Sun | Aug 25, 2019

Positive thinking can be bad for business

Published:Sunday | October 26, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST

Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST

The number of business people who believe in the power of positive thinking is increasing, even though some new research shows that they may be mistaken.

Positive thought is simply not enough, and may even be slowing them down.

Dr Gabriele Oettingen, a New York University researcher, has been studying the effects of positive thinking for more than two decades. Her work, shared in an interview in The Atlantic magazine, shows that positive thinking actually retards action.

The mechanism by which this happens is easy to understand. If you generate sunny, optimistic feelings about a goal you want to achieve, studies reveal that unless you take other actions right away, you are less likely to act on these feelings.

Why does this happen? It's because your motivation falls away due to the fact that your mind has already tasted success. There's no need to do anything, because feelings of success represent a subconscious, psychic payoff.

Instead, Oettingen recommends that we engage in an activity called "mental contrasting" in which we examine obstacles closely whenever we imagine success. For example, if you want to register for an MBA programme at night, but you also have a spouse and children, it's a mistake to focus only on the upside.

Looking carefully at the possible "points of failure" is critical to being a success.

This is the very opposite of the popular routine in which people who practice positive thinking recoil when uncomfortable facts present themselves. In meetings or conversation, they often try to switch the subject when their happy feelings take a dip. It's a reflex action on their part, a way to protect against unwanted emotions.

Oettingen argues that this self-protection is natural, but it's potentially a threat to success. If you recall the times you have received bad news, you may agree that it takes courage to face obstacles squarely.

When 'mental contrasting' is practiced, it builds a strong, courageous association between three things: the positive future, the obstacles, and the behaviour required.

To help make things easy, the researcher has broken down the process into four steps that use the acronym WOOP.

Wish: What would you like to achieve or accomplish? What concern would you like to address?

Outcome: What is the best outcome you associate with fulfilling your wish? What would be the best part of your success? Imagine it fully.

Obstacle: What holds you back from realising your wish? What is in you that stands in the way? What behaviour or emotion prevents you from being successful?

Plan: What can you do to overcome your obstacle? What is one effective action you can take?

The next step she recommends is to create an implementation intention, which happens to be an unusual, skilful way to think about a task.

To craft an implementation intention, think carefully about the future task you want to accomplish. Then, attach to it a trigger, which would help to prompt the completion of the task, using the 'If - then' formula. For example: If my boss stops by my office, then I'll ask her for a raise.

These are no ordinary constructs. They happen to be extremely effective, and there are numerous studies Dr Oettingen and others have published showing that they dramatically improve the odds that you will complete a particular task. Implementation intentions explain, for example, why you are more likely to undertake an action scheduled in your calendar than one that's only placed on a list. In this case, time can be used as the trigger for a tremendous number of prescheduled activities.

When your smartphone has been programmed to launch an alarm at the start of a task, it's more likely that you will take positive action.

Alternately, if you can hire someone who is reliable to remind you to switch to a new activity, that can also be an effective strategy. Many administrative assistant play that role for company executives.

Positive thinking is not bad, per se, so I'm not advocating its replacement with its opposite - negative thinking. That's a false dichotomy.

Recent research shows that it's just not enough, and a failure to consider obstacles in depth can lead to the defeat of everything from a corporate strategy to the simplest of sales plans.

If you hate thinking about obstacles for more than an instant, take Oettingen's advice and use the WOOP steps, plus implementation intentions, in order to take the same steps as those who are courageous. According to the researcher, you should find much greater success because you are effectively dealing with reality rather than indulging in wishful thinking.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: