The “power of positive thinking” has become almost a joke these days; the phrase conjures images of dorky motivational speakers wearing plaid suits and self-help books with Hallmark card covers that we wouldn’t be caught dead reading.  But while reading Daniel Pink’s new book this week, To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, I came across statistics from a study that are simply impossible to be condescending about (from Fredrickson and Losada, “Positive Affect”).    The researchers asked a group of participants to record their positive and negative emotions every day for four weeks, and then compared the results with a thirty-three item measurement of their overall well-being.  They found that those with an equal (one to one) balance of positive to negative thoughts didn’t score any higher in well-being than those who had more negative emotions than positive.  But once that balance hit a certain ratio, about three positive emotions to one negative emotion, their well-being scores shot up significantly.

They also found there was an upward limit.  When the ratio of positive to negative reached about 11 to 1, positive emotions began to do more harm than good:  “…life becomes a festival of Panglossian cluelessness, where self-delusion suffocates self-improvement.”

Pink’s interest is in how that helps him make the case for “buoyancy”as a necessary quality for success in persuading others.  But of course the concept has broad applicability and puts some real science behind the tired old motivational phrases about positivity.

I’ve been thinking about how easy it is to become trapped in a vicious cycle with one’s thinking.  When life throws a few curve balls and you begin dwelling on what’s going wrong, it’s easy for your positive-to-negative thought ratio to drop below three to one.  Then because your sense of well-being decreases, you naturally have more negative thoughts and emotions.  This can escalate in a never-ending cycle of negative reinforcement that’s nearly impossible to get out of without making a drastic change to your situation.  In other words, there comes a point when you can’t fix it by forcing yourself to “think positive”—you have to find a way to make your life better, or at least different, in a tangible way.

Organizations can become trapped in that same cycle.  Take the organization that has done a poor job of managing change; a recent restructure was not communicated skillfully or thoroughly to the employees, and has begun to seem like an arbitrary and cruel form of punishment to those employees.  They are complaining to each other, and the swarm of negative emotion begins to circle back on itself in a self-reinforcing loop.  The employee who dares to have a positive thought—“maybe something good will come from our new team structure”—is ridiculed and is no longer part of the “in” crowd.  Positive thoughts have lost their ability to restore any balance, and a manager cannot mandate a reversal of the trend; in fact, any “mandating” of any sort by management just adds to the negative emotions of the team members.  At that point only a drastic change in context, such as a new leader with a fresh vision, or a major turnover of team members, is likely to break the team out of the vicious cycle.

It’s hard not to think about this just about any time you visit a federal agency these days.  Agency employees are submerged in an incredibly negative environment, subjected to intense public scrutiny and criticism and the need to step up performance while cutting back on labor and spending at the same time.   Finding a public employee who has managed to maintain any sense of optimism is nearly impossible, and  I can only hope there will be a change in context for them soon.  In the meantime, consultants like me might as well don the plaid suit, because our positive thoughts sound merely like cheesy, useless platitudes to federal employees caught in the cycle of negativity.

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