Is it cool to be negative?

On February 4th 2019, I woke up to a social media blitz of posts that were mostly variations on the same theme: “Worst Super Bowl ever” and “Worst Super Bowl halftime show ever”. In case you are living under a rock, Super Bowl LIII (53) pitted the young, high-scoring Los Angeles Rams offense against the dynastic New England Patriots. The Patriots won their 6th championship of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era by a score of 13-3.

The low-scoring affair was panned as “boring”. If you ask people, watching the Patriots win their 6th championship in 9 appearances, was a painfully dull affair. Coupled with the game itself, the half time show was criticized for a lackluster performance by the topless and heavily tattooed Adam Levine, lead singer of the band Maroon 5.

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This is just one instance that I have seen lately of collective negativity on social media. Lately, I have noticed it more and it is contagious.

The more I have been exposed to sources of negativity, the more I found myself being more critical and negative at work. Colleagues would ask me for my opinion on one thing or another and I often heard myself expressing a negative perspective with a message like, “that will never work” or “that will never happen”. In my own experience, I try to avoid people who tend to have a negative outlook because I find it to be de-energizing. But with negativity being so pervasive on social media, I had to ask: Is it cool to be negative? Why do we reward negative behavior?

In my research, I found an article in the Harvard Business Review by Dr. Eileen Chou, a professor at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia entitled, Why We’re Drawn to Leaders Who Emphasize the Negative. In her article, Chou presented studies that show that people are drawn to negative rhetoric more than they are to positive, citing human psychology and social hierarchy as an explanation. For example, she hypothesizes that negative leaders seem more independent, so we are more likely to follow them.

However, she concludes that human fondness of negativity in leaders may not last in the long run. Perceptions of leaders can change over time and someone who is simply negative about everything may seem unreasonable.

I remember interacting with someone very early in my career who was consistently negative about new ideas. It was my first exposure to the strong tide of, “We tried that once and it didn’t work” and “But we’ve always done it this way”. At the time, I remember respectfully responding, “I am not interested in the 10,000 ways something will not work, but I am interested in the 1 way it can”.

I still believe in that sentiment. I believe that anything can be solved with the right team working on it for the right reasons. However, the pull of negativity is psychologically strong and we are increasingly surrounded by it on social media. We have to accept it as a tactic that online influencers will sometimes use to build up their brand and followers.

Since society is moving us towards negativity, it is up to us to act:

First to be aware of it.

Second, we should understand and filter it. Understanding it entails deciding whether it is a genuine perspective or just click-bait negativity. If it is a genuine perspective, we should ask for more detail to learn about it. We should challenge our assumptions as to whether someone is a negative person, or is expressing constructive criticism or caution because the latter who are important to hear. Over-optimism can lead to group-think and that be damaging too. If the remarks are click-bait negativity, filter it by ignoring it and moving on.

Third and finally, for major business decisions, leaders should always be scenario planning for the multiple outcomes using tools like the Implications wheel.

Glorifying the negative can have damaging effects on organizations and societies. Practicing reflection and self-awareness can go a long way. Even something as simple as saying, “I am not sure” rather than defaulting to a negative point of view can be empowering. Staying positive may be tough, but it is an important leadership trait and hallmark to keep the energy and motivation up in your team.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Staying positive is difficult and being attracted to negativity is rooted in human psychology. Through awareness, understanding, filtering, and scenario planning, we can hear constructive criticism, take caution, and understand negative outcomes in a helpful context.

Systems and Processes

A few weeks back I wrote about the importance and power of having a well-defined vision. While it is necessary to craft a vision statement that people can understand and follow, that in itself is not sufficient.

Without a way to bring the vision to life that can be understood and acted upon by others, the leader is in essence the pilot of a plane with no stairs or jetway to actually get followers on board or let alone any fuel to get it moving towards its envisioned destination.

Systems and processes are the ways to get people on board and collectively helping reach the envisioned destination.

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Some people in formal leadership roles think that directives are all it takes to get people to do what they say. If only it were that simple, leadership would be far easier. Instead a far more complicated and nuanced approach is necessary, one that combines the best of psychology, marketing, discipline, and repetition.

I think these two quotes from Kevin Kelly sum up the idea of balance between vision and empowerment well:

“The first thing I told our staff is that we would be in command and out of control” -Kevin Kelly (from Blink by Malcolm Gladwell)

Without some element of governance from the top, bottom-up control will freeze when options are many. Without some element of leadership, the many at the bottom will be paralyzed with choices.” – Kevin Kelly

In excellent service-oriented businesses, systems and processes are designed to make sure that the directives from the “command” part of the organization are followed in a customized and adaptable manner at the customer level. Under this model, being “in command” means setting a vision and creating systems that are memorable, exciting followers to achieve the vision, while empowering them with the autonomy to adapt processes and customizing approaches that align with the vision.

Football provides a helpful example: San Francisco 49ers Coach Bill Walsh is credited for creating an offensive system called, “The West Coast Offense”.

The basic system for the West Coast Offense was clear and memorable to everyone, “Control the ball through the short pass, always looking for the big play.”

