Positive thinking helps us lead in challenging times. We convey a sense that good things are possible. Then we engage people in creative problem solving to activate those possibilities.
Positive Thinking - Steve’s Request
Steve, a client at Samartan (company alias), called to talk about the challenges he’s facing. Samartan hasn’t been doing well for three years. While new services hold the promise of a brighter future, they won’t be available for 12 months. Until then employees are working under cloudy skies. Steve sees these clouds casting shadows over people’s hopes for Samartan and themselves. He wants to engage positive thinking and activate people’s sense of what’s possible, not only for the future, but to address current problems. I suggested we start by understanding why and how to practice appreciating what is - the foundation of positive thinking.
Why We Think About the Negatives
Many problems that gain our attention involve threats. Threats lead to fear. We fear losing what we value and love. We worry about real and imagined losses. Even when the threats are real, we imagine losses that haven’t taken place yet. It’s as if worrying will protect us against the pain of loss. I call this worrying forward.
Most species use size, strength, ability to hide, and other physical qualities to fight against threats. The gazelle lives if she outruns the cheetah. The chameleon uses camouflage to outsmart her predators.
Human survival, however, relies on our cognitive abilities. We invented fire, bow and arrows, knives and guns to protect ourselves against animals whose physical prowess is greater than ours. We prevent life threatening disease with advances in medical science. We think our way to survival.
Both humans and animals are equipped with alarm systems that detect threats in our surround. Our alarms are not set to go off when positive things happen, so we don’t automatically pay attention to, or dwell in, that arena. We scan for threats. We plan for, and worry about, their inevitability. As a matter of survival, our brains are more readily drawn to the negative arena.
Practicing the Habit of Positive Thinking
When your company’s in trouble, employee’s financial security, status, and stability are threatened. “What if I get laid off? How will I pay the mortgage? Will we lose our home?” In a culture that values people for what we do and what we achieve, losing a job also threatens identity and self worth. Threat is in the air. The brain moves to the fear and worry zone. Fear and worry constrict our minds, hearts and bodies. Possibilities arise when we are in a more expansive and positive space.
Given this adaptive and reflexive attention to threats/problems, we have to train our brains to seek, and appreciate, what’s positive. By doing so, we access a hopeful picture of the future along with the positive power to create it. Leaders like Steve can create structures and processes, like the ones below, to develop positive thinking and activate possibilities.
We get what we turn our attention to. We miss what we turn our attention from. Both are present.
- Begin individual and team meetings by asking people to talk about a positive interaction or development at work
- As people prepare for this topic in advance, they shift attention toward the positive and away from the negative
- Each shift helps create the mental habit of paying more frequent attention to what’s good and positive
- End meetings by asking people to identify something they appreciated, enjoyed, or gained
- Empower people to activate possibilities by asking each person to identify one step they can, and will, take to address the situation under discussion
Activating possibilities relies on my belief that problems are normal and temporary, and that I have the power and capability to do something about them.