"You know when you're sitting on a chair and you lean back so you're just on two legs and you lean too far so you almost fall over but at the last second you catch yourself? I feel like that all the time."
– Steven Wright, comedian
Since I was a kid, that wonderful quote has described my default state of mind with staggering accuracy. I'm not a pessimist, per se. I just have a tendency to worry that when things are going well, there's a fairly good chance something horrible is about to happen.
If you look around any workplace, you'll find people like me. (Perhaps not quite as handsome, but similarly terrified.) We try to avoid calamity and keep things from falling apart by vigilantly watching for cracks to form.
It's all toward a good end – we want to do well and we want our companies to succeed. But a new study found that while this worry-centric approach to success can be good for detecting and avoiding problems, it can also drain energy and make a person less engaged.
"Some people are really focused on 'what's the good stuff out there and how do I get it?' and others are more prone to think 'there's a lot of bad stuff out there and how do I avoid it?'" said Russell Johnson, associate professor of management at Michigan State University. "If you're worried about your ship sinking at sea, that's pretty anxiety-provoking because there are so many different ways that could happen. Whereas when people are thinking about how they can make improvements, they're feeling more excitement or more energized."
Johnson co-wrote a study on these behaviors that was published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology. An important distinction he makes is that this isn't a matter of pessimism versus optimism. The two types of behavior are called promotive voice and prohibitive voice.
Promotive voice is "expressing ideas and suggestions to improve organizational functioning" and prohibitive voice is "expressing concerns and worries to prevent organizational failure."
The study found that people who engage in more prohibitive behavior report feeling more depleted, while those who are more promotive wind up more engaged and productive.
"We can comfortably say that this has nothing to do with personality," Johnson said. "If an optimist engages in these prohibitive behaviors more so in one day, they'll feel more depleted as well."
So while there are certainly people who are more prone to prohibitive voice than to promotive voice, it's possible for anyone to follow either path.
This behavior is far deeper than a "that dude's always negative, he's bringing everybody down" dynamic. Negativity can certainly be a drag on any workplace, but the two behaviors in question here are both necessary for a business to perform well.
"For companies, prohibitive behaviors are actually good," Johnson said. "You want people looking for problems or flaws. So there's a paradox here. Promotive behavior is good for the company and it's good for you. With prohibitive behavior, it's also good for the company but it might increase a worker's depletion. If I was a manager I'd tell my employees I want you to be engaged in both prohibitive and promotive behaviors."
The message here is not that we should all be chipper and forever looking toward the next great success. Nor is that we should be wary of pitfalls around every corner. What we need is to be mindful of our mind-set and take steps to maintain some balance.
In the study, workers who engaged in higher levels of prohibitive voice reported mental fatigue that could lead to other unproductive work behaviors.
"They're less cooperative and they're more deviant, whether it's toward others or directed at their own work," Johnson said. "They report being less productive on those days. If I'm depleted I'm going to surf the Web and not focus on work as much."
The prohibitive behavior can be valuable for the company – you want people who are spotting problems or heading off errors – but harmful for the worker. So a key is to recognize when you're engaging in prohibitive behavior and make sure you're bracing yourself for the mental fatigue it might cause.
"Maybe taking like a 10-mintue walk outside can help you refresh a bit," Johnson said. "Even something as simple as having a good lunch can make a difference. I've been to Google's headquarters and they even have nap pods. You have to be kind of in charge of doing something to offset or counteract the fatigue."
Bosses and managers would be wise to encourage their employees to think about these styles of thought. Awareness of how your brain is working, of which style of voice you lean toward, can give you some control over how it impacts your behavior and productivity.
We tend to go through our days so swiftly and with so little thought. And some, like me, might spend too much time feeling like Steven Wright just catching himself before his chair falls back.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. But it's a thing to be aware of, because balance is important, whether you're leaning back in a chair or simply going about your day.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.
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