Have you ever found yourself in a meeting with someone who seems unable to say anything supportive, constructive, or uplifting? Any chance you’re the overly critical attendee? With this week being the 10th anniversary of the Saturday Night Live character Debbie Downer, it’s a good time to remind ourselves of the negative influence one person can have.
If you’ve never seen the sketch, Debbie Downer is, well, a downer. No matter what people say, she is able to find the pessimistic perspective. While everyone is excited about seeing Pluto at Disney, Debbie will say, “he’s probably in the early stages of heat exhaustion.” If someone orders a steak, she’ll comment on Mad Cow disease.
What makes a humorous SNL character does not necessary make a humorous co-worker. Negativity hampers creativity, employee engagement, and the overall culture of the workplace. As leaders, it is our responsibility to squash this behavior.
While the Debbie Downers you work with are focused on stagnating innovation., being positive is about moving the team forward. The “Debbies” try to shoot down every new idea with a “that will never work here” approach.
This does not mean that everyone needs to agree; in fact, dissent should be encouraged. But it should not be acceptable to criticize just for the sake of criticism. If someone on the team is only tearing apart ideas, enforce the rule that every negative comment must be followed with a solution. When someone presents a not-so-great idea, address it in a respectful manner. Explain why the answer is “no” and encourage the individual to bring more ideas once they’ve thought through the hitches.
A few other ideas from U.S. News & World Report include:
- Focus on strengths. Make every attempt to incorporate the areas in which you excel into everyday work life.
- Balance negatives. When feeling downcast, focus on successes.
- Practice “flexible” thinking. When considering a new challenge, explore numerous potential obstacles and generate alternative pathways to effectively manage them.
- Acknowledge steps to success. Identify and celebrate incremental goals along the way to help bolster energy levels and maintain focus.
In the 1950s, a music fad called “rock ‘n roll” swept the nation. At the forefront of this revolution was Sam Phillips, a record producer credited with discovering such legends as Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, and most notably, Elvis Presley. If you’re wondering how one man can have such an impact, he did it through innovation.
When Elvis first walked into Sam’s record studio to audition, his first inclination was to mimic his hero, Dean Martin. Elvis did a pretty good job replicating Dean’s voice, but Sam was not interested in imitation, he wanted innovation. Sam wanted artists who had an original sound. Thankfully, Sam gave Elvis another chance with the instruction that he needed to sing like himself.
In the book The Innovator’s Dilemma, the idea is presented that true success is not based on finding what the customer wants, but on what the customer does not yet know they want. It’s easy to fill today’s void, but are you thinking about the future? In 1950, no one knew that they needed rock ‘n roll…expect Sam Phillips. He saw the business potential and spread the word so everyone could experience it.
From the beginning I was very much interested in exploring some paths that had not been trodden and looking for the hidden possibilities. — Sam Phillips
Even after people got into this new wave of music, Sam continued to innovate. When Elvis left for a larger studio, Sam did not try to find another Elvis-like performer. He continued searching for people with distinct sounds. As leaders, when we lose a star performer, do we try to find someone exactly the same or are we considering people who might bring something a little different to the table?
Can you learn how to be more innovative? Sure. Here’s a simple two-step process.
- Do your research. Read industry magazines and websites. Join professional organizations. Network with other leaders. What you learn will be the basis for how you can envision what the future will hold.
- Do something about it. Leadership can be a lonely place; innovation does not have to be. Educate your team on the prospective threats and facilitate discussions to generate new ideas.
Innovation is how leaders provide value. It’s not a band-aid to temporarily resolve an issue. And it doesn’t happen by tweaking what past predecessors have already done. Being innovative involves recognizing trends and problems that are on the horizon and putting fresh practices into place today to ensure that you and your team are prepared.
When’s the last time you had to make a difficult decision? As leaders, we do this every day. The choices are not always clear cut and there is no rewind. So how do we make the best judgments possible? As Jason Reitman, the award-winning director of such films as Juno and Up In the Air, discussed in a recent interview, it takes resilience.
When Jason first started out, he was presented with two conflicting options that would determine the rest of his career. Either he could direct the move Dude, Where’s My Car, or continuing working on his passion project, Thank You for Smoking. Dude was a wacky, lowbrow comedy that already had funding and studio approval. For a first time director, Jason would have been guaranteed a wide release and a needed paycheck.
Instead, Jason chose to work on a movie that was close to his heart. There were no assurances that he would be able to collect the necessary funds to make it and Jason knew that it would never get the attention of a broad comedy. But Jason had the foresight and fortitude to be aware that this decision would define every movie that followed. If he made a mass-market slapstick, then that’s how he’d be known. Jason preferred to garner a reputation as a cultured, intellectual moviemaker and he has.
My father [Ivan Reitman, producer of such classics as Animal House and Ghostbusters] wants to take your favorite song and play it better than you’ve ever heard it before. I want to take your least favorite song and play it in a way that makes you love it.
In hindsight, Jason’s decision may seem obvious. I doubt it felt that way at the time. The book Resilience, Why Things Bounce Back defines resilience as the ability “to maintain core purpose and integrity among unforeseen shocks and surprises.” This involves a combination of optimism, creativity, and confidence. Like all leaders, he leaned on his resilience for the vision of what he wanted to achieve, the skills he possessed, and the hope that it would pay off.
So how do you build resilience? The American Psychological Association provides a few ideas:
- Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better.
- Move toward your goals. Develop realistic goals and do something regularly that enables you to move toward them.
- Keep things in perspective. Consider the situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective.
Not everyone in a leadership position dreamed of taking the helm. David Dunn was one such person. In the movie Unbreakable, David was thrust into a position of responsibility after being the lone survivor of a massive subway crash.
For most of his life, David had denied having superpowers – strength, resilience to injury, the ability to instinctively know whether someone was good or evil. His denial may have continued indefinitely, but David was confronted with a sadistic criminal who was hurting an innocent family. It was at this moment that David felt compelled to take action. It was at this moment that he became a hero.
David still wanted to live an ordinary life but he realized that he could no longer pretend to be like everyone else. Many leaders go through a similar experience. Some who did not willingly and/or consciously make the decision to lead were chosen because they had a reputation as being capable and trustworthy. Others were coerced because the situation demanded that someone take charge.
In the book The Art of Achievement Tom Morris wrote:
The best adventures in life need to be chosen, not from a predetermined menu based on what we’ve done already, but rather out of our deepest sense of who we are and how we can contribute to the world.
Regardless of how you’ve become the leader, once you’re in the job, success will be tied to your ability to affirm your role. This acknowledgment cannot be based on past accomplishments, but rather on your potential as a leader and your drive to use these skills to make a difference. This declaration takes a healthy ego, which is not to be confused with hubris. A healthy ego says, “I can do this,” whereas hubris is centered around feeling superior to others or entitled to the role.
If you don’t believe in your abilities, if you’re denying them the way David Dunn denied his superpowers, no one else will believe in you either. People need to feel like you have the confidence to lead. All the skills and abilities in the world don’t matter if the leader is wishy-washy and apprehensive.
If you’re still accepting the fact that you are a leader, ask yourself why you are the right person to lead the team. Why do other people look to you for guidance? Not sure why? Ask. There’s nothing wrong with digging into the skills you possess. It’s a great way to improve and grow.