Neuroscience of Leadership Speaker Trainer

When and Why Positivity Backfires

The idea that we can change our thinking with more thinking is baseless and delusional.

It gave birth to the widespread but deceptive belief that positive thinking is the panacea for all the world’s problems. Many leadership speakers can’t stop peddling it because it sounds so good and easy.

“Just stay positive!” “Cheer up, it could be worse!” “Everything happens for a reason.” Such cheap advice doesn’t offer solutions to real problems.

Known as “toxic positivity,” the relentless push to always keep a positive mindset may seem uplifting. However, research shows that constantly forcing positivity in the face of stress and hardship backfires in harmful ways.

Popularized by Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 book “The Power of Positive Thinking,” the notion that optimism is a cure-all remains widespread, especially in leadership circles.

Self-deceiving optimism ignores the realities of human emotion and the benefits of measured negativity.

As psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl observed in “Man’s Search for Meaning,” prisoners in Nazi concentration camps who stubbornly clung to hope that specific dates would bring liberation saw their optimism crushed repeatedly, sapping their spirits and will to live. Survivors instead focused on day-to-day coping with their grim circumstances.

Leaders who embrace toxic positivity set themselves and their teams up for failure. They are unprepared when setbacks inevitably occur.

Unfounded positivity breeds false hope, while a realistic outlook, even a negative one, spurs adaptive action. Negative emotions like fear and anger aren’t pleasant, but they evolved to motivate problem-solving in the face of threats and challenges.

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Negative Emotions Are Natural

When people face difficult or threatening stressors, their negative emotions and fear reactions motivate them to mitigate them.

Accepting negative emotions, rather than dismissing them, is beneficial for a person’s mental health.

Studies bear this out. One experiment had participants facing a stressful public speaking task write down their thoughts and feelings. One group was told to be positive, while another was told to accept whatever thoughts and feelings came up. Counterintuitively, the acceptance group felt calmer and spoke more smoothly. Facing negativity head-on proved better than repressing it with fake positivity.

The brain reacts according to its expectations.

In a brain imaging study, volunteers experienced heat applied to an extremity. Before the heat was turned on, they saw one of two symbols indicating how hot it would feel. Volunteers rated the pain level. The actual heat delivered had nothing to do with the symbols displayed. The researchers discovered that the reported pain level depended mainly on the shown symbol. The brain scan showed that the brain responded according to the expected pain level.

Running a marathon is a daunting task. Many runners know to focus on running just one more mile instead of thinking about the pain and fatigue that come later during the race.

Toxic Positivity and Leadership

So, what does this mean for leaders?

Leaders have an opportunity to reframe challenges as opportunities for creativity and innovation. Acknowledging the brutal facts of reality and balancing the negative with a hopeful outlook can be incredibly motivating.

Avoid Leadership Based on Toxic Positivity

Intelligent leaders identify the negatives, listen to concerns, and focus their teams on productive actions to navigate the path forward. Progress, not blind positivity, inspires hope and moves and prompts action. Leaders who adopt this approach empower people to cope with stress and accomplish remarkable goals, even if the journey is difficult. That’s the power of realistic thinking tempered with actionable positivity.

Dr. Terry Wu constantly compares the latest Neuroscience research with established leadership principles. His goal is to share that new knowledge through public speaking and professional consulting.

His engaging speaking style and fascinating content have enlightened millions of people worldwide.

He offers original, Neuroscience-powered leadership training workshops and keynotes. Few speakers make science as fun and entertaining to learn and practice as he does.

Hayley Landingham Dr. Wu gave one of my favorite presentations we’d ever had at our organization. His presentation on the Neuroscience of Leadership Decision-Making was informative and interesting but also gave actionable applications of the content, all in just one hour! I forwarded his presentation to many colleagues over the years since and would be thrilled for him to speak to any audience I’m involved with. I highly recommend having him speak to your group if you’re interested in both theory and practicality in one. ~ Hayley Landingham, Education and Meetings Manager, Association of Change Management Professionals
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