From Talent Economy, Leadership Development

Why Leaders Should Balance Positive, Negative Thinking

While today’s business ethos praises overly positive thinking, there are positive elements to negative thinking that can help organizations be more prepared for failure and, therefore, more successful in the long run.
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One would think ample snow would be a given in the Winter Olympics, but it wasn’t readily supplied for Vancouver’s 2010 games. Warm weather and lack of snowfall on Cypress Mountain near Vancouver, British Columbia, forced the event’s organizers to go with its contingency plan, which involved carting snow from other mountains, stockpiling man-made snow and adding bales of straw to help create courses needed for competitions. By doing a test event the winter prior, the Vancouver Organizing Committee officials could see the possibilities of failure, according to The New York Times.

Had officials held an overly positive outlook and not planned for the potential for little snowfall, the event could have faced a greater challenge than it already did.

“From a risk management perspective, we can’t be blind to the possibilities before us,” said Louis Carter, founder and CEO of Best Practice Institute, a leadership development and research firm based in Palm Beach, Florida. Negative thinking helps people to imagine unexpected outcomes and then plan ahead. However, just as being only positive about business can sometimes lead to a lack of preparedness that ultimately leads to failure, only being negative also isn’t ideal for organizational health.

“Negative thinking stimulates your emotion center as much as positive thinking does,” Carter said. “They both can have an effect to the detriment or dysfunction of your organization if done improperly.” It’s OK to be excited and passionate about outcomes, but when presented with obstacles, it’s important to unwind from positive thoughts and get back to the center of the issue at hand. “It’s about being a rational-thinking human being and knowing that not everything is based on emotion.”

Teams within companies should have that balance internally, Carter said. “Negativity to me is the exercise of a team role, which is a challenger role, really, or a mirror to show people what it looks like that they’re bringing forward and what the possibilities are.” These teams must consist of people who can support ideas, as well as challenge them. Being honest about a person or project then contributes to levels of respect in the workplace, while aiding in more profitable business outcomes.

This all requires careful consideration, as adding negativity isn’t best for every business culture, said professor Rebecca Mitchell, director of Health Services Research and Innovation Centre at University of Newcastle in Australia. “In teams or environments that are complacent, the introduction of a negative mood is potentially positive, as it signals that change is required and prompts a search for alternatives, evidence and critical analysis. In teams that are engaged in debate and in which a diversity of views are raised and discussed, negative mood can be dysfunctional,” she said.

If members of a team interpret negative moods as indicative of business troubles, they can become less open-minded and experience conflict, she added. However, if team members don’t want to “rock the boat,” then their interactions and planning lack critical analysis necessary in achieving project success.

Processes such as pre-mortems, or imagining how a project might fail before it even launches, can allow for teams to visualize what could go wrong, which allows them to mitigate those risks. Using risk management processes such as this can improve the success rate of a project, said Mark Langley, president and CEO at Project Management Institute, a professional membership association for project, portfolio and program management based in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. He said PMI found that organizations with high agility use risk management more than those that have low organizational agility.

Yet, negative thinking should not completely replace positive thinking in business culture. “Neither one is appropriate by itself,” Langley said. Negativity in how leaders manage workers can go too far. It’s important to avoid failure, but it is inevitable, and punishing failure could lead to workers not alerting management to issues early on in a project’s process.

Imagine if the Vancouver Organizing Committee officials feared repercussions about lack of snow and then waited until the last minute to plan for adding snow to their slopes. It would have been a much rougher ride for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

This story originally appeared in Chief Learning Officer‘s sister publication, Talent EconomyLauren Dixon is an associate editor at Chief Learning Officer. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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