In 1953 Norman Vincent Peale, an American minister, published a book and started a revolution. The Power of Positive Thinking was and has remained a bestseller. Its message now ingrained in popular and business culture. Think positive for a positive outcome. Visualise success and you will achieve it. Business leaders, Sports Psychologists and Lifestyle Gurus pound the message home and it’s not without merit, but it should be taken with a pinch of salt.
The movement Peale pioneered has grown into a massive industry and there are a few charlatans involved. To believe the most extreme of the ‘think positive’ exponents, failure is impossible providing you follow their methods to the letter. When you fail, it’s because you didn’t stick rigidly to the ‘method’ rather than because of external events or real life. Blind faith in the positive mindset can even have adverse effects on performance – a team of German psychologists has demonstrated that time spent visualising positive outcomes can reduce the effort put into achieving them.[i] It seems that the positivity has a relaxing effect and not a motivational one.
We could all name sports teams, celebrities and businesses that seemed untouchable, but their attitude unseated them. Think Kodak – positive they were on the right track and refusing to recognise the significance of the digital challenge.
Thinking negatively, for a short while at least, does have benefits. Firstly, by establishing the worst-case scenario, you can make plans that stop it happening. Instead of blind optimism, you’ll know the necessary steps to take should ‘real life’ interfere with your plans. Secondly, a period of honest reflection admitting concerns, fears or deep-seated cultural problems can provide a much-needed catalyst for change. Thirdly – and perhaps a touch controversial for those who believe anything is possible – it can modify goals to those that are achievable and allow us to focus our efforts on them.
Given the above, most of us would still prefer a workplace with a positive culture. We’re not about to propose banning the upbeat, if we assume we’re doomed to fail, we won’t ever make progress. Too much negativity stifles creativity and prevents change, just as too much positivity can lead to dangerous complacency.
The trick is to achieve the right mix of positivity and negativity. To work with a can-do attitude and to consider potential problems. To address doubts rather than treat the raising of them as a sign of weakness. Maybe we should rethink some of the terminology – what exactly is negative about a risk assessment that ultimately helps us achieve a positive outcome?
[i] Heather Barry Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen, ‘Positive Fantasies about Idealized Futures Sap Energies’, Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology 47 (2011): 719–29