The Power of Positive … and Negative Thinking
Issue 43: February 17, 2022
What have we been told since kindergarten? Believe in the power of positive thinking! For many, positive thinking is an intuitive attitude reflected in a state of mind and behavior. The optimists, who are inclined to be hopeful and expect good outcomes, live this credo daily. Wake up with positive thoughts and positive outcomes will result. The skeptics, who are inclined to doubt or question any belief (especially those that are dogmatic and rote) may view positive thinking as a Pollyanna-ish notion. The realists, who accept a belief system as it is and behave accordingly, are somewhere in the middle. The pessimists tend to see the worst aspects of things and believe the worst will happen. Where are you on the spectrum? And how does that influence your interactions, professional behavior, and how you work?
To mix things up, there is also a school of the power of negative thinking which has its supporters and is used as a guide to effective decision making, strategy and influence. Let’s unpack positive and negative thinking to evaluate how either approach can help and hinder an organization.
The Power of Positive Thinking
Let’s start at the source. In 1952 Norman Vincent Peale wrote the seminal book on positive thinking that went on to sell over 15 million copies. His self-help guide was intended to help people achieve fulfillment and a happy, satisfying, worthwhile life. We believe that the same principles apply to the health and wellbeing of an organization. We have adjusted Peale’s precepts to the attitudes and behaviors of a workforce and workplace culture.
- Believe in your mission and in everything you do.
- Build workforce power through determination and intention.
- Develop collective/collaborative organizational power to reach your goals.
- Build and improve professional relationships.
- Be kind and try to do no harm (a nod to Alphabet).
On an individual basis, there are some key questions to ask yourself to unlock a positive approach. And these questions are especially pertinent as to how an organization operates.
- Do you blame others when bad things happen to you?
Successful people take responsibility and have an internal ethical compass set to a deep belief in themselves. Honestly assess your mindset.
- Are you naturally grateful or do you choose to focus on the negative?
Successful people respond to challenges by empowering their teams.
- Are you defensive and hostile?
Successful people use critical thinking to shake bad habits and behaviors that result in negative outcomes. They don’t fall back on self-doubt and the fear of failure to motivate their behavior.
- On a purely practical level, are you aware of the words you typically use to communicate?
Successful people have positive vocabulary and communication styles. Think of dynamic athletic coaches who motivate their players through the power of the words they choose.
- Who do you look up to and/or seek to emulate?
Our society seems to be lacking heroes and role models to help us navigate today’s fractious times. Successful people are inspired by role models and mentors who they use to shape their own north stars to influence and lead others.
Positive thinking advocates believe your mindset can transform your experience. Further, a positive mindset sees the opportunities, not the roadblocks. Taking a pop-cultural cue, Mary J Blige’s new album is entitled: “Good Morning Gorgeous.” Through song and in her own words, she describes how she developed a negative mindset in response to life circumstances and challenges that led to a negative self-perception. In recognition and response, she set out to wake up every morning, look in the mirror and exclaim “Good Morning Gorgeous” to remind herself that first and foremost, self-love and acceptance is paramount in establishing a positive outlook critical to navigating the paths of day-to-day life. She expresses that regardless of the circumstances, has committed to that daily act and she is maintaining a positive outlook as a result.
How to Choose to Be Happy
Positive thinking is a great concept, but life gets in the way. Happiness experts (a relatively new consulting practice) believe that happy, fulfilled people follow a practice. Whether it’ is reading Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness or any other happiness self-help book over the past several years, you may have taken up practicing mindfulness and meditation. Perhaps you read Buddhist teachings or leverage new mental health app-based services. It seems we are all seeking ways to contend with daily life, maintain calm, and establish a basis of “happiness” or at least an attitude of positive acceptance.
After 25 years of research across 70 countries, behavioral expert Greg Hicks consults with organizations of all sizes to coach employees on how to consciously follow nine specific behaviors that improve performance and wellbeing – — professionally and personally. His work is the bridge from theory to practice on how one can choose to be happy. The focus is on choice. You cannot control the circumstances of your life, but you can choose how to respond. And happiness is not a frivolous superficial concept; it is the equivalent of wellbeing.
