Embracing the (southern) blues


When I first started in organisational development positive thinking techniques linked to NLP, goal visualisation and Covey's 7 habits were all the rage. Since then motivational and self-help doctrines espoused through writings like 'The Secret', ‘Awaken the Giant Within’ and ‘The Success Principles’ have made seriously big bucks. The impact on the workplace has been huge, with a proliferation of motivational speakers rallying around the motto of “whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve” (Napoleon Hill).

There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy
— Albert Ellis

My concern is that life just isn’t that simple! For me positive thinking often lacks realism and an appreciation of the socio-economic context people (from birth) need to operate in. Society, work and human existence is highly complex, and while we can partly influence others and our environment, much of what happens is unpredictable and even random. It also promotes an inward focus on the self, which demands constant pep talks and personal affirmations to keep going. Then when things go wrong, or we fail to realise the material success generally upheld by the gurus as happiness, it’s our own fault. The danger here is we start to lose connection with our surroundings and what it means to be part of a collective experience, as we become infatuated with an idealised future, rather than accepting and living in the present. 

Happily (!) I recently discovered I’m not alone in my rejection of the positive thinking movement. Through his book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman offers up a middle way between blind positivity and being a miserable git. Burkeman draws on ancient thought, such as Buddhism and Stoic Philosophy, alongside more recent ideas, to propose that developing a type of ‘negative capability’ may allow for a more fulfilling experience of life and thus, happiness. For Burkeman by “embracing imperfection, and easing up on the search for neat solutions”, we have a chance of living more in the moment and end the constant search for bigger and better.

Barbara Ehrenreich then delivers a more scathing critique of the now booming industry that is positive thinking; through her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & the World. Ehrenriech fears the mantra of positive thinking has become interwoven with a refusal to accept failure, a self-delusion that ultimately fuelled the recent economic collapse. Of particular concern is the rejection of anyone questioning the status quo or raising objections in the workplace, as being negative.

The point is to acquire the skills not of positive thinking but of critical thinking, and critical thinking is inherently sceptical.
— Barbara Ehrenreich

Now some of this alternate thinking gets pretty deep. It will ask you to get intimate with the certainty of death and explore how it feels to fail or make a mistake.  The main proposition is that life can be good, but it can also be totally, utter crap, and like everything if life both are impermanent states that we can learn to embrace. The psychologist Julie Norem calls for ‘defensive pessimism’ (see The Positive Power Of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak), where conjuring up all the things that could go wrong helps us deal with our anxieties and actually help us achieve our goals. 

So what does this mean for the workplace? Well for starters we need to let go of the idea that positive equals good. Yes, we can achieve great things but we need to be willing to accept that most change initiatives come up against barriers like limited resources, time restrictions and human error. Yet, rather than blindly pursuing the KPI regardless, we should take the time to understand their impact and what we might have to do differently to make it work. This means leaders getting used to the idea of not being right the first time, admitting mistakes and listening to objections. Yes, we might need to reassess or even totally ditch the KPI, but by doing so we have a much better chance of success, and more importantly have everyone, even the doomsayers, on board! 

The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.
— Alan W. Watts

All beautiful images by Tim Goodwin

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