Monday, November 8, 2010

Mandated Optimism

Pessimism and doubt are not the same thing.

Yet managers confuse the two, and they do so out of sheer self-interest. Managers need their employees to do things right. They need employees to follow the rules so things run smoothly, so they paint pessimists and those who express doubt with the same brush - thus encouraging a culture of compliance. Benito Mussolini 'needed' his people to do as they were told and often mandated optimism. After all, it's a lot easier to get people to follow the rules and do what they are told if they are smiling while they do it.

Real leaders never confuse the two. Not only do real leaders actively recognize the difference between the pessimist and the constructively doubtful, but they openly acknowledge and welcome those who are doubtful as invaluable members of the team. Real leaders need their people to do the right thing. While they understand that some form of compliance is necessary for real collaboration, they also get that compliance is grossly insufficient on its own. They need people to think for themselves and be constructively critical of both the status quo and change - thus encouraging a healthy culture of collaboration. Real leaders understand that no one of us is as smart as all of us, and that while mandated optimism may conveniently allow a system to perpetuate its own existence, it rarely properly serves the people who are the system. General Patton had it right when he said:

If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking.

So why is it that so many people grow up scared to death of 'rocking the boat'?

Perhaps the answer can be found in how we grow up?

What if some of our classroom practices are responsible for teaching children that being respectful actually code for being compliant?

Alfie Kohn writes about the disturbing messages that some classroom signs implicitly and/or explicitly send to kids:

“ONLY POSITIVE ATTITUDES ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT”: I’ve seen this poster on classroom doors in a public school in Minnesota, a Catholic school in Indiana, and a quasi-progressive Friends school in Massachusetts. Each time I came across it, I found myself imagining how its message might be reworded for satirical purposes. Once I came up with “Have a Nice Day . . . Or Else.” Another time I fantasized about secretly removing the poster at night and replacing it with one that reads “My Mental Health Is So Precarious That All of You Had Better Pretend You’re Happy.”

I’ve long been convinced that dark stuff sometimes lurks just behind the huge, brittle smiles and the voices that swoop into unnaturally high registers in front of little children. Even apart from the treacly style in which it’s often delivered, the compulsive tendency to praise kids when they do something helpful may reflect the pessimistic assumption that the action was a fluke: Children must be marinated in “Good job!”s whenever they happen to do something nice; otherwise they’d never act that way again. The more compulsive (and squeaky) the use of positive reinforcement, the bleaker the underlying view of children – or maybe of our species.
But back to the sign. Putting students on notice that their attitudes had better damn well be positive tells us less about what makes for an optimal learning environment than it does about the needs (if not neediness) of the person who sends this message. Kids don’t require a classroom that’s relentlessly upbeat; they require a place where they’ll feel safe to express whatever they’re feeling, even if at the moment that happens to be sad or angry or scared. They need a place, in other words, where negativity is allowed. Bad feelings don’t vanish in an environment of mandatory cheer -- they just get swept under the rug where people end up tripping over them, so to speak.[3] What you or I may describe as a negative attitude, meanwhile, may be an entirely appropriate response to an unfair rule, an intimidating climate, or a task that seems pointless or impossible. To exclude such responses from students is to refuse to think seriously about what may have given rise to their negativity.
Kids don't become good choice makers by following instructions; they need to be afforded the opportunity to make real choices...

...Kids don't become democratic citizens by being dictated lectures on democracy; they need to experience a democratic environment where their voices matter...

... and kids don't become critical thinkers who synthesize information in an imaginative and creative manner by being implicitly or explicitly told that they are only accepted when they are obedient.

If we utilize classroom management systems that place a premium on compliance (I'm look at you PBIS), how can we be surprised when our children (predictably) grow up unable to do the right thing because they are too busy doing things "the right way."

The best leaders among adults, and the best teachers among kids understand that mandating optimism will only encourage crude coercion to the exclusion of mutual respect, dialogue and ultimately democracy.

Barbara Ehrenreich enlightens us further:

What could be a better way of quelling dissent than to tell people who are in some kind of trouble such as poverty, unemployment, etc, that it's all their attitude. That all that has to change is their attitude. They should just get with the program. Smile and no complaining. This is a brilliant form of social control which by the way was practiced in the Soviet Union. One of the principles of Soviet Communism was OPTIMISM. This is a form of social control that is quite wide spread in totalitarian types of societies, but I think it has worked very well in America.

I think its worked well in the classroom too. Perhaps too well...


  1. An "optimism only" environment fails to allow people (of all ages) to grasp and grapple deeply with the rich landscape of emotional experience. I am a successful and hardworking person, and optimism certainly plays a powerful role in that, but it is by no means the only attitude I have toward work and life. At times, abject frustration, despair and melancholy have been my most powerful motivators. Your post made me wonder about whether or not I would be as productive, creative, and present had I not been raised by someone who understood the complexities of emotions and was accepting of all of them. As it happens, I am and have been most uncomfortable where attitude expectations are artificially imposed or mandated. If you look closely in any of these environments, rebellion and dissent brew just beneath the surface.

  2. “It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.” -Albert Einstein

  3. When dealing with challenging kids ' attitude ' is part of part of the problem.

    Where teachers get it wrong is saying 'that it's all their attitude.' or the kid is just ' choosing ' , he is making bad choices instead of looking at the ' system' and how teachers are contributing to the problem.


    I think that this saying (and ones similar to it) isn't looking for compliance, but more looking at the way we interact with one another. As an administrator, I always want to hear from those who do not agree with ideas, and I welcome debate, but I believe that it should be done in a way that is respectful of one another. You may be open to debate but not all are comfortable with it. If it is done in a way where we show respect for one another, while also being able to disagree with ideas, I think that we have a better chance of moving forward.

    All of these conversations are meaningless if trust is not evident. Take a look at the Barry Schwartz talk on "Practical Wisdom". I think it nicely coincides with some of the things that you are talking about in this post.

  5. I do understand what you're saying Joe, and George is right, too. As a teacher, you have to demonstrate everyday that in your classroom a difference of opinion is always valued and that with respect and creativity there is a solution to virtually every problem. A positive attitude does not preclude a contradictory view and a debate does not presume a situation without collaboration and resolution.

  6. I tend to agree with George on this one. I think it's al about respect. I'm not sure anyone can ever truly "mandate" what anyone thinks (my attitude), even if they are compliant on the outside. Debate and disagreement has never been an issue for me, however, how we debate and disagree I think is something we need to be positive/optimistic about; optimistic about the possibility of our different perspectives never getting personal or adversarial. I'm not sure any positive outcomes come from pessimism; doubt is healthy as long as the doubt is thoughtful and not just a superficial desire to disagree for the sake of disagreeing.


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