“These are practical, do-able choices people can make throughout their day that actually change their biochemistry away from stress and anxiety,” Hicks says. Not surprisingly, his findings also correlate to the behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that are instrumental in wellbeing, a feeling of control, and the healing process. Hicks offers a few suggestions for finding joy in our turbulent world, “To feel happy you have to direct yourself toward happiness. Be unrelenting in your search for what’s good and joyful as you go through each day’s events rather than sucked into what’s wrong or mundane. Waking up each morning with something to look forward to is essential.” He adds, “When you feel most victimized by circumstances, look for what you can control, no matter how small. It helps you get out of your reactive fight, fright, freeze brain. Another idea: Tell your stories to others and invite them to share theirs with you; it is one of the best ways to happily stay connected to others – one of the most important keys to happiness.”
Research from the Mayo Clinic reports that positive thinking helps with stress management and can improve health. The Clinic states that positive thinking doesn’t mean ignoring unpleasant situations, it means approaching them in a productive way.
A real trap to thinking positively is the subconscious/unconscious and even conscious bias that every individual holds onto. We all know the saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. Much of that ingrained sameness behavior comes from our inherent biases and fear of change or trying something new. Other obstacles we present to ourselves are “I don’t have the resources; I’m too lazy to change; there’s no way it’s going to work; it’s too radical; I don’t have any support; and I’m not going to try something I’m sure to fail.”
On the flip side, the power of positive thinking can result in real-life wellbeing. According to the Clinic, researchers have found that positive thinking can provide documented benefits:
- Increased life span
- Lower rates of depression
- Lower levels of distress and pain
- Greater resistance to illnesses
- Better psychological and physical well-being
- Better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease and stroke
- Reduced risk of death from cancer
- Reduced risk of death from respiratory conditions
- Reduced risk of death from infections
- Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
Who would want to resist or refute these benefits? But in reality, we tend to highjack positive coping attitudes and behaviors out of our preferred comfort level with ingrained habits.
The Clinic identifies key negative thoughts that prevent optimism, and these can be applied professionally to organizational culture.
- Filtering. Magnify the negative aspects of a situation and filter out all the positive ones.
- Personalizing. When something bad occurs, you automatically blame yourself.
- Catastrophizing. You automatically anticipate the worst without objective facts to judge whether the worst will happen.
- Blaming. You say someone else is responsible for what happened to you instead of yourself.
- Saying you “should” do something. You think of all the things you think you should do and blame yourself for not doing them.
- Magnifying. You make a big deal out of minor problems.
- Perfectionism. Keeping impossible standards and trying to be more perfect sets you up for failure.
- Polarizing. You see things only as either good or bad without a middle ground.
One could argue that a positive attitude is another term for determination and perseverance. On a practical level, when any organization has hit a roadblock, setback, or failure, start with acceptance (not denying or running away from the situation). Acknowledgment opens the door to understanding that the problem is not an invalidation of the organization; it does not define it. Stuff happens as a natural evolution in business. In fact, we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. So, positive thinking, AKA determination, could be expressed in an iconic reference to Dory’s search for Nemo:; Just keep swimming. We add to Dory’s advice, use critical thinking in that swim to identify the best direction for the optimal outcome. Leverage that journey with some basic truisms to keep a keen sense of direction.
- Don’t self-wallow or obsess on the setback. Recognize it for what it is and use the learnings to pivot.
- Look ahead as a chess player would anticipate the future yet be fluid and open to course corrections. Agility is the new resilience. And you can’t succeed in repeating the same practices that haven’t worked.
- Stay in the game, or even better, reinvent the game.
- Stay active and communicate. Take the wisdom of the crowds approach and tap the strengths, insights, and entrepreneurship of your teams to shape your future based on what your stakeholders want and need from you.
