How positive thinking culture undermines performance in organizations
by ‘Uju Onwuzulike
March 9, 2018 | 12:21 am| | | Start Conversation
Often times, when I speak to CEOs and organizations that initially are not abreast of optimal thinking about how the age long culture of positive thinking in organizations has become organizations greatest undoing as it relates to their performance and growth, I sound strange to them. Of course, I quite understand their consternation, especially when over the years, they have been told to think positive if they want things to be okay, avoid negative thinking, avoid being a carrier of bad news, and always hope for the best.
For decades, we have been taught to “think positive” even when it is obvious that the seeming challenges are weighing the organization down – even when individuals and organizational performances are dropping – even when the dangers are right under our noses – even when there is no solid game plan for success, and sadly even when one has a major concern of what is going wrong in the organization.
Due to the uncertainties organizations are facing, their people are strongly getting used to constantly mastering the art of hoping for the best instead of planning or working for the best. But is “hoping for the best” in the best interest of any organization? Really, what we have been told for decades about positive thinking is no more in the best interest of any company that wants to increase their performance and achieve desired growth. Organizations need a more realistic way of thinking that would help them embrace the current realities and evolve a structured ways of solving their problems and not suppressing them – and this indeed is what optimal thinking portends.
So, are we saying that positive thinking is not necessary in this age and time? No, positive thinking is valuable, and useful, however dwelling only on positive thinking as a magical way to achieve result in this ever changing business world could only do more harm to organizations than good. The belief of most organization is that positive thinking is always in there best interest, but that is not always the case. We have been thought to always see the brighter side of the business alone and most of the times, we ignore the treats and the warning signals for optimization. Martin Seligman, who wrote Learned Optimism said, “If the cost of failure is high optimism is the wrong strategy”. As a result of dwelling alone on positive thinking, organization performances have been impacted negatively; bad debt has increased, questionable transactions that would have been rejected have been consummated, warning signals have been ignored, people who had genuine concerns have been labelled as “deal killers” and the road map to organizational success has been reduced to mere wishful thinking or “business as usual”.
In most organizations, positive thinking is often used to suppress negativity. Why do I say so? Because many positive thinkers often judge, suppress, and ignore negativity. What they want to hear alone is good news, and as a result they distance themselves from any negative thoughts, events or actions that are likely to ruin their organizations. They often do not pay attention to the red