The Missing Ingredient in Your Company Culture

None of us wants to have a cocktail with a Debbie Downer. Most successful people have an allergy to complaining. From an early age, when first complaining about chores gets you a prompt “suck it up”, we’re taught that complaining is not a desirable virtue. In the world of work, complainers don’t go far. In America, the tougher and more painful the job, the more virtuous and romantic it becomes not to complain. It’s this virtue many companies build into their culture and as a result set out to squash negativity. Positivity is not only good for keeping business running when things are genuinely terrible, but it also makes you healthier and more successful as an individual. It’s no wonder why positivity has become such a valuable consideration when selecting and grooming leadership.

But there is a dangerous side effect to rabid positivity in the workplace.

In the positive workplace, critique and complaint begin to have a similar scent. I’ve heard the phrase “don’t just surface problems, come with solutions” in a dozen forms over my career. The idea is simple: don’t point out things that are wrong if you don’t have any ideas how to fix it. But it turns out that fixing things is hard, so in most cases this means people don’t point out anything at all.

A culture that rewards can-do-attitudes more than candor will gradually silence smart people from speaking up when things really can’t be done. A culture that values the silver-lining more than honest critique will cultivate more of the same. Over time, leaders grow incapable of hearing negativity and become less interested in the real grievances of employees, viewing all dissenters as “not on board.” When positivity becomes a core value of the company and is rewarded through pay and promotion, the same behavior is adopted 10x by the rest of the population. It forces all to look for opportunities to display their own positivity. At each meeting, comments become more positive. Every obscene deadline is met with an increasingly cheery acceptance. Every nonsensical change is quickly turned into an important “challenge” to overcome. Gradually, dissenting opinions start to sound negative, ideas get challenged less, and the work gets less risky to fit the unrealistic expectations. Or worse, leadership gets a false sense of bravado derived from the belief that all obstacles can be overcome. I’ve seen first hand how a company filled with positive-can-do-leaders set unrealistic business goals which eventually collapsed under their own weight, leading to some of the biggest failures in their history.


In thousands of art and design schools all over the world, projects undergo a process of peer review called critique. Fellow students and instructors gather around a piece of work with the sole purpose of judging its quality and effectiveness. It’s the critique that teaches the artist what her work looks like through the eyes of others. It’s the critique that tells you what you might know in your gut, but can’t articulate or don’t yet have the skills to produce. It’s not personal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not painful. It can be. But everyone sees the value and it’s up to the artist to heed the warnings or forge on. From the outside, critique can look tremendously negative.

A healthy culture is one where people are optimistic about their ability to solve problems, but ruthless in pointing them out.


Pixar credits its continued success to a robust culture of honesty and critique. Every movie undergoes frequent peer review where honesty is not only valued, but a basic expectation for participating. A group of the most experienced creators reviews each film and provide directors with feedback. These aren’t the traditional notes often handed down from executives in legacy movie studios, focused on what the audience might like, or what market it should be steered towards. These comments focus solely on the strength of the story. The “Brain Trust” don’t advise directors on how to fix their movies. Instead they point out what’s wrong and allow the director to find solutions that make sense to him or her. Pixar knows that in order to make a good movie, the director needs creative ownership. Changes aren’t mandated, but the expectation is that the movie improves to a point that meets Pixar’s high standards for story and originality.

Pixar understands that without constant attention, company hierarchy mixed with human nature can kill candor. They continuously keep one eye on their product and another on their culture. It’s their culture of critique that is responsible for shaping raw ideas into box office hits.

“One must from time to time attempt things that are beyond one's capacity.” -Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Positivity is part of a healthy company culture, but it’s not the most important part - candor is. The best company cultures have a blend of optimism and candid critique. They critique not just ideas, but how work is done, how decisions are made, and how employees are treated. Simultaneously, the are optimistic that whatever problems are discovered, can be fixed.