The Case for the Power of Negative Thinking
It sounds counterintuitive to celebrate negative thinking as an asset. Yet according to Sarah Elizabeth Adler in The Atlantic, “pessimists fare better than people with a sunnier disposition.” She states that a rosy outlook can leave people overconfident. Further, “optimism can beget disappointment and embracing negativity may also have social benefits.” She adds, “Compared with cheery moods, bad moods have been linked to a more effective communication style, and sadness has been linked to less reliance on negative stereotypes. Feeling down can make us behave more fairly.”
University of Michigan research describes a strategy called “defensive pessimism, whereby people harness their anxiety for good.” Follow-up studies found that “by setting low expectations and envisioning worst-case scenarios, defensive pessimists optimized their performance on a variety of tasks, solving problems to fulfilling real-life goals.”
Meg Selig writes in Psychology Today in support of the power of negative thinking, which she defines as, “the ability to see the potential dark side of people, ideas, places, and things, in order to respond to them in a realistic and self-protective manner.” According to author Oliver Burkeman, “negative thinking, if strategically pursued, has a role to play in happiness.” A few lessons: Focus on the worst-case scenario. It may sound obscure, but research suggests that “negative visualization can be an excellent antidote to anxiety.” In other words, defensive pessimism is “working through how badly things could really go, and you may find that your fears get cut down to manageable size.”
Another lesson on negative thinking: Consider getting rid of your goals. Research suggests that “over pursuit of goals can prompt employees to cut ethical corners.” Professor Saras Sarasvathy’s studies of successful entrepreneurs reveal that they rarely stick rigorously to detailed, multi-year business plans. Instead, “they just start, and keep correcting their course as they go. Their philosophy isn’t so much ready, aim, fire as ready, fire, aim—and then to keep on re-aiming.”
A third lesson is don’t get too attached to positive thinking. “When researchers in Canada tested the efficacy of self-help affirmations they found that those who already had low self-esteem experienced a further decline in their mood.” Emotional and psychological attachments can manipulate your behavior and attitudes. And ultimately, they do not define who you are.
Selig supports her advocacy of negative thinking with five positive outcomes:
- Negative thinking helps envision the worst thing that can happen—and often prevents it. We live in a society, particularly in urban centers, where we have to think about personal safety all the time. Everyone knows that if you live in a city such as New York that if you let down your guard, you’re less likely to stay alert to danger. The application for organizations? Wargame what could happen and develop realistic strategies to prevent the worst in the marketplace and in workplace culture with employees who are not aligned.
- Negative thinking saves money and time. Some people love high risk, but for most, avoiding such situations and low-yield activities, which don’t add meaning to their lives, is an exercise in the benefit of negative thinking.
- Negative thinking slows down your decision-making. By using negative thinking, you can practice the motto: “When in doubt, wait.” This can operate as a safety mechanism to prevent impulsive decisions without evidence-based data to support them.
- Negative thinking helps you look at yourself and others more realistically. Persisting in a chosen career or personal path in spite of difficulties is a good thing—except when it isn’t. Sometimes it makes sense to give up unrealistic ambitions and hopes and put your energy into a new endeavor.
- Negative thinking by another name is critical thinking. When you think critically, you question deeply and are less likely to make false assumptions, make faulty assertions, accept excuses, or fall victim to biases. “Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth,” said Albert Einstein.
On the last point, critical thinking serves as an objective foundation for considering a problem, interpreting information or data, and determining the path to transformation and change. It is neither positive nor negative, but considers positive and negative factors and variables and asks the right questions to clarify an individual or team’s thought processes.
In today’s dynamically changing society and business environment, agility in the face of ambiguity is required to adapt and ensure the value offered correlates to the value sought. At 2040, we help clients determine how an organization and its workforce thinks, contend with situations, and seek to solve problems. This level of insight informs how the organization may respond to challenges. We advise that overly positive thinking may result in overshooting goal forecasts or other results. Negative thinking may hinder the identification of the right opportunities or lead to overly pessimistic viewpoints that prevent an organization from action, ability to adapt, and moving forward. The more aware you are of the power of both positive and negative thinking, the better prepared you are to meet disruption, change and transformation with the most effective strategies. We’re here to help; let us know how!
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.