The Negatives of Positive Thinking and Vice Versa

Discussion
Jan 06, 2010
Tom Ryan

By Tom Ryan

In Bright-Sided,
author Barbara Ehrenreich rails against what she considers the often harmful
side-effects that come from positive thinking messages being pushed throughout
society and corporate America.

Tracing America’s
penchant for positiveness to an overreaction to Calvinism, she lambastes
the panoply of business books equating business success with a positive
attitude, unsubstantiated medical claims linking cheerfulness to recovery,
and numerous religions touting the virtue of downplaying problems. In doing
so, she takes on motivational speakers, life coaches, prosperity-pushing theorists
embodied by the book, The Secret, as well as none other than Oprah.

Ms. Ehrenreich’s
inspiration for Bright-Sided came after her bout with breast cancer.
Her anger, fears and impatience clashed with the pink ribbons, top-ten
motivational lists, and support groups where the word “victim” was taboo,
according to a review in The New York Times.
She was particularly impatient with those who link a tragedy such as cancer
as a change driver in their lives, such as when Lance Armstrong stated
that "cancer
was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Moreover, being
angry, frustrated or even depressed has its merits, she argues. This includes
recognizing problems and changing one’s life through a new career or other
moves, and bonding together with other people to fix a situation.

Focusing
on the positive leads to isolation and conservatism, she claims.

"I would like
to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness," Ms. Ehrenreich
writes. "But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by
wishing it."

In business,
Ms. Ehrenreich relates the number of ways upbeat messages are used to drive
performance and perk up employee morale.

“Offered as
a sap to those facing layoffs, used as a spur to better performance by
those workers who remain (often while enduring cuts in pay and benefits)
and relied on as an excuse to ignore unpleasant inevitabilities like bubbles
bursting, American positivism reaches its giddiest and most dangerous heights
in the corner office” wrote Kate Tuttle in a review for The
Washington Post.

But at least
one reviewer, Christian Perring, writing for Metapsychology,
was less convinced when Ms. Ehrenreich applied her theory to the business
setting. Noting how her own company’s morale was taking a hit amid budget
cuts, she said some team work efforts could be appropriate.

“I have no interest
in participating in a workshop to boost positive thinking, but it would
make sense for those with a responsibility for the flourishing of the institution
to engage in some teambuilding,” Ms. Perring wrote.

Discussion
Questions: What are the pros and cons of positive thinking as a core
management emphasis? How objective, for example, should managers be in
discussing company challenges/prospects with employees?

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19 Comments on "The Negatives of Positive Thinking and Vice Versa"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

It’s hard to get past the first chapter for me with her rant against people telling her to be positive after a breast cancer diagnosis. To her, positive expectations are bad.

“So, what’s the alternative to a positive outlook?” She doesn’t seem to answer that question and she seems to discount all the research showing setting positive expectations really can make a difference in many areas of human interaction.

So many people are running around being “realists,” “devil’s advocates,” and “practical” that they live their lives at 50%. Why? Because they are actually afraid of giving over to the power of being positive.

They deride the movie, “The Secret” or the whole positive thinking movement from Norman Vincent Peal to Zig Ziglar. I see it occasionally in my audiences with a person with their hands crossed over their chest whispering to a person next to them, “It will never work.” And what do they get for it? An unwelcome mat. I wrote about it extensively on my blog.

Susan Rider
Guest
Susan Rider
11 years 4 months ago

Oh my! The issue is, people just don’t wish for positive thinking, they live it! There are no negatives to positive thinking. There’s a negative to people that are not enlightened.

I do agree though that companies that push positive thinking as a mantra but don’t walk the talk are only partaking in their own demise. Who wants to be around a negative situation or person? As Phyllis Diller once said, “If you have something negative, get rid of it.” That’s why she’s had 7 husbands.

Max Goldberg
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

Managers should be transparent with employees…and then invite employees to become part of the problem solving process needed to drive the business forward. Let employees become part of the solution. This involves treating employees with respect, actively seeking their input and listening when input is offered.

What’s interesting is that the same philosophy could apply to customers. We touched on this in recent BrainTrust topics.

