Sometimes it's better to accentuate the negatives

Mon, Feb 14, 2011, 00:00

AOL chief Tim Armstrong’s ban on ‘loser talk’ is naff, stupid and dangerous for any company

WHEN I watched Tim Armstrong on CNN last week talking about the brilliance of his decision to buy the Huffington Post, I found I didn’t believe a word he was saying.

The chief executive of AOL was perched on a stool with Arianna Huffington by his side spouting internet happy talk about “creating magical experiences around content” and saying how delighted everyone was.

“The reaction we’ve gotten to this deal has been overwhelming,” he said. “We’ve probably had a couple of thousand e-mails from all over the world.”

My problem with this was not with the deal itself, which may turn out to be a good one. Nor was it with the way the two of them looked weirdly plastic on their stools, Armstrong a manly Ken doll to Huffington’s brainy Barbie. It wasn’t even the language – though I couldn’t help thinking that if he really was after “magical experiences around content” he might have done better with Disney than with a website that attempts to tell us what’s going on in the world.

Instead, the reason for my disbelief was that I’d just watched an earlier video clip on the CNN website of Armstrong describing his guiding principle in business. “Don’t allow loser talk,” he urged. “Don’t allow it in your organisation. Talk about winning. Talk about how you are moving things along.”

Given his predilection for winning talk, it’s no surprise that he got 2,000 e-mails of sycophantic congratulation within hours of the announcement of the deal. In fact, one wonders what the remaining 5,000 AOL workers were thinking in failing to fire off messages to their winner chief executive saying “Way to go! Home run! Hole in one!”

An insistence on triumphalist talk is not only naff, it is stupid and dangerous. To abstain from using the negative means half of one’s vision is obscured – which is catastrophic in business. Most companies, most of the time, do not win. And when they are actually losing it is a good idea to say so right away, so that remedial action can be taken.

Armstrong’s ban on loser talk doesn’t even stack up as a motivational device. Winning talk can be quite boosting if done right, but can also have the opposite effect. I’ve worked for gung-ho bosses for whom every new initiative was automatically a massive triumph, even when the result was a bit lame – or an outright flop. This didn’t make people feel motivated. It made us feel cynical and uneasy. Losing talk, on the other hand, can be galvanising. At the very moment Armstrong was on his winning stool in the television studio, an extraordinary e-mail written by the chief executive of Nokia was being e-mailed around the world. His message – spelling out the severity of the company’s problems – was loser talk in the extreme. It was also the best motivational message I’ve ever seen.

Stephen Elop started his memo with the story of a man on a burning oil platform who plunges 30m into freezing water to save his skin. “We, too, are standing on a burning platform,” he wrote.

Fear of death is motivating; so is the truth. Most employees are fed on a never-ending diet of flannel, so when they are dished up a helping of stark truth, the effect can be invigorating.

The e-mail, in all its horror, was allowed to sink in for some days, and then on Friday came another message. The life-saving plunge into the sea was to be a plunge into partnership with Microsoft.

Elop’s memo was not quite a first. Five years ago, John Pluthero, chairman of Cable Wireless, sent a similar message to all staff. “Congratulations, we work for an underperforming business in a crappy industry and it’s going to be hell for the next 12 months,” he wrote. This British version was less polished and even more brutal than Elop’s, but appears to have done the trick: the company is in better fettle than it was back then.

Clearly this doesn’t mean that loser talk always has the edge. What is right depends on the circumstances. However, the negative has a power that positive stuff lacks, which comes from its scarcity value. Talking that way is rare because it takes guts.

Yet before one gets too carried away at the bravery of Pluthero and Elop, it is worth noting that both were new to the job at the time of writing their killer memos, so were merely saying what a mess their predecessors had left behind.

The really brave and honest corporate leader – who has never yet existed – will be the one who says: we’re on a burning platform – and it was I who started the fire. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011)