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Something Good About Negative Thinking

By Pepper de Callier

There’s nothing like a good economic crisis to liven up a discussion about positive versus negative thinking.  People have a tendency to become a little more introspective when they feel their careers, financial stability, and peace of mind in general, are being threatened. It’s at times like these, though, that we find out a lot about ourselves and, a lot is learned about us by those who observe us everyday.  When times are good, we can pretty much think however we like and we’ll still be carried along, to some degree, by the rising tide of a strong economy.

Anyone can be the captain of a ship when it’s in the harbor, but a great deal fewer qualify for that role out in the open sea, which is where we find ourselves today economically.  It is precisely times like these, though, in which futures are defined and personal brands are either strengthened or diminished by the way people react to what’s going on around them.  And, having advised senior executives through many economic cycles for more than thirty years, I have witnessed a wide variety of reactions.

One reaction, which I think is most commonly ascribed to my fellow countrymen—Americans—is delusional optimism.  This is the kind of thinking that most people confuse with what is commonly called positive thinking.  Delusional optimism is the lazy man’s interpretation of positive thinking and it requires nothing more than believing that your role is simply to receive all the wonderful things you so richly deserve and that you want to happen to you. This mutation of thinking began in the United States in the 1950s and morphed into a global multi-billion dollar industry of success gurus and the thinking that every kid on a soccer team should get a trophy just for showing up, even if their team lost.

Delusional optimists are people who are frequently quite good at “motivating” those around them with clever quotations, sports analogies, and a big smile in an attempt to disregard data that runs contrary to their way of thinking.  As leaders, these people are often wrong, but never in doubt.  Delusional optimism is what causes some leaders to run full speed straight off the edge of a cliff and take everybody with them.

The opposite, delusional pessimism, is just as wrong-headed.  These are the leaders who are in a constant battle against forces beyond their control.  They are the hapless victims of things like—stupid employees, idiot customers and people who are always trying to take advantage of them.  As leaders, these people rule with intimidation, an iron fist, and a long, well thought-out-list of excuses and people to blame for their failures.

In her book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, Professor Julie K. Norem describes an alternative response that I think is worthy of consideration: Defensive Pessimism. Defensive Pessimism involves a three-step process: 1) When faced with a formidable challenge, lower your expectations—don’t envision perfection—and assume things will go badly, then 2) In detail, imagine all the things that could go wrong and how they could go wrong, and then 3) create a plan that addresses and counteracts each possible failure.  In her research, Professor Norem found that by doing this it gave people more of a sense of control and lowered their anxiety levels when approaching challenges that might otherwise seem overwhelming.

Here’s what I see in this approach as it relates to leadership style.  One of the most important things for a leader to do is to instill a feeling of trust in those who follow him or her. One of the many elements of building that trust is a sense of reality.  The followers of the Delusional Optimist never know what to believe, because no matter what happens the boss is smiling and cheering them on.  There is no sense of reality here on which to focus—just a hope that things go right.  The followers of the Delusional Pessimist are equally adrift when it comes to a sense of reality and trust—if things are really this bad why come to work?

It is the ability to face reality, accept its challenges, and then chart a course that inspires trust, empowers people and gives them a sense of being in control.  This is what true leadership is about: reality, acceptance, and a plan. This is when a truly positive attitude can be developed, believed in, and trusted.  Professor Norem and I may have different labels for things, but one thing I think we would agree on is that a reality-based approach to leadership is one that inspires a sustainable sense of trust and belief, which we could all use a little more of today.


About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at www.pragueleadershipinstitute.com     

 
 
 
 
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