The Tyranny Of Positive Thinking

Positive thinking, and now, positive action have become the ‘self-help’ industry standards to achieving positive personal change and finding our collective way to being ‘happy, healthy, and wise’. According to Richard Wiseman (self-help guru based in the UK), if you want to be more confident and successful the best thing to do is to act the part.


I, for one, have always been a little skeptical about facile, one size fits all solutions to some of life’s most vexing and, at times, crippling problems.  But now, it appears, that this message of positive thinking has slipped beyond the borders of popular culture and has saturated much of the professional culture in psychology (Held, 2002). Understandably, this message is reinforced by extensive research that does find a correlation between optimism and positivity, and, health and longevity. However, the overriding conclusion that positivity is good and good for you, and conversely, negativity is bad and bad for you, lacks nuance, realism, and context.

Positive psychology does offer valid and constructive criticism on the development of human functioning but perhaps equally important is the understanding of psychological phenomena in a more holistic and complex manner. Carstensen and Charles (2003) wrote that a central task for a psychology of human strengths is to understand whether and how positive and negative experiences depend on each other and work together and how they are in fact interrelated. The call to ignore all negative aspects of human experience is, they argued, counterproductive and unrealistic.

When implementing these lessons of positive psychology to business management, it is not difficult to understand that the sheer implementation of positive psychology will not combat all challenges present in the workplace.

In order to flourish in these tough economic times, 21st century corporations must get better work from their employees. A 1994 article in the Harvard Business Review by Chris Argyris illustrates this point by describing such employees as:

  • taking responsibility for their own behaviour
  • developing and sharing first-rate information about their jobs
  • making good use of genuine empowerment to help shape solutions to fundamental problems

There is no room in this formula for self-censoring or not speaking openly or truthfully about issues and problems for fear of being negative and not always spouting the principals of positive thinking. Such linear thinking inhibits learning and stalls the forward progression of any corporation.

Positive thinking, often times, inhibit managers (or other employees) from saying what everyone needs to say and hear, thereby depriving employees of the opportunity to take responsibility for their own behaviour. This benevolent exercise in positive thinking actually results in destructive anti-learning behaviour that is plainly counterproductive.

To summarize, a balanced and even-handed characterization of the problems and strengths present within a productive workplace should be the goal. Dissatisfaction, low morale, and negative attitudes often play a critical role in giving an accurate picture of organizational reality and airing real and potentially threatening issues. This can initiate the process – taking responsibility, sharing good information, empowering employees to help shape solutions – by which real positive change can be affected, and as Argyris argues, with a new level of self-awareness, candor, and responsibility.


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