A Bit of Pollyanna

by Russell, Nan S. Wednesday, April 14, 2010
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"Stop being such a Pollyanna," a trusted, more experienced colleague counseled as we took the long route back to my office. He had just witnessed my project idea annihilated as co-workers eagerly argued why my idea wouldn't work, where it was flawed and why it shouldn't be funded. Despite naysayers in the room that day, I believed it was worth pursuing. Ultimately, it did receive funding and became, in time, a successful endeavor. A bit of Pollyannaism got me though.

Everyday, in meetings just like this one, ideas are gutted before they're allowed to evolve. It's becoming a workplace ritual to poke pinholes in the balloon of an idea until enough air leaks out to drop it to the ground. We look first for the reasons why something can't be done; why it won't work; why it's too difficult; why it's a bad idea. We've become so good at burning idea bridges that might lead to new business, new procedures, or new products that we don't even have to try to build the bridges first.

But, people who are winning at working take a different approach. They pump air into idea-balloons by offering suggestions, brainstorming possibilities and encouraging input. They point out problems by offering solutions that make the idea more viable. They're curious and intrigued, looking at how one idea might fit with another, or weaving two small ideas into one bigger one. Instead of asking why should we do this, they're encouraging people to give it a try.

Understanding the fragile nature of emerging ideas, they help protect, nurture and green-house ideas (their own and others) until they have a chance to take root. They get excited about new possibilities. Often it's their optimism, vision, and positive approach that waters the seed until it grows and blooms. They have a bit of Pollyanna in them. But they probably won't call it that. You see, Pollyanna's gotten a bad rap in business circles as na've and unrealistic.

I think it's time to look at Pollyanna differently. You will find more work success embracing ideas, seeing the positive side, and stretching your horizons than finding reasons not to. Impossible is often more a state of mind than a reality. As Helen Keller reminds us, "No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars...or sailed to an uncharted land...or opened a new heaven to the human spirit."

But I've also learned in twenty years in management there's more to winning at working than positive thinking and optimistic approaches. A bit of Pollyanna should be mixed with strong doses of common sense. Or, as British political leader Harold Wilson puts it, "I am an optimist, but I'm an optimist who carries a raincoat."

Still, I know if I had listened to everyone who deflated my idea-balloons, I wouldn't have the life opportunities I have now. I've experienced the power of hope, vision and positive thinking in the workplace. My point of view? A bit of Pollyanna is a very good thing.

(c) 2010 Nan S. Russell. All rights reserved.