I was at an event recently and was stunned at times by the amount of rubbish being spouted. I was even more stunned that this nonsense appeared to be accepted by HR leaders in big businesses, who I think are, in part, responsible for people and performance.
The thing that struck me the most was that I kept hearing people talk about positive thinking as though it was the answer to most of the world’s problems.
Don’t get me wrong here, there’s a place for positive thinking. I’m a pretty optimistic person and count myself as hugely lucky. At the same time I have been through some challenging things in my life. Yes, many people have it far worse than me, but sometimes life has been cruel, unkind, difficult, unfair, even brutal and traumatic.
This bad stuff is a part of life – to not accept it as such is blinkered, small minded and actually just plain wrong. The reality of life is that…
- There are horrible illnesses that seem to strike people randomly, even when they’ve taken good care of themselves.
- There are flesh-eating bugs.
- There are parasites that feed on the eyes of vulnerable children.
- There are wars fought over lines that were drawn (usually by angry, entitled men in positions of power) on maps of the world that have created division between people and led to conflict.
- There is prejudice against people because of where they were born, their gender or sexual orientation, their religious beliefs, or the colour of their skin.
- There are shootings in schools.
- Drugs do destroy lives.
- There is homelessness.
- There are terrorists.
- There are people massively held back from fulfilling their potential by mental health problems.
And positive thinking simply won’t address this kind of stuff. It glosses over it superficially without the depth to understand the real causes.
So, it’s time for us to shift the conversation to a deeper level of understanding of how human beings work at their best. Yes, adopting a positive attitude has a right time and a right place, but it is not right for everybody, nor for every situation. In fact, it could be counter-productive on many occasions!
There’s a time and place for negative thinking
I don’t want the person checking the plane before I fly to Kuala Lumpar in a few weeks time, to be a positive thinker. I want them to be obsessively paranoid about all the little things that could go wrong with the plane. I want them to be a little anxious about the consequences of not doing their work well so they make every effort to check that everything on that plane is as it needs to be. I want them to feel the weight of responsibility in a way that makes them work thoroughly and with discipline. I want them to be aware of what failure looks like and make sure they do everything possible to avoid it. I certainly don’t want them to think, “It’ll be fine” if they see a small thing that’s not quite right.
Counter terrorism is another place positive thinking would not be helpful. I want the people working there to be capable of choosing a dark and devious mindset, working through the worst possible atrocities that could happen and the process that would unleash that terror. I also want them to be suspicious of the activities of all of us, even though most of us abhor extremist ideologies. The brutal truth is that these ideologies inspire a small minority of people. “I’m sure they mean well” just won’t address this reality.
I don’t want the practitioner taking care of people with mental health problems to be thinking, “I’m sure they’ll be alright in a day or two.” I want them to be concerned about the things people experiencing chronic depression or post-traumatic stress might be thinking and feeling and where that might take them. To be effectively compassionate they need to be able to notice and interpret the deeply disturbing thoughts and emotions of the people in their care. Being positive would almost certainly create disconnect between two people rather than serve to shape a helpful therapeutic relationship.
Negative AND positive
If you’re anxious or worried about something, perhaps an exam, interview, or an important event that’s happening in the next few weeks, then positive thinking alone isn’t likely to achieve the best outcome. It is more helpful to look at what’s contributing to those anxieties or worries and then to do the things needed to prepare yourself even better. Just choosing to ignore the worry and anxiety by thinking positively isn’t as likely to work.
We need people not to deny their dark/negative/angry/worried/anxious thoughts and feelings, but to be aware of them and to channel them to challenge injustice, to create greater parity of opportunity for people, to be compassionate and care for each other when we need a little help (or a lot), to get ourselves more ready to do the things we need to do to be successful in the moments that matter most to us. Relentless positivity in these situations would be silly and annoying and counter productive.
If you’ve been lucky enough to avoid some of the harsh brutality of life, then I’m envious. And maybe your experienced good fortune has led you to believe that positive thinking is always helpful. But please bear in mind that it’s not the only way and that it is the full breadth of emotions and experiences that makes us human and able to be compassionate, considerate and helpful individuals. To deny that full breadth by focusing merely on thinking positive is to deny us our very humanity.
There’s a time, a place and a type of person that will thrive with relentless positivity. And there’s a time, a place and a type of person that will thrive when they view the world in a more critical or negative way. What would happen if we turned down some of the noise about positive thinking and shifted the conversation to a deeper level of understanding about how people can be at their best?
If you want more information
- Research the extraordinary work of Viktor Frankl. The people who survived holocaust concentration camps were not the most optimistic, but the most realistic.
- Take a look at the Stockdale Paradox from the Good to Great research of Jim Collins and team. Businesses that outgrew their markets over a prolonged period of time were willing to face the brutal reality of their current situation.
- Look around you. Observe many of the leaders who effect change in the world. Many of them are driven by dissatisfaction and a move away from something that isn’t good enough.
- Look at high performers in many arenas. Their performance is driven by a fear of “What if what I’m capable of now isn’t good enough?”
- Think about the people you spend time with. Are some of them motivated to make their best effort when there’s a strong fear of failure around? Do they need the presence of potential failure to find the reserves of energy and drive to do their very best?
- Have a read of a wonderful little book by Julie K. Noren called The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.
Call to action
Leaders and anyone interested in people or performance. If you’re buying the BS about positive thinking. Stop. Think.
If we’re going to build compassionate, real and just cultures in our organisations, as leaders maybe we’d be better served by, at the right times:
- Encouraging the negative thinker in ourselves and in those around us;
- Facing into and addressing the negative; and
- Creating a more truthful and balanced conversation that gets the best from more people.
It’ll probably be better for us, our organisations and for the people we lead.