Carrot or stick: which is more effective?
We have a saying in our family: you catch more flies with honey, which roughly translates as you get more done and get more of what you want if you’re nice.
As I’ve got older I’ve become far grumpier, more incredulous when people are idiotic and generally less tolerant. My gravestone will probably read: Never suffered fools gladly. Well at least I hope it does.
Nevertheless I still believe in our family saying – being positive is a pleasant way to live your life. But as I’ve dialled up the grump factor in recent years, I’ve started to wonder whether the most effective among us are optimists or pessimists.
Michelle Blum, executive general manager NSW/ACT, Australian Institute of Management, says both grumps and grinners can be productive team players, although management research supports the idea that positive people with positive energy are more creative, productive and have higher job satisfaction.
“Positive people are generally better at getting things done. They can also drive others to achieve,” says Blum.
“When you have positive energy, a sense of urgency and the feeling in the business that staff are cared for, people want to be part of things and are more focused and driven, which translates to better outcomes for organisations,” she adds.
Blum also notes that not everyone can be positive all of the time – everyone has bad days. She says if someone is negative, managers need to understand what’s behind it and how to harness that energy.
“You have to understand if someone is being negative because of stress or problems at work or personal issues. Some people are also just more results-focused and optimistic, and some people need to learn how to be more like that, which you can do through formal training.”
But online business guru Janak Patel says there’s nothing wrong with being grumpy. “Negative motivation really helps push me to do what needs to get done. Right now I am creating marketing campaigns and busy writing course content for my business and on a tight deadline. I am under a bit of stress and I guess grumpy, but it is helping me and pushing me to get things done.
“I think being positive has its place, but being grumpy or stressed actually pushes me to go further as it creates tension and a surge of emotions to get going.”
Twenty-one-year-old Ash Davies, founder of Tablo, an online-publishing platform and writing community, has found being too positive can actually backfire in business.
“In early investor updates I'd paint a picture where everything was perfect. I was always truthful but I'd twist our challenges to sound positive. I wanted to keep our investors happy, but they felt like they weren't getting the full picture,” says Davies.
“I quickly learnt to speak in a more blunt, transparent tone. I now use more numbers than words, talk about what's good, talk about what's bad, and we're making so much more progress as a result. Running a company is messy, and if you mask your problems they're more likely to hurt you.”
Author, trainer and public speaker Pam Brossman says both approaches can be effective. “My 'no fluff' attitude certainly has not hindered my success. I know plenty of positive people still struggling and who also get taken advantage of. I take a no-nonsense approach to training. If someone says to me, ‘I can’t find time to write my book, I am falling behind’, instead of being warm and fuzzy I’ll say ‘Make it a priority, or don’t do it … excuses are for lazy people’.
“Some people see this as aggressive and that’s fine. But my clients love it. If it gets the results then that’s all that matters. I am the sort of person who makes people push through their boundaries by giving them the kick up the bum that no one else is prepared to give them.”
In her experience, Blum says people who play a ‘black hat’ role provide an important counterbalance to the more positive people in the business.
“You need to have that person who asks the challenging questions, the person who is more cynical about what you’re doing; it’s a really important role. It means you have to prove yourself and the business case behind your ideas, so cynical people can help a business perform better.”
Nevertheless, Blum says when people are energetic and passionate, it rubs off on those around them. “You become excited too; so there’s a limit to how much effect a ‘black hat’ can have – you need some of that dynamic, but you also need the positive people.”
What do you think? Do optimistic or pessimistic people achieve more in business?