The power of negative thinking

As an organisation that focuses on positive psychology and growth mindset, the headline of this article might come as a surprise. We’re so used to hearing or saying “think positive” - how could a negative frame of mind ever be helpful?

According to Gabriele Oettingen, Professor of Psychology at New York University, positive thinking is needed to help you imagine the future, i.e. your desired goal. However, negative thinking better prepares you for overcoming obstacles. 

The theory is simple: by visualising what might get in the way of you realising your goal, you will know how to avoid the obstacles or, should they still eventuate, react rationally and navigate them successfully. Professor Oettingen conducted studies which showed people who imagined failure as part of a pre-mortem before starting to work towards their goal (check out her WOOP framework here), were more likely to realise their wish. As it turns out, negative thinking can be a powerful tool to build resilience and succeed.

Not only that, but Annie Duke, author in behavioural decision science, suggests that negative thinking puts your body and mind in a chemical state of action. By imagining failure, you become more protective of your goal and will work harder to ensure its success.

So how might we inject a dash of ‘negativity’ in a team context when starting a project or making a decision? One suggestion might be to use Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats approach. The methodology suggests looking at a decision or scenario from six different angles (or hats) including the black hat. When wearing the black hat, one’s role is to be critical and cautious, assessing the risks and potential obstacles. By giving each member of the team a turn at the black hat, different hurdles can be identified. Those hurdles can then be integrated into the planning phase, with potential solutions to overcome them and realise your desired outcomes. Et voila!

Now, next time someone tells you to ‘think positive’, it might pay off to add a bit of cynicism to the process. ;) 

Kim Larochelle

Kim joined The Helmsman Project as a volunteer when it first started delivering programs in 2013. In January 2014, she became one of the organisation's first two employees and is now CEO. She has had the privilege, along with the team, to witness and support The Helmsman Project's growth.

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