The concept of positive organizations, culture, and leaders is often misunderstood. It’s equated to happy-bunny fake smiles or being too soft on the slackers in your team or denial of life’s hard parts. Positive refers to a positive outlook on the problems in life and work, to being authentic (including bad days) and sustaining positive relationships based on trust.

If you want to know what a positive culture entails, check this earlier post

The counterintuitive wisdom in Mark Manson’s book The subtle art of not giving a F**k, shows the positive impact of negative things – and the negativity of fake, dogmatic positivity. Even though you probably know this, it might be an inspiring and connecting exercise to reflect on the problems, values, and metrics that make your team positive performers.

Happiness is a hamster wheel

Manson’s tone may be a little too popular, but he’s right when he says that we suffer from material success and abundance of choices in the modern world. There’s a lot of stress, anxiety or depression. Our problem is spiritual and existential: we have so many opportunities and stuff that it’s hard to know what matters most to us. We get distracted and overwhelmed.

At the same time, we feel bad about feeling bad while we have everything that our grandparents dreamed of. We also feel an obligation to be healthy, happy and successful because people share happy pictures on social media – we must keep up with the Jones’s, as happiness is the norm. It’s not easy to admit that we’re not perfect (not even to ourselves). But when we suppress or avoid what’s negative – we exacerbate the feeling. Positive leaders accept what’s bad – and look for ways to make it better. Happiness is not a state, but a verb. It means you have to do something. Maybe it’s even a hamster wheel: keep running to stay happy. Keep growing.

What problems do you pick?

Buddha concluded that life itself is a form of suffering. The rich suffer because of their riches, the poor suffer from their poverty, and so on.
Dissatisfaction and unease are necessary. It’s nature’s way of telling you to change something: to fight, to hide, to strive, to innovate, to survive. Negative emotions aren’t a bug in humans, but a call to action. Positive emotions are the reward for taking proper action (as solving a problem).

Problems will always be part of reality. The solution to a problem is often the creation of new problems. Thus, don’t hope for a life without problems: hope for good problems. Because here it is: Happiness comes from solving problems: not from avoiding them, denying them, or having them. You’re happy when you’ve found the problems you like to solve.

If you ask people what they want – you’ll get a list of what makes them feel good. That’s easy. We all want the reward and not the struggle; we love the result but maybe not the process to get to that result.
A better question is: “What pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for?”

Most people want the corner-office, make lots of money and travel business class – but not everyone wants the associated 60-hour workweeks, the jetlag, the corporate hierarchy, the endless meetings and hard decisions.
Pick your problems! A problem (and how you solve it) might become powerful instead of painful when you’ve chosen it.

Success and happiness are not determined by what you enjoy, but the battle you’re willing to pick. Your problems are stepping stones to your happiness – and to upgraded, better problems that you like to solve.

Here’s my suggestion if you want to build authentic relationships, and develop a positive culture with trust. Discuss the above with your team and ask them to share (if they’re up for it) what problems they like to solve? What struggle makes them proud and happy? What process do they love – regardless of the outcome?

What values and criteria do you pick?

If problems are inevitable, we can ask: “For what purpose do I want to suffer? What’s the Why I do it for?”
The Why leads to values. What do you value, and how do you measure that? Values come with criteria and norms. Criteria that determine if you achieve the value (good/bad, failure/success), norms for what and how to act, based on that value.

Pete Best was kicked out of the Beatles just before they became a success. He became depressed and started drinking, but eventually got on with his life and declared that he was happier than if he’d stayed part of the Beatles. He met his wife, had children and his values and metrics changed. He valued commitment, love, family life and succeeded by his own standards as a loving husband and family man.

Dave Mustaine was kicked out of Metallica, just when they signed a recording contract. He fought back and decided to take revenge by becoming very successful with his new band Megadeath. Mustaine succeeded as a musician. However, Metallica always did a little better – and by his own value and metric Mustaine was a failure. He valued rock start success, and his standard was Metallica’s success.

Problems may be inevitable, but the meaning of a problem is up to you. How do you measure if the problem is solved? By what standard do we measure and judge ourselves?
If you want to change how you see your problems, you have to change what you value and how you measure failure/success.

If you like, you can talk about this with your team: what are their values and the criteria?

Examples of bad values or goals, are: pleasure, material success, always being right, constant positivity. These are short term “highs”, in a way. In the long run, running a marathon makes you happier than eating chocolate cakes.
Good values or ideals are reality-based and within your control (not reliant on external factors).

Which of these values would you try?

Manson recommends five counter-intuitive values that might be beneficial. If you want to foster a growth mindset for yourself and your teams, you can reflect and talk about these five values – and if it resonates with people – focus on one of these values for the next week or month, and explore what it means and what happens. Or work with the below values in a teambuilding session.

Taking responsibility for everything that occurs in your life, even it’s not your fault. You don’t control everything that happens to you but you always choose how to interpret it and how to respond. Help yourself and your team see that.

Embracing uncertainty: acknowledge your ignorance and cultivate doubts about your beliefs; be open to new information and being wrong and learning. Ask yourself: Could I be wrong? What would it mean if I were wrong? Would being wrong create a better problem for myself and others?

Opening up to failure: the willingness to see your own flaws and mistakes and learn. When you fail a lot, you improve. When you’re unwilling to fail at something, you’re unwilling to succeed at it. Struggle is often part of a process that’s worth it. What are you willing to fail for? To learn what?

Cultivating rejection: hearing and saying no (to keep healthy boundaries) which means saying yes and commitment as well. To value X we must reject what is not that value: non-X. It means being okay with healthy conflict too, because it helps you see who is unconditionally with you and who’s there for the benefits and leaves as soon as there’s conflict over boundaries. Who can you trust?

Accepting death: and so, what will you do with your time? Without death, everything would be of equal value and this, inconsequential. Things would be endless, metrics void. Who would care? Death makes us care, in a way. What’s your priority? What’s the legacy you like to leave? What’s the meaning of your life when it ends – it something greater than yourself. What are you contributing to?

© Marcella Bremer, 2020. All rights reserved.