The perils of positive thinking

When we think of the types of people who make good collaborators and productive employees, we often gravitate toward rah-rah ringleaders, always quick to spot silver linings and set grand goals. “If you dream it, you can achieve it.” That sort of thing.

When business leaders (and even social crusaders) are hailed in bite-sized images on LinkedIn and Facebook, it’s often aspirational platitudes that provoke the most love. These ideas are empowering – they make us masters of our own destinies – but also misleading. We hear about Steve Jobs rallying the “crazy ones” to realize their dreams against all odds; what we don’t hear about so often is that Jobs reportedly thought that sentiment amounted to an unflattering four-letter word when the campaign was being developed.

Although you will probably be told otherwise by colleagues who visualized themselves having a delicious lunch only to in fact have a delicious lunch, recent research suggests that the power of positive thinking may be overestimated in the business world. And maybe it’s not just in the workplace; author Barbara Ehrenreich has gone so far as to say, in the very subtitle of her book, Bright-Sided, that the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.

As Ehrenreich notes, American business (particularly certain sectors, like finance) has long romanticized positive thinking:

In the workplace, employers culled “negative” people, like those in the finance industry who had the temerity to suggest that their company’s subprime exposure might be too high. No one dared be the bearer of bad news. The purpose of work, at least in white collar settings, was to flatter and reassure the boss, who had in turn probably read enough of the business self-help literature to believe that his job was to motivate others with his own relentless and radiant optimism.

“Imagining a positive outcome conveys the sense that you’re approaching your goals, which takes the edge off the need to achieve,” London School of Economics management professor Heather Barry Kappes told Adam Alter for a recent New Yorker piece. Yes, there are loads of examples of legendary figures shooting for the proverbial stars, but, as Alter notes, it takes considerable suspension of disbelief to embrace the idea that Beethoven achieved it simply because he believed it. Another study demonstrated that mega-optimists and daydreams were less likely to receive job offers and ultimately earned lower salaries than those who may not be so readily described as “positive thinkers.”

Dreams and goals are motivators, not strategies. Oliver Burkeman, the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, writes that “A too-vigorous focus on goals, research suggests, can trigger a variety of unintended consequences: it can degrade performance, and encourage ethical corner-cutting.”

If you find yourself sharing daily affirmations with your team, you should consider exactly what you are trying to “overcome” with your positive thinking. “If you never label something as bad, then you don’t need positive thinking and all of the stress associated with getting something bad and experiencing it as such till you figure out how to make lemonade out of it simply goes away,” wrote Happiness at Work author Srikumar Rao for Psychology Today. Of course, it’s almost impossible to classify some life events as anything other than bad. But schedule overload? A rough client meeting? A missed deadline?

None of this is to say that you want an office full of gloomy Eeyores, nor is it a call-to-arms for the self-defeating. The best collaborators typically keep level-headed through triumphs and setbacks alike, not succumbing to pie-in-sky optimism or jaded pessimism. But when we think about the other end of the spectrum, the dreaded collabohaters, it’s best to realize that even the most indefatigable positive thinker may be found within those renegade ranks.

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.