'Superficial positivity dominates our lives'

The Local
The Local - [email protected] • 11 Oct, 2016 Updated Tue 11 Oct 2016 07:00 CEST
'Superficial positivity dominates our lives'

We live in a world where social media and fancy values hide our flaws. But this functional idiocy is the road to ruin, argues professor Mats Alvesson.


We live in a time in which everything must sound good and optimistic. We must focus on only the positive, especially in the workplace.

Even though there is nothing directly wrong in this, it often leads to a mendacious distortion of reality.

Instead of focusing on how things work, we focus on how they should be.

Increasingly, more professions work with unclear yet jaunty terms. This includes consultants, marketers, communicators, managers, coaches and executives. Cheerfulness sells.

One could say that the category of 'nonsense-workers' is increasing. However, many of us actually fall victim to this as well.

We live in a world where social media, snazzy plans, product labelling and chatter of core values amounts to an even bigger part of reality. The flaws in our existence are often camouflaged. Superficial positivity dominates.

Those who do not conform with this are seen as doubtful. In an establishment with a positive approach to people, this critical and honest matter becomes subject to quick actions such as performance reviews, positive leadership, core value exercises, among others.

Sometimes, bosses even have to abandon the positive approach to point out that non-positive approaches cannot be accepted.

Problems are instead seen as challenges, redundant management work as leadership, and conflicts or misunderstandings as cultural differences, many of which can often be easily avoided with reference to creative diversity. All of this may seem great and effective in the moment, which is why many are reluctant to make less flattering points.

But who says that leaders are dealing with administration, empty phrases and infinite meeting routines?

Who really wants to suggest that caution, political correctness and veiled, flowery language actually mask problems? Who is going to take the risk to say that poor work ethic, rather than lack of skills development, is the source of a bad job?

A variety of important sectors in society operate even worse. This includes the police, social services, schools, universities, employment agencies such as Arbetsförmedlingen, social insurance establishments such as Försäkringskassan, health care institutions and migration offices.

There is even a report that suggests that Migration Agency officials born in the 1980s, a whole generation, are incapable of making difficult decisions and get very little done.

The modern upbringing where everyone should receive support, encouragement and constructive affirmation of how good you are seems to have created a 'curling-generation'.

The report in question led to quite fierce protests ("insulting"), but highlighted important underlying factors behind a society going downhill. With the help of commercial powers' strong fosterage, this allows the welfare society to make us constantly want fun and more from life.

We expect our employers to give us careers, better titles, excellent company culture, equality and creative diversity, and hand it all to us on a silver platter. Annoyances should be minimized.

Of course, it is not easy to fix this in reality, but the mandated positivity reinforces the illusion.

To be able to work for Malmö Council, for example, you must have an "enthusiastic approach" as well as a "positive outlook", according to its core values policy, permeated by this superficial positivity.

Talk of these core values creates a career where naive optimism interacts with hidden cynical bitterness. Unfortunately, this asset is often a career resource.

Many workplaces are defined by functional idiocy, inability and the unwillingness to think critically and reflect. Actually, the ability to use superficial positivity should really be included in today's executive job requirements.

Employers often want to avoid the fact that someone complicates things by questioning what they are actually doing, asking critical questions, or examining what people mean by this fluffy talk.

It is important to counteract this equally popular and destructive superficial positivity which is now permeating our working lives.

Destructive complaining won't do any good, but it is not counteracted by superficial positivity . Instead, the solution is constructive criticism.

And not least that you make sure to describe your workplace as accurately as possible. In order for this to work, you partly have to keep track of what you do and achieve, as well as a culture within the organization where people can think freely and thus communicate honestly and frankly.

Mats Alvesson is a professor at Lund University and the author of 'The Stupidity Paradox'. This is a translation of an opinion piece first published by SVT Opinion. It was translated by The Local's intern Tilly Olsson.


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