David Zahn
Guest
11 years 4 months ago
I don’t subscribe to the “be happy for happiness sake” or the “happiness is the elixir for all that ails.” However, I think the argument could be better crystallized if it were to focus on accountability and responsibility. Rather than dwell in the negative, or become inebriated on the positive–a REALISTIC look at a situation and a determination of: 1) what can be changed2) what is within one’s power to influence3) what the benefit of that change would be for the individual/department/organization/etc…. …would be in order. Rather than thinking in terms of being “helpless” and therefore a victim of the efforts of others or a cruel world conspiring to do harm–it is a more helpful action to examine something objectively and make a contribution to increase that which is good or minimize that which is bad. In terms of being candid and honest with employees about what may be a significant challenge; employees are not blind, stupid, or unaware. They read, observe, communicate with others, etc. They can detect when they are being lied to–and… Read more »
David Biernbaum
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

Positive thinking sounds like a wonderful thing, however, there are some inherent dangers when positive thinking becomes part of a management’s culture just for the sake of “being positive.”

1. Loss of objectivity.
2. Discourages often needed, critical thinking and contribution.
3. Confuses “negative” with caution, carefulness, and critical thinking.
4. Often causes a heard of cattle to follow a misguided cow.
5. In some ways it can actually discourage leadership development within.

No one wants to be around negative people who are negative just for the sake of “being negative.” However, in my business, I have always made a practice of surrounding myself with open minded thinkers that offer good thinking that is sincere and valued by me whether the thoughts sound positive or otherwise.

Dick Seesel
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

I think realism (as opposed to calling it “anger”) has its place as a management tool. But it’s hard to agree that one’s reaction to a very personal crisis (such as cancer) is an appropriate style in the workplace. Surely there is an appropriate balance–in retailing and in other professions–between the two extremes of “happy-face” management (which can border on the condescending) and “in your face” management.

Most veterans of retailing would agree that there is too much of the latter in a business that tends to turn over its associates due to a variety of stress factors and poor morale. Treating associates like grown-ups makes sense, but that includes the art of “catching people doing something good.”

Marc Gordon
Guest
Marc Gordon
11 years 4 months ago

Sure breast cancer sucks! Getting laid off sucks too. And sure its okay to feel like crap about it and wallow in self pity face down in a tub of Ben and Jerry’s. But no matter how bad you feel, things will not get better unless you work to make them better. And it’s a heck of a lot easier to stay focused and get things done with a positive attitude.

Maybe Barbara needs to focus on the fact she’s still alive rather than dwell on the heartache of going through cancer.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
11 years 4 months ago

There has to be a balance between positive thinking and reality. In the retail world, positive thinking is what can save your business. The moral issue can directly affect profitability and productivity in such a huge way that it must be managed with combination of positive reinforcement and reality. This author does not take into account the complexities of the retail work environment. I echo The Doc’s sentiment; if not positive thinking, then what?

Rick Moss
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

I would suggest managers distinguish between unsupported positivism and persistence. It’s easy to demonstrate that pushing on past obstacles in the face of imminent defeat can very often yield positive results. Whereas, blind faith in things turning out for the best is not something you can bank on.

The sign on my office wall would read, “The Power of Persistence.”

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
11 years 4 months ago

I once worked for a large corporation (May Department Stores) that had a very positive attitude. They were always positive–you had no idea what you were talking about.

Seriously, this is not an either/or discussion. Being mindlessly positive inevitably leads to disaster. Being mindlessly negative will lead to paralysis. What has worked best in my experience is to first be as objective, challenging, and well-prepared as possible about the situation, develop a well thought out plan, and then confidently follow that plan, learning and adjusting along the way. This may not lead to total success, but it will always produce a better result than letting a negative attitude result in doing nothing.

Marge Laney
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

Bob pretty much says it all on this one. I know a guy who is so practical and such a realist that he has spent his whole life talking himself out of accomplishing anything.

It’s never a good idea to “whistle past the grave yard” when it comes to dealing with life’s challenges. But, whether you deal with them positively or negatively they will get resolved. I do know that it takes no more energy to be positive about a bad situation than it is to be negative and the working out of, or in some cases waiting for, the eventual outcome or resolution will be a bit more pleasant.

