Organizational Culture - Signs You May Be a Prozac Leader

by Chris Young

What is your leadership style?

Are you positive?  Are you an "authentic leader"?

Does your culture have a strong focus on "being positive"? 

A recent research paper titled "Prozac Leadership and the Limits of Positive Thinking" by David Collinson, Lancaster University Management School caught my attention.  

Collinson uses the term "Prozac Leadership" as a metaphor to reflect how some leaders use positivity as a "recurrent way of enacting power, influence, and identity".   

I have always felt that positive thinking can be a powerful leadership and strategy.  But what happens when you have too much of a good thing like positive thinking?

I have met managers who are too positive for a particular situation or too positive in general.  I have seen the damage these people do to the future of their team and company.  I have also observed how their subordinates react and actually actively disengage and lose morale.Company Culture and Prozac Leadership

Collinson suggests...  "When taken to excess, positivity in the guise of Prozac leadership is characterized by several inter-related features."  These include:

  1. The reluctance of the leader to address difficult problems, a tendency to dismiss disturbing news and future difficult possibilities, leaving little or no space for more questioning perspectives.
  2. Rather than facilitate open communication, positive discourses can have disciplinary effects as Prozac leaders make it apparent to others that they prefer only positive upward communication.
  3. When positive narratives are disconnected from the economic and/or social realities of everyday life, it can create skepticism and suspicion with followers - thereby damaging trust, communication, and learning outcomes.  
  4. Excessive positive thinking reinforces the potential that leaders do not consider the ramifications of their decisions and actions.  This increases the potential that lessons will not be learned and mistakes will be repeated.  The result can be damaged perofrmance due to reduced trust, communication, learning, and preparedness.

The impacts can be significant.  Following is an excerpt from Collinson's paper sharing a potentially powerful example of the potential consequences of Prozac leadership.

Lewis (2010) examines the relentless optimism of Wall Street and its disastrous consequences. For example, he describes the ‘woo’ culture of high fives, motivational speakers and loud cheers at Countrywide Mortgage, where lending practices exemplified the reckless expansion of credit. After one Countrywide manager in 2004 questioned the assumptions of ever-rising house prices, he was told, ‘You worry too much.’ By insisting that subordinates’ upward communication is exclusively positive, Prozac leaders and the uncritical cul- tures they encourage can silence committed and concerned followers. In such contexts, subordinates learn that it may be advisable to comply with typical Prozac mantras such as ‘I only want to hear positive news’ and ‘Bring me answers, not problems’. In these circumstances, followers are likely to engage in positive impression management practices communicating the ‘good news’ that Prozac leaders favour/require. 

Take a moment to reflect.  Are you and/or your corporate culture "excessively positive"?  Are you eroding trust and confidence with your high performers because they believe you are not effectively dealing with reality nor reviewing all the facts in your decision-making?  Do you avoid bad news and only hear what you want to hear?

Naturally, it is easy to dismiss the above four potential signs of "Prozac leadership" as "not me..."  I recommend caution.

I have blogged about my concerns with Millenials entering the workforce in the past...  I think the new age leadership mumbo jumbo has gone too far.  Look at today's millenial generation coming out of high school and college...  Many have been repeatedly told how amazing they are.  Everyone in their generation gets a ribbon.  Everyone is "special" - like everyone else. 

There is work to be done and many in the current generation are in for a rude awakening.  

I believe the management world is setting themselves up for a spanking...  It is time to re-evaluate what we have been telling ourselves.  Being positive works well.  Too much positive and team members potentially ignore the facts and make mistakes that should not be made.  

What is your experience with "excessively positive" leaders?  Have you worked with one before?

From my experience, the better the Job Fit - the less likely the high performer will tolerate "EPT" or "excessively positive thinking".  Conversely, the lower the Job Fit - the more likely the low performer will tolerate and actually want their manager to be as positive as possible.  

Again, I believe the new age philosophy of "be positive" has gone too far.  There needs to be balance.  The challenge is finding it.

What can you do?  Do what I have always recommended.  Get real with your employees and demand candor.  Specifically...

  1. Select employees for Job Fit.
  2. Ensure employees know what is expected of them.
  3. Hold employees accountable for performance.
  4. Use constant gentle pressure coaching to improve long-term performance.
To review Collinson's research paper, click here.