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The Weakness Of Positive Thinking

“When an upbeat management style becomes excessive, it wards off reality and asks for trouble.”

Is there such a thing as too much positive leadership?


According to this paper, which finds that a blind allegiance to organizational optimism lies at the heart of many of the financial miscalculations that drove the Great Recession. Countering the widely held view that positive thinking by leaders invariably challenges and inspires subordinates, the author coins the term “Prozac Leadership” to describe how optimism tends to resemble a well-intended but addictive drug: It promotes artificial happiness and discourages critical reflection, leaving companies ill equipped to deal with setbacks.


Drawing on an analysis of nearly 200 studies of leadership, positive thinking, and organizational dynamics, the author acknowledges that the ability of supervisors to be persuasive is a key skill, and that optimism is one of the most effective communication methods. In fact, leaders’ positive narratives and vision can be transformational, improving innovation and teamwork, especially when employees are part of the strategic dialogue and trust their bosses.


But several recent studies have critiqued the positive thinking movement, highlighting the negative personal and organizational effects that can result from “excessive optimism,” “irrational exuberance,” “gambling against the odds,” and the “tyranny of positive thinking.” In short, Prozac leaders can wind up believing their own narrative that everything is going well. As a consequence, they ask fewer and fewer questions and become deaf to feedback that is “off message,” leaving them, and their companies, dangerously insulated from economic and social realities.


Indeed, leaders’ upbeat perspectives are not always accepted or internalized by their followers, the author says, and Prozac leadership can generate a wide range of responses and types of dissent. In addition to outright whistle-blowing or quitting in protest, disenchanted employees can engage in less overt subversions such as absenteeism and foot-dragging, studies have shown, or simply be at odds with the dominant workplace culture, creating tension.


Of course, customers can also react negatively to hollow corporate promises, the author says, citing the case of a musician whose guitar was severely damaged in transit by a major airline that touted its customer service. After failing for nine months to convince the airline of its responsibility, the musician recorded a song about the incident that went viral on YouTube and became a public relations nightmare for the carrier.


Shareholders, too, can express resistance to Prozac leadership. A 2011 Study found that executives’ use of overly optimistic statements (especially in relation to corporate earnings) increased the firm’s risk of being sued by shareholders. In analyzing 165 lawsuits from 2003 to 2008, the Study found that the statements of sued companies were markedly more optimistic than those of similar firms that weren’t sued. In 91% of the cases, plaintiffs targeted optimistic language when bringing actions against a firm.

“Regardless of whether Prozac leadership is fuelled by wishful thinking, naivety, hubris or more deliberately manipulative motives (or a combination of these),” the author writes, “subordinates can perceive Prozac leaders to be contradictory, remote and unwilling to consult, and may dismiss their excessive optimism as insincere and manipulative.”

Bottom Line:
Leaders can become excessively positive, making them reluctant to listen to alternative viewpoints and leaving their firms unprepared to deal with unexpected problems. This so-called Prozac Leadership ultimately results in resistance from employees, customers, and shareholders.


By strategy+business



Title: Prozac Leadership and the Limits of Positive Thinking  [PDF]

Author: David Collinson (Lancaster University Management School)

Publisher: Leadership, vol. 8, no. 2

Date Published: May 2012

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