The West Coast Offense is the system. The coaches and players created processes to make the system work. The video above shares the intentional processes needed to be successful in making the West Coast Offense work.

In the video, players describe Bill Walsh’s obsession with the quarterback’s (QB) footwork. Each play was timed by the QB’s footwork. For instance, when the play called for the QB to drop back 3-steps, the QB had to complete those three steps at the right cadence, because if he moved too quickly, the wide receiver (WR) would not be open yet to catch a pass. On the other hand, if the QB moved too slowly, the WR would be covered again and would still not be open to catch the pass. The QB’s steps were part of a process that made sure the QB and the WR were able to connect and communicate during the course of the game.

Walsh famously scripted the first dozen or so plays of every game, creating additional processes for his players to implement to further the success of his West Coast Offens system.

While Walsh was incredibly involved in the planning aspect of the work, he never was out on the field playing. He needed the plays and nuances (processes) to work in a way that the players could follow and execute. The processes were only viable because Walsh had the vision (win a Super Bowl), a system (the West Coast Offense), and processes (QB footwork, practices, scripting plays etc). All three of these aspects are not only important, but necessary for excellence.

Too many organizations in the service sector begin immediately with process and control through scripting without establishing the vision or system. For the front line team members, all this creates is a very long script of disparate tasks that seem isolated due to a lack of a system and therefore difficult to remember. So much more is possible through establishing direction, a clear system or philosophy to reach that direction, and empowerment.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Start with vision, then move to systems, then processes. Leaders in business often must be in command to meet objectives, but cannot create a service-oriented culture through processes alone. Empowerment is essential to creating processes that work and are sustainable. 

Oreo, Omaha. Icing, Pittsburgh. Ready? Go!

I hope you enjoy this special, Thanksgiving day, blog post!

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The challenge: You have 20 minutes to advocate for, explain, and practice a brand new way of doing an activity. After that, you will engage competitively with another group for an hour. The goal is to win.

Every year, I face this challenge at the Paul Blank Invitational Football Game (otherwise known as PBI). The PBI is an annual tradition, where alumni from my high school get together to play football on Thanksgiving. What started out modestly as a backyard game, has evolved considerably to include a live scoreboard, a DJ, professional photographer, national anthem singer, and halftime entertainment. Most importantly, the game has raised thousands of dollars over the years for a local charity.

Preparation has become quite serious too and the challenge gets harder every year we age, for obvious athletic reasons.

Frustrated by the disorganization of the play-calling, the lack of a general game plan, and limited playing opportunities, I took it upon myself to design a system that would help our team communicate quickly and simply. I spoke to friends of mine who had played football on the D1 college-level and watched YouTube videos like this one:

What I found was that teams created short-hand, coded systems that communicated a great deal of information in a short amount of time. I thought it would be best to do the same, limiting time to huddle where much time was wasted on the field, not to mention how teams would usually get delay-of-game penalties in their first few drives due to their lack of organization and having worked together as a team before.

The system I put together went like this:

We will use the same formation on every play:

    • 5 offensive linemen
    • 2 wide receivers on each side of the field
    • 1 running back who would line up next to the quarterback
    • 1 quarterback
  • We would not huddle. The quarterback would call plays from the line using the following system:
    • For pass plays:
      • When the outside receivers heard the word “Oreo”, that would be their queue. The word to follow would tell them what type of passing route to run.
      • Routes were coded by the first letter of the name of a city.
        • For example: “Seattle” would mean run a slant route because the city name and the pattern name both start with the letter “s”
      • When the inside receivers heard the word “Icing”, that would be their queue. The word to follow would tell them what type of passing route to run.
      • To give an assignment to the running back: the quarterback would simply whisper to the running back either “block” or would tell them what kind of route to run.
    • For running plays:
      • Saying a word that started with the letter “R” like “Rudy” would mean a run to the right.
      • Saying a word that started with the letter “M” like “Martian” would mean a run to the middle.
      • Saying a word that started with the letter “L” like “Lucy” would mean a run to the left.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but using this system, we won games two years in a row by the scores of 33-20 and 54-12.

Here’s a look at the play sheet I put together for the system we created (Player Names Redacted):

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Other than re-living a brief moment of schoolyard-football glory, the point of the story is that we had success because we had a simple game-plan that allowed everybody on the team to understand and participate.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to create a system, context, the environment, and processes to empower our teams to understand what we are trying to accomplish and participate in helping to reach that goal. To do that work, I have found success not in micro-managing or overly prescribing check-lists or processes designed by people who are not customer-facing.

Instead, everyone on the team, or in the organization, must truly believe that they are essential and required partners to accomplished shared organizational goals. That work can be done through simplifying the objective and empowering people to accomplish it. The framework here was “Oreo, Omaha. Icing, Pittsburgh”, but the variations of occasionally huddling or sending a receiver in motion were the way the players on the field made it their own.

The results speak for themselves.

Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for reading!

KEY TAKEAWAY: Leadership is not as simple as having a title and giving directives. Getting the whole team passionately moving towards a common goal requires giving them a simple game-plan that they can understand, contribute to, and help achieve. Leaders are responsible for creating an environment of partnership with staff to achieve large scale organizational goals.