Positivity Propaganda

By Susan Sportsman, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN

“Think positive” is a mantra that we all say to ourselves as a way to move forward toward a goal.  We are attracted to people who see the world in a positive way, who view challenges as a positive opportunity, and who see the struggle as something to enjoy.   As someone who came from a family of storytellers who believed there was no life experience that couldn’t be made into a funny story, I absolutely believe that thinking positively—and laughing a lot—is the attitude to choose.

So why is this blog titled “Positivity Propaganda?”  Despite my bias toward being positive, working as a group facilitator has taught me that focusing on the positive at the expense of acknowledging challenges may hinder the process of improvement.  Let me give you an example.

I was working with a group whose leaders had a clear vision to which they were committed.  The group had been working toward this goal for some time and had “moved the needle” closer to their “hoped-for” outcomes.  Now it was time to recommit to the goal and my job was to facilitate the discussion regarding next steps.  As the discussion progressed, several of the members described some challenges that continued to perplex and disturb them. They felt that these challenges were present throughout the project sites, and they could not seem to get past them.  As the facilitator, I knew my job was to help this group explore these challenges in order to figure out ways to overcome them. So I acknowledged the challenges and led the group toward addressing them.

The leaders asked me to disregard the challenges that had been identified and move the discussion toward positive steps required to reach the ultimate goal. They indicated that they did not want to encourage negative thinking because their group was known for using positive energy to achieve their goals.  It occurred to me that in this situation, the commitment to being positive without addressing the negative influences in a situation was not using positive thinking as a guide for action.

Instead, this emphasis on suppressing negativity seems to be designed to create the impression that all challenges have been overcome. This approach can be considered a form of propaganda, rather than positive thinking. Positivity Propaganda gives the impression of progress. Positivity Propaganda misleads rather than motivates (Pruitt, 2017). In my experience, if an organization does not boldly acknowledge their challenges, any unspoken negativity will remain and prevent any chance of success.

This concern about “overlooking” challenges in the interest of projecting a positive persona has influenced the approach that Collaborative Momentum Consulting uses to help clients achieve their goals.  We use the proprietary VCST™ approach as a framework for problem solving with our clients:

  • Define the Vision(or outcome) you would like to achieve.
  • Identify the Challenges that stand in the way of accomplishing this vision.
  • Develop Strategies to overcome the challenges.
  • Develop Tactics to implement the strategies that are developed.

How is this process different from other problem solving approaches?  Most problem solving approaches focus on developing goals or objectives that describe steps toward successful achievement of the vision.  The strategies and tactics are then designed to meet the objectives.  In the  VCST™ framework, the focus is on identifying challenges that may prevent the achievement of the vision.  The strategies and tactics are then specifically focused on overcoming those challenges that may prevent the vision from becoming a reality. This approach has proved to be successful in a wide range of situations, from a community-building project in small villages in the Philippines to educational strategy sessions across the country.

Let’s explore why the VCST ™ framework is different from the process described in the example above.  Consider your own experiences in overcoming challenges.  Challenges exist because, more often than not, there are overt and covert forces that maintain the status quo. Until these forces are identified and addressed, status quo will remain.  Skillful facilitation can help the group tease out challenges so that the strategies and tactics can be designed SPECIFICALLY to overcome them.  Only then can you be confident that these challenges will no longer impede your progress.  Even if the challenges remain (and often they do), acknowledging their ongoing presence allows the group to plan “work-around” approaches that may lessen their influence.

Thinking positively helps all of us act in a positive manner, which can be important in encouraging us to move forward our goals.    However, overlooking challenges in exchange for projecting positivity to others will not help you reach your goal.  So, when you want to move forward toward a goal, identify AND address those challenges that face you; doing so improves your chance of success.  Besides, overcoming those challenges makes for some really good stories!



(Pruitt, ZS, Personal communication, September 26, 2017)


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