Mentioning bad things isn’t necessarily being negative

Business owners and managers often suffer from a common allergy. When they review copy for a website, blog post, or newsletter and see wording they perceive as negative, they break out in hives.

That could be understandable. We’ve long been urged to accentuate the positive and emphasize the good things. Mentioning something that’s negative is … well, negative, right? And negativity is inherently bad, isn’t it?

It’s true that something that’s perceived as negative can be bad, but most of the time, mentioning something that’s less than glowing can serve a positive purpose. (Too many people have become conditioned to see negatives where they really don’t exist, developing a kind of paranoia in which others might perceive them as negative.)

Let’s take the most topical example: that pandemic we’ve all endured for the past couple years. It’s amazing how many business leaders present messages speaking as though Covid never happened. The shutdowns, the fears, the forced overnight reengineering of the way nearly all of us do business? If you read messages from a lot of company leaders, it appears those things never happened.

The same thing frequently happens at the company level. A company teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, but manages to recover. A highly publicized product failure sends the stock price reeling. A key executive moves from a grand suburban home into a much smaller space in a federally managed facility. You know, if we don’t say anything, maybe nobody will notice.

Few companies make it through a decade without facing some kind of significant setback, whether it involves an internal misstep or a sea change in the marketplace. Yet when you read the messages those companies present, you’d be hard-pressed to find any evidence those things actually happened. Why? They’re “negative” and there’s no benefit to mentioning “negative” things.

Actually, there’s quite a bit of benefit to owning up to negatives. Speaking candidly about negative matters generally won’t hurt a company’s image. Instead, it enhances it by building credibility and trust. Many of the people your company communicates with are already well aware of whatever happened, so when you fail to address it or try to sneak around it, it looks like you’re hiding something. Which, in fact, you are.

That’s especially true when you try to pretend a big elephant in the room doesn’t exist. Do you really think nobody notices it? It’s an elephant, after all. Even people who can’t see it are bound to smell it or notice what it leaves behind.

Another reason it’s a good idea to own up to negatives? If your company has been through a struggle, your employees have traveled along with you. They’re probably a big part of how you survived, whether that involved working extra, forgoing raises, or offering new ideas. They know what happened, and when you pretend it never took place, you devalue their contributions and the pride they took in making things better. When the CEO gives the rah-rah speech at the company holiday party and neglects to mention whatever almost put everyone in the room out of a job just six months earlier, it’s not being positive. It’s being deceitful. Whether you’re a local insurance agent or head a Fortune 1000 enterprise, your employees appreciate candor.

Negatives are an inevitable part of life and an inevitable part of business, and all the pretending in the world won’t make them disappear. How can you make them go away? Owning up to them and addressing them frankly is one of the most effective ways to eliminate their power.

Once you do that, you don’t need to keep bringing them up. If you still remember them, so does everyone else. But once you’ve admitted they’re there and moved on to whatever’s next, they’ll fade away. Dance around them or act like they don’t exist, and whether or not they go away, one thing will remain: your reputation as someone who can’t be trusted.

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