Why Positive Thinking is Not Enough

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Why Positive Thinking is Not Enough

There is a difference between positive thinking that moves you forward and positive thinking that is nothing more than wishful thinking. Monica Diaz wrote a timeless article a while back titled “Positive Thinking Might be Your Demise” in which she articulates this distinction.

I believe in the power of thinking positively and by nature, I am an optimist. Yet being positive doesn’t magically overcome the problems we face in life or the workplace.  It takes honesty, sometimes brutal honesty to turn a challenging situation around and create the kind of workplace and kind of results to which we aspire.

Consider that if you want positivity to rule the day, you need to consider the systemic implications of positive thinking in organizations.

In 1952 Norman Vincent Peale‘s now famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking was published. The power that positive thinking can have in our lives is today an instilled cultural belief: positive thinking is a good thing and being positive is a good and the right way to be. So true, yes?

Then again, maybe not. Could being positive turn out to be a bad thing sometimes?

While most of us, at least those who are passionate about making a meaningful impact wherever we go, would rather be surrounded by people who have a positive, “can do” attitude, I have seen far too many examples of this desire feed a culture of people who are afraid to say anything that could be construed as “negative”.

The problem comes in not because people have both positive and negative things to say, but rather when there is a belief that positive is “good” and “negative” is bad. This can become perilous for any leader or organization when people either withhold the bad news or sugar coat it with a positive spin that clouds the real issue.

In fact, sometimes what may occur as “negative” is actually a very good thing for business. Yet many leaders fear it. They fear what will happen if they allow a negative conversation to go too far – that somehow negativity will take over and they will lose control. It seems far safer and even smarter to deal with the complaints one on one, behind closed doors.

But it is perhaps the ultimate illusion that we can control what people really think and believe or what they will talk about.

And the more we try to prevent honest, authentic communication from happening openly in the name of “positive is good and negative is bad”, the more interesting what cannot be talked about becomes to people behind the scenes or as they say “around the water cooler”.   When invited into the open, difficult topics and negative assessments can lead to constructive conversation. In the background, however, negative sentiments and observations rarely lead to anything more than gossip that distracts us at best and fuels resignation and cynicism at worst.

And that is when focusing only on the “positive” can really cost you. It’s easy to listen to the good news, the positive messages. It is a lot harder to listen to the bad news, the negative messages, especially when they are directly about you or something you did. Yet it is in how openly we can listen to the things that are hard to hear that will tell people whether we want to hear what is good for us, or whether we are interested in hearing what is real and true for them.  It can take courage, but a willingness to invite and hear the whole truth might just be the source of your biggest breakthroughs and most rewarding progress.

If you want a place to start, try asking this question of those you lead: is there something you have been afraid to tell me, but think I really need to hear for the sake of our success?  

You might be surprised by what you hear. You may also be positively surprised by how much hearing the whole truth moves things forward.


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    […] Mazza of Random Acts of Leadership  shares why positive thinking isn’t enough. In fact, sometimes we need a more realistic view of reality to create positive movement and action. […]