Don’t let ‘positive thinking’ impede critical analysis

I don’t remember the first time someone told me I wasn’t a team player. It was early in my career, back when I served as a publicist for big ad agencies. Back before I did “real” PR.

As part of those integrated marketing teams, I concocted PR strategies to bring “value added” to expensive advertising or promotional campaigns. Usually that meant pitching stories of marginal news value, or luring coverage with goofy events — the kind journalists can’t resist.

Sometimes my bosses pushed me to overstate a client’s case or otherwise play fast and loose with the facts. When I protested loudly one day, an agency EVP pulled me aside and asked: “What’s with you and this ethics bull#@%*? We need you on the team.”

I can tell you, that job didn’t end well.

This isn’t a post about ethics, but rather about our willingness to question “team think.” It’s about our willingness to push back and to force team members to analyze and to question. This role shouldn’t be solely the task of PR professionals, but it is the job of anyone concerned with building and retaining trust.

Do you regularly question the wisdom of teams? Or do you nod and go along? I call it “thinking outside the table,” and it sometimes means putting your career at risk.

It’s easy to confuse critical thinking with negativity, and it happens way too much in social media circles. Those wont to criticize the dominant coalition of SM — or even the more popular personalities — risk being shouted down or even frozen out of discussions. It’s part of the “play nice” etiquette that can lead folks to embrace group-think.

I was reminded of social media’s coziness this past week by Mark Schaefer’s post likening the social web to high-school cliques. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the analogy. Back when Jennifer Mattern called out the “blog party” for its group conduct nearly two years back, a good many prominent SM types dropped by “Naked PR” to offer their support. So remember, not everyone is in the clique or wants to be.

No one enjoys seeing their ideas criticized. But critical thinkers welcome it, and they’re willing to engage in spirited debate and even bruise an ego or two.

This may rub the Norman Vincent Peale fans the wrong way. But to hell with ’em. Success requires more than “channeling positive energy.” You have to think for yourself.


This will be my last post for a few weeks. I’m taking some time off to give Mother Nature a big wintry hug. Gotta recharge so I can come out fighting in 2010!

13 Responses to Don’t let ‘positive thinking’ impede critical analysis

  1. Thanks for calling out this important distinction, Bill. It seems counter-intuitive that the same CYA behaviors seen in corporate America would also rule in the Wild West of the social web but the similarities are unmistakable.

  2. Truth needs doubt to survive!

    See “In Praise of Doubt”:

    “Modernity was supposed to usher in a rational secular world where religion was marginalized. Some even predicted it would disappear. But religion has not only survived—it is growing and thriving in the modern world. Defying predictions, we live today in a world of plurality where diverse groups live under conditions of civic peace and in social interaction. However, this arrangement is not without tensions. How do we handle moral issues, such as abortion or homosexuality, when different groups have strongly held but opposing viewpoints? And how does culture maintain its harmony when confronted with the challenge of an aggressive fundamentalism?

    The answer, according to world-renowned sociologists Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld, is doubt. Not the stupefying doubt of relativism where we become incapable of any decision because we are overwhelmed by options, but a virtuous use of doubt that allows us to move forward boldly with strong moral convictions without caving in to the fanatic’s temptation of seeing everyone who disagrees with you as the enemy.”

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Amanda Chapel, Mia Chambers and Learn Intelligence, Tracy Moen. Tracy Moen said: Don't let 'positive thinking' impede critical analysis « ToughSledding […]

  4. You have neatly summarized so many things that are true – and wrong – about ‘social media’. Great, great post. Amanda thanks for the pointer.

  5. alan p says:

    Welcome to the wonderful world of social media scepticism. Prepare to be ostracized 🙂

  6. Ike says:

    Nice shooting, Bill. Dead center mass.

    Group think is dangerous, and smart people will always discipline themselves to ask questions whenever there is a fuzzy consensus.

    In the case of Social Media, there are a few people who can explain a cogent rationale for what they do, and an ever-growing flock of drones with kool-aid mustaches and whiplash from nodding in unison.

  7. Any sort of thinking seems to be in seriously short supply, present company excepted. It takes great courage to speak up in crowds. In fact, a part of my own practice is helping managers get more comfortable doing so. The mob mentality can override intelligent discourse of every stripe, but particularly respectful criticism. This leads to bad decisions repeated and missed opportunities.

  8. Thank you, Mr. Sledzik. What a terrific post – and food for thought – to begin the year and decade.

  9. BillH says:

    It’s easy to confuse critical thinking with negativity because lots of people never learned what critical thinking is, even though they went to college and were supposed to learn it there.
    Most have gotten where they are because they’ve always been very round pegs in round holes, i.e., “team players.”
    Nice post to start the year. Happy New Year!

  10. Shefaly says:

    Got here thanks to my friend, Alan P, who has commented above. You make an important point that needs to made oftener and oftener now that we seem to be living in a time of hyperbole and the need to have everything _now_. Critical thinking takes time and in a “real time” world we want new, fresh, agreeable, nice, cool and we want it all now. Not conducive to “critical” thinking at all.

    Case in point: yesterday’s Nexus launch by Google and the oodles of praise from bloggers who saw it on a screen (not even handled it once). Yes that social media thing again.. although to be fair, the mob can turn on anyone, even one of themselves. Fred Vogelstein wrote a piece that called the Nexus an iPhone clone and was promptly labelled an Apple Fanboi. It also raises another point though – for those not capable of critical thinking, all critical thinking is tantamount to criticism which most think is a negative riff on life.

    Oh well. What can I say? May your tribe increase!

  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    Greetings from Gunflint Lake in the Minnesota Northwoods. Sorry I don’t have time to jump in here. Internet connection is spotty and slow up here. But the skiing and hiking are great if you don’t mind sub-zero temps. Me? I like the cold. Keeps out the riff-raff.

  12. Mark says:

    There’s a lesson in here somewhere for students too. I’m just wondering how to pitch it to history students who sometimes are afraid to disgree with classmates for fear of disagreeing being confused with being disagreeable.

  13. Bill Sledzik says:

    I wish I had an answer for you, Mark. It’s a sad thing when we can’t engage in honest debate or criticism for fear it will bruise someone’s self esteem. But the “play nice” culture of social media, I believe, is a reflection of the culture, and not unique to the social web.

    Odd, isn’t it? To think that the students are too respectful of others to disagree. I mean, don’t they ever watch Bill O’Reilly?

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