Imagine a CEO giving a speech to a group of employees that — because of recent woeful business results — could help salvage the morale of the company and steer the ship back in the right direction.
The executive, following the recent trend in overly positive business thinking, prepares with a pep talk. “Stay positive. Everything is going to be great. There is no way I can fail.”
The executive envisions a successful path, reciting every word with perfect elocution, rallying the audience with confidence about the business prospects that lay ahead.
Then, the executive steps to the podium, prepared to deliver that first sentence — and freezes.
Problems quickly escalate. The words envisioned suddenly escape. Dryness of mouth halts clear speech. Things don’t go as planned.
Positive psychology — the idea that constantly envisioning positive outcomes will ultimately lead to success — has grown in recent years as the self-help topic du jour in business. And there is plenty of legitimate research to back the trend.
But on the other side of the coin are experts proclaiming the power of negative thinking, the idea that embracing potential failures can result in better preparedness and better outcomes.
If the executive preparing his or her speech had focused on all of those negative possibilities instead of staying overly optimistic, this thinking goes, perhaps he or she would have been better prepared to handle the things that ultimately went wrong. Note cards might have been prepared; a glass of water would have been brought on stage. Conscious pessimism beforehand might have led to a more positive outcome.
One of the biggest champions of the power of negative thinking is author and Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman. In his book, “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” Burkeman contends that negative thinking is the most effective problem-solving strategy.
“Focusing on the worst-case scenario is a way to deal with anxiety,” Burkeman said. “If you prepare for the things that go wrong or focus carefully on failures, you will succeed more. It is not so much deliberately thinking a negative thought as it is more about actively focusing on bad scenarios.”
Burkeman’s argument is based upon techniques used by the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. He said the Stoics used “negative visualization,” a process involving contemplating the loss of friends, loved ones and significant possessions to gain a greater appreciation for what one has. Burkeman applies this thinking to celebrities who say that when they hit “rock bottom” it was the best thing that ever happened to them.
“It’s cliche, but that idea that once you are crushed to the ground, you don’t need to live your life in fear of what would happen if you crashed to the ground because you have done it,” Burkeman said. “You can apply that to whatever context. Once you are open about stuff, you don’t have to deny all of the bad things that can happen.”
Burkeman said embracing the negatives of a situation and facing failure head on will ultimately produce a more satisfying way of life.
“If you try to persuade yourself that everything is perfect and wonderful, often you will fail,” he said. “But even if you succeed, you will have to keep replenishing that you are trying to maintain this state of high excitement and happiness, and the moment that anything bad happens you lose everything you have built up. That is a very fragile and brittle way to go through life.”
Although the strategy of negative thinking has been thought of as a way to navigate through life’s problems, it has not been universally adapted by organizations as the best way to think about achieving success in business.
Burkeman attributed this to companies being so focused on generating results that employees are hesitant to act on new and creative ideas; they believe that their corporate culture will punish them for not instantly producing a positive outcome.
Targeting the Source
Companies may not be completely at fault. Part of the problem might begin with our upbringing.
Seymour Adler, a partner in the talent solutions practice at human resources consultancy Aon Hewitt, said the problems with a lack of negative thinking in the workplace begin when we’re young.
“It is important to recognize that our general culture creates a feel-good environment that believes so strongly in positive feedback, such as making sure that every kid gets a trophy,” Adler said. “We get so concerned with producing results that it really gets in the way of organizational performance. We are such an upbeat society, or pretend to be, that the advantages or benefits of negative emotion can be hidden.”
Adler said companies fail to realize that negative emotion can have a really positive effect. He said when people fail to embrace negativity or anxiety, they are denying themselves the opportunity to find the source of their problems and, as a result, will be prone to making the same mistakes.
“Negative emotions are more likely to focus people on the trees rather than the forest,” he said. “When bad stuff is happening, narrowing on the root cause is a very functional and good thing. If I’m a manager, a leader or an employee, and I start to get a little nervous or worried, that’s a signal that my emotional system is sending me to be cautious, to be careful to not make a wrong move that can potentially harm me or my team or my organization.”
Even those who resolutely embrace positive psychology say a pinch of negativity is a key ingredient. “Life is about targeting problems and leveraging the opportunities that come from those problems,” said Kathyrn Cramer, a psychologist and author of the book “Lead Positive: What Highly Effective Leaders See, Say and Do.” “You need to see the opportunities that are more hidden and the possibilities that really make up how you create your life,” she said.
Still, even as Cramer acknowledges the merits of negative thinking, she finds positivity to be more productive.
“I want to show people who are sick of being negative that there are tools and processes they can use to retrain their brain and be more positive,” she said.
When Safe Is Dangerous
Others say remaining overly positive and not acknowledging the possibility of failure is a dangerous mix for organizations.
Megan McArdle, a journalist who has written about economics for The Economist and The Atlantic and is the author of “The Up Side of Down,” points to the financial crisis as an example of institutions failing to acknowledge when failure is possible and how such oversight can lead to larger problems.
“People thought it was impossible to have another Great Depression, which is why we nearly had another Great Depression,” McArdle said. “People were acting like it couldn’t happen and that it was safe to buy houses at inflated prices and that it was safe to make those loans. They were implicitly assuming that having another Great Depression was just impossible; because of that we got into too much debt and it made it very possible.”
Not considering the worst-case scenario left banks with a disaster and no immediate plan for remedy. This oversight was due in large part to banks’ inability to do what McArdle describes as “failing well.”
“Failure doesn’t feel good; if it did we would never stop doing things that don’t work,” she said. “However, trial and error is the most powerful force in the universe.”
Yet some corporate cultures fail to embrace proper trial and error tactics because employees are scared to try new things in fear of upsetting bosses. Meanwhile, executives may be beholden to conservative business strategies in fear that bold plans with larger risk of failure might spook shareholders, resulting in diminishing stock value.
According to McArdle, this type of corporate culture is crippling.
“If you have a culture that shoots the messenger, they are going to try and do as little as possible, because if they do something they might get it wrong,” she said. “If you are competing in a world economy, you cannot be the sort of company that just sits there and collects royalty checks once every three months. Now you have created a corporate culture that is setting you up to fail big instead of failing in little ways [that lead toward] greater success.”
In a strange way, the power of positive thinking may only be valuable when the proper doses of negativity are added in. And for the blend to result in long-term success, organizations must ultimately embrace negativity as much as they do positivity.
“The change must come from both the leadership and employees,” McArdle said. “If it doesn’t, they will be left with a risk-averse company that totally destroys its own profitability. You cannot avoid failure just so you can be safe. There is no place as dangerous as safe.”