Negativity is preening

If you’ve never read this post by Will Larson (author of “An Elegant Puzzle”) then read it. He gives names to some types of low-value work, and my favorite is preening:

Preening is doing low-impact, high-visibility work. Many companies conflate high-visibility and high-impact so strongly that they can’t distinguish between preening and impact, which is why it’s not uncommon to see some companies’ senior-most engineers spend the majority of their time doing work of dubious value but that is frequently recognized in company meetings.

Will Larson

I see this a lot with negativity in meetings. There’s a fine line between pointing out risks vs. being a naysayer. One is helping people move forward, the other is holding people back. One is high value, the other is preening.

In a recent podcast episode, Will Larson (yep, the same Will Larson) talked about how negativity can be a status symbol even when it’s not helping anybody. That’s why it’s such a popular form of preening; it’s a tricky beast:

I think it’s important, once you get into senior leadership, to be thoughtful about where you are negative because you can go into a product planning meeting and shoot down all those ideas, and they’ll be like, “Oh, this is a real leader, not letting us get away with sloppy product thinking.”

But if you just stop them from moving forward, all you’ve done is sabotage. You actually haven’t helped. You’re doing work that makes you feel or look like you’re high status or important, but the actual consequences are that the business gets slower, you can’t shift things, and you’ve demotivated the people you need to be leading.

Will Larson


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