybe pop up a decent picture, and especially on LinkedIn people want motivation. But whilst it’s encouraging, it can also be habit-formingly lazy, and lead to carelessness as long as we post and get engagement.

The number of us who genuinely know what we’re doing is probably nonexistent, especially in business, because life is complex and we’re all feeling our way. And although these casual posts can be part of the problem, these still aren’t nearly the worst part. The problem creeps further when people use a feelgood or inspirational meme or quote that has zero relevance to what they’re posting, just to gather likes, or spew buzzwords to sound positively profound when they are talking nonsense (and I have seen a number of people do this and get worshipped for it daily!). Posts designed as positive purely for the manipulation of algorithms, likes, or literal rubbish posts for the sake of it are much more problematic; they use this deep need for positivity to disingenuously gain influence, engagement, and visibility.

I see so much quality original content on social media, so many genuine stories and meaningful posts, and I find it frustrating when much higher engagement results just from posting an empty, random quote that isn’t even verified. It happens when people are pushing the “influencer” idea rather than actually being a genuine thought leader, and it makes me uncomfortable because it strengthens this falsity that people, desperate to find more meaning, buy into wholesale.

If the only goal is to “influence” and be seen to do so rather than genuinely be positive and enhance people’s lives, that is toxic behaviour. Dave Snowden estimates that within ~9 months any system becomes subject to gaming behaviour; add dopamine hits and self importance to that, and then drop in some narcissism or attention seeking, and it’s far worse. By far the most alarming is the advice from some major influencers, which can be very damaging and dangerous, being spread as positive just because they have influence and it has the right buzzwords or delivery to sound inspiring, not from any substance or evidence.

This is a subjectively grey area because people often post with the very best intentions – but if you take a step back and really look around, it’s easy to see that this has become a movement that doesn’t always have substance behind it. People almost automatically applaud and spread anything that even sounds vaguely profound because we all seek profundity, certainty and meaning.

Next time you see or consider posting something like this, I’m not saying don’t – I love this stuff as much as the rest of us! But I’m suggesting that we perhaps consider the context, meaning, and whether it’s genuine or not. Is there thought and constructive positivity there? If in doubt, you can always check in with any number of excellent psychologists on here – they can tell you what is positive, or not! I mention a couple in the next parts.

Summing up the Positives

So, we need self belief, a positive mental attitude, and to find the best ways forward in any given situation; but we also need a pragmatic view, and to accept that even achievable goals can change (or become even better), that we can’t control everything in life, and that – moment to moment – we have a choice. We can be supportive, use profound meaning to inspire and give hope, and encourage others on their own paths. There are many things we can and should do to find fulfillment, but we must do them with meaning, empathy and support, in context to the situation. This is where I think positivity truly lies.

What we mustn’t do is apply an empty, inappropriate and meaningless veneer to situations and people, and repress anything that even hints of “being negative”, especially when it might be beneficial to be mindful of evidence in reality. Not only does this not achieve what we hope for, but it causes serious problems. In a time when we are more aware than ever of our mental health, it’s worth considering this:

As you can’t cure all physical problems just by exercising, you can’t cure all mental health problems by trying to force happiness.

In part 2, How to be Positive 2: The Negative, I’ll delve deeper into some of the dark side points above, and explore the two meanings of “negative” a little more.

Be positive – but make it genuine!