Half Full or Half Empty?

halfemptyI’ve always felt the need to accentuate the positive, something I think I picked up from my mother.  In tense situations she would always interject “Isn’t it a beautiful day,” a comment that usually generated laughter and reduced tensions.  While this seems like an admirable quality, I discovered one day that it should not be reduced to a knee-jerk reaction:

Twenty-three years ago, after my factory had received some press recognition as a Shingo Prize (now the Shingo Institute) recipient, requests for plant tours began to roll in.   In 1990 there weren’t yet many tour sites available, so the visits were plentiful; we referred to ourselves jokingly as Tours R Us.  In truth, we were early on on our improvement curve, but still a little farther along than many factories.  We accepted the tours because it gave our employees a chance to learn by teaching.

One memorable request came from the author of a then popular book on leadership.  He expressed a desire to listen in on a team meeting, a perfect opportunity to showcase our employees and to learn from an industry expert.   A cross-functional team that was meeting on the day of his visit provided a good sandbox for our visiting expert.  I don’t recall the exact problem the team was trying to solve, but I clearly remember that the meeting was unusually contentious.  We promoted openness in our team discussions, so this situation was not unusual, just on the high end of normal.

The tenor of the meeting’s discussion rose as frustrated participants sparred over questioned data and missed project assignments.   I glanced occasionally to our visitor whose visage began to show signs of concern.  Our Punch-and-Judy approach was perhaps less civilized than he had anticipated. While meeting protocols were followed – agenda, timekeeper, and minutes – it soon occurred to me that we might have needed a sergeant-at-arms as well.   I recalled my mother’s words, and resolved to say something positive to keep the meeting on track and let our visitor know that we could indeed work together as team.  I addressed the group, “You know, this team has accomplished a great deal in the last month, let’s not lose sight of that.”

Eddie V., an outspoken team member responded directly, “Well, I don’t think we’ve made hardly any progress, and pretending we have is not going to help the situation.”

Suddenly I felt like proverbial manager defending the status quo.  The room was silent for a moment. Our visitor glanced again to me wondering how I would respond.  “Yes, you’re right in one sense, Eddie,” I said.  “We should be working harder to solve the problem. You think the glass is half empty and I think it’s half full.  Perhaps we’d all be better served if we focus on the half-empty viewpoint.”

The team then continued its discussion and soon the meeting ended.  The encounter felt dysfunctional to me, and one side of me was privately embarrassed that we could not put on a positive face for our visitor.  But Eddie’s retort stuck with me as a reminder that the answer to the rhetorical question “Is the glass half empty or half full?” is:

“Yes!”   The glass that is half full is also still half empty. Management optimism untempered by a little bit of reality may be construed as complacency.

O.L.D.

BTW: Another “Tea Time with the Toast Dude Webinar” is fast approaching.  Please join me for a free 40-minute webinar next Tuesday, November 12 at 3:00 p.m. EST.  The topic: “Why So Few Ideas” will focus on gaining better participation in your idea system.  Click here to register on-line. 

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