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Negative Thinking - 11 July 2013

Positive thinking seems to be one of the hippest trends of the modern era. But a review of the empirical evidence, released a few months ago by the University of NSW, found those who think negatively actually have stronger memories, make better judgements, are not as gullible, are less selfish, and persevere longer at difficult tasks.

These are hugely important findings. They’re hugely important because in many workplaces employees who are branded as ‘negative’ are immediately ostracised, considered too destructive and uncooperative to have on a team. But what is now evident is that they really do have a valuable role to play in any organisation if given the opportunity to do so.

(Unless we're talking about the toxic people whose clear aim is to cause mayhem by opposing and complaining and conniving and influencing others to join them on the dark side. In those cases, treat them as a serious performance management issue. That's why it's essential to distinguish between those who simply think negatively with those who work negatively. The former are easy to coach; the latter not so much.)

The challenge for you as a leader is to avoid the temptation to turn a negative thinker into a positive one. You’re better served identifying the strengths they can bring to the team irrespective of their thinking style, and then incorporate those strengths in some way within their job. In particular, negative thinkers can make a great contribution in these areas:

Matters of cognition: This includes solving complicated problems, simplifying organisational complexity, and developing subject matter experts.

Matters of judgement: This includes identifying flaws in strategic plans, providing input on the recruitment of new employees, and determining risk.

Matters of motivation: This includes participating in long-term projects, keeping colleagues focused on the core issues, and questioning the status quo.

Matters of social behaviour: This includes communicating critical information, anticipating the impact of change initiatives, and assessing the fairness of decisions.

Of course, positive thinkers can be just as successful at each of those areas. It’s just that those inclined to think negatively have especially demonstrated those competencies in various academic studies. Even then, that doesn’t imply that negative thinkers are better than positive ones or vice versa. They each have advantages (and disadvantages) that brilliant leaders are able to maximise (or minimise).

What you’ll end up discovering is that when you stop seeing negative thinkers as an issue to be rectified and instead see them as a talent to be engaged, they begin to feel valued and acknowledged. And as soon as that realisation sets in, they’ll eventually exhibit the positive traits that so many of their colleagues have long desired.


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