Pooh-Pooh Culture

A hand raise in a blocking motion, with a red circle around it and a red slash bisecting it
Only you can put a stop to pooh-pooh culture.

It’s insidious. It undermines trust, saps initiative and likely already infects your workplace: welcome to pooh-pooh culture.

Wikipedia defines “pooh-poohing” as “a fallacy in informal logic that consists of dismissing an argument as being unworthy of serious consideration.”

The business definition is simpler: shooting something down before it’s had a chance for serious consideration.

It’s easy to put something down, because doing so transfers status. We get socialized to this at a young age. Cast your mind back to your first experience in your elementary school’s playground. Remember the relationships? As with almost every other such dynamic, status was central, and this manifested itself in a very simple way: the first person with the put-down won. Because it’s much easier to be critical than constructive, that template doesn’t change as we progress from the playground to high school to university lecture halls and to the workplace: the critic almost always wins.

You’re lazy. Yes, you there.

Along the way, our concept of criticism changes. It retains its ability to confer status, but in the business world it also becomes a proxy for insight. Human beings are lazy (Read Dr. Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” if you don’t believe me) and are always looking for shortcuts in judgment. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when presented with a criticism, we buy into it, rather than spend the mental overhead required to consider all possibilities.

Unfortunately, just because criticism confers status and functions as a shortcut for insight, doesn’t make it a good idea. Its infectious nature means organizations that employ it find themselves starved of good ideas and staffed by folks who simply toe the line and do what they’re told. When criticism replaces constructive thought, initiative dies. Unfortunately, nobody ever got fired for complicity in the slow, protracted death of a corporate culture, so no one pays the price for the insidious, creeping rot that pooh-pooh culture instills. It takes a conscious effort by decision-makers not to reflexively pooh-pooh ideas, and if those managers aren’t measured and rewarded for making the extra effort to creative a constructive culture, they won’t.

Yes, and….

The solution is a conscious effort to take a page from improv comedy and say “Yes, and…” to things. It’s easy to dismiss this idea, especially when it’s used in the same sentence as “improv comedy:” acceptance is much harder than gainsaying, but ultimately much more valuable. Accepting doesn’t mean self-brainwashing: it means accepting ideas, and then identifying the conditions required for their success. Nobody expects the boss to endorse a plan to switch factory production from automotive parts to candy canes, but if someone puts forward an idea (even an oddball one), it’s a simple process to identify what would need to happen to make it a reality, or what’s missing, which naturally separates the wheat from the chaff without sacrificing potentially good ideas. This is the essence of progressive corporate culture: acceptance, creativity, problem-solving and constructive criticism.

Unfortunately, as with most things in business, what gets measured gets managed, and most managers aren’t measured on creativity from themselves or their units: they’re measured and ultimately rewarded on how well they don’t screw up, because screw-ups are highly visible and the care and nurturing of good ideas isn’t. The best way not to screw up is to poke holes in absolutely everything, so that only the most airtight (and least creative, least risky and mildest) measures see the light of day. This is how pooh-pooh culture grows and endures in an organization.

The essence of pooh.

The essence of pooh-pooh culture is self-preservation through timidity and risk-aversion. This ultimately might kill a business, but like many diseases, the progress is so slow it’s almost invisible  until the point of catastrophe. And, as mentioned above, nobody ever got fired for complicity in the slow death of a corporate culture.

As my favourite Pooh – Winnie the Pooh – would say, “Oh, bother!”

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