George Anderson
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

Realism is the best policy here. I’m all for positive thinking, but can still remember many years ago working for a boss on a ship that, if not sinking was certainly taking on water. At the time, he was looking to get rid of anyone not drinking the company Kool-Aid. Pointing to one “positive” employee, who on his best day rose to the level of mediocre, the then-boss said he would rather have five of those, than an equal number of particularly “negative” employees. The negative employees in question were, without question, the biggest reasons behind what little success the business had at the time. Their negativism was simply identifying what was wrong with the business and offering alternative approaches. For this they were identified as not being team players. The positives won the day in that particular battle and in the many years that have passed, that particular business has never gotten close to what it once was.

Kevin Graff
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

I haven’t read the book, so I don’t want to jump to conclusions…BUT–only a real down-in-dumps, energy sucking, negative chap would ever even buy a book with that title. I even feel a little deflated just thinking about it.

Thank goodness for all of the level headed comments posted above.

Reality rules, but being positive gets you through the day with better results, both on the bottom line and in your life.

Ian Percy
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

I think Bill hit on a key point; that is the foolishness of making this discussion a dichotomy when it’s a duality. Aren’t these two statements the same? “I’m not being negative, I’m being realistic!” and “I’m not being positive, I’m being realistic!”

It comes down to what is “real.” And if you have any inkling to believe what’s coming out of quantum and energetic insights, we make real what is real.

In his new book “The Physics of Miracles” Dr. Richard Bartlett says that if one person can do a miracle, we all can. Some of us don’t want that kind of power and so create a certain reality. Some of us are very open to understanding our true power to energetically create a different reality.

What is exciting is that we are beginning to see the application of energetic principles in creating a new reality for retail! Is that being “positive?” Darn right…profitably positive!

Mark Johnson
Guest
Mark Johnson
11 years 4 months ago

I think it is hard to understand the dichotomy of consumers and how to interact with them. Managers and sales assistants need to be able to reach in the manner the end user wants to be reacted to.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

In life, I expect the worst and try for the best. When people ask me “how are you?” I always respond, “Better than ever!” Where did I get that phrase? From an elderly customer at the supermarket I managed in the 1980s. It has stuck with me for that long, and a day doesn’t go by without me saying it multiple times on the endless conference calls of life. There are no negatives here. Spread your enthusiasm for life and it will be viral.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

Retail is filled with smiley faces? Really? I’d never know it from the steady drumbeat of people who during the last 1-2 years have predicted the end of civilization as we know it because comp sales are down x.y%

Not having read Ms. Ehrenreich’s screed, I can’t comment on it specifically, but yes, of course, there are people who take things too far and confuse positive thinking with irrationality; but there are benefits to society–and businesses–when people strive to achieve something which (collectively) may not be attainable: every spring 29 baseball teams–excepting the Pirates of course–start out thinking “we can win the World Series”; obviously only one of them will be right; indeed only one of them CAN be right, but baseball is made better by the teams trying for that goal; the same can be said for various employee-of-the-month honors and let’s-beat-last-month contests: if the goal seems realistic, it can still have value even if it isn’t achieved.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
11 years 4 months ago

Is there no happy medium? Too many managers take the mountain vs molehill approach. If they climb the mountain and make money they are heroes and it was a mere molehill. If they do not make money it isn’t their fault as the mountain was just too big. The tendency to frighten people so that survival is a great big triumph is just as bad as the motivational books and speakers who instill guilt in those who “fail” (or die or get sicker) because they were not happy and cheerful enough, constantly looking on the bright side of life. Life will always have ups and downs and no amount of positive thinking will ever ensure a perpetually smooth ride. That’s what some of us call reality.

Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
11 years 4 months ago

Positive thinking should be a verb and not a noun. The verb addresses a situation and becomes an action directed at the situation. Positive thinking as a noun initiates no action.

Typically, the private sector has no use for Positive Thinking as a noun. Government and other entities who do not produce anything concrete only use the noun; as we all know, they never initiate any productive action. Their only actions are to restrict, tax, prohibit, regulate, etc, etc, etc. When the noun is used, it destroys morale, increases turnover and allows the elevation of lesser employees to positions far beyond their capabilities.

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