When and Why Positivity Backfires
- Is positivity always a valuable trait for leaders?
- How should leaders handle followers’ negative emotions?
Norman Vincent Peale’s 1950s book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” has greatly influenced leadership speakers and writers. They have been spreading this unproven idea simply because it appears to be a quick fix for all the problems under the sun. At the same time, negative emotions like fear get a bad rap. But in reality, being realistic is a more desired leadership trait.
Victor Frankl, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, illustrated the danger of too much positivity in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In it, he relates an important difference between survivors of Nazi concentration camps and those who perished. Prisoners who maintained repeated hopes that liberation would come on specific dates had their hopes dashed, which added to their stress. Many gave up their hopes too quickly. Others, who focused on sheer survival and coping tended to be the survivors.
Negative Emotions Are Natural
When people face difficult or threatening conditions, their negative emotions and fear reactions motivate them to find an eventual solution.
Leaders should not present false positive information that will soon be proven incorrect. Instead, they should reinforce the message that group efforts will eventually resolve the difficult situation.
We all want to believe good news. However, unfounded or unjustified positivity only gives people an illusion of control and leaves them unprepared for negative outcomes. We have no shortage of people who love to be positive messengers. They give out cheap pep talks, such as “You can do it,” or “You got this,” without bearing the consequences. Our pop culture loves those feel-good stories filled with optimism.
Predicting only Positive Outcomes Often Backfires
In business and organizational leadership, there is often a tendency to project positive outcomes, even in the face of diminishing probabilities. Peale’s “Positive Thinking” leads many to avoid dealing with negative realities when interacting with those they supervise. As with the concentration camp prisoners, that strategy often leads to repeated evidence that the long-term optimistic view is unrealistic. Instead, realistic, positive short-term goals can energize a group and move it toward a desired result.
In another brain imaging study, volunteers experienced heat applied to an extremity. Before the heat was applied, they were shown one of two symbols, which indicated how hot it would feel, including a rather painful level. Volunteers were asked to rate the pain level. The actual heat applied had nothing to do with the symbols displayed. What was discovered was that the reported pain level depended mainly on the symbol that was shown. The brain scan showed clearly that the brain responded according to the expected level of pain, as well, with more activity in regions involved with threat and fear. The responses continued to show the same effect, even after repeated trials.
The goal of effective leadership is to encourage and enable productive work toward an established goal. Positive projections into the future are rarely effective when reality makes those projections unlikely. If leaders instead acknowledge the difficult situation and encourage efforts that produce tangible progress, employees are more likely to avoid the paralyzing effects of pessimism.
Avoid Leadership Based on Toxic Positivity
Neuroscience research has revealed many facts about how people’s brains respond to a wide range of emotions. In some cases, that research has reinforced traditional leadership training principles. However, in many cases, it has also revealed how those principles fall short. Dr. Terry Wu is constantly comparing the latest Neuroscience research with established leadership principles. His goal is to share that new knowledge through public speaking and professional consulting. Contact him to learn how you can benefit from Neuroscience at all levels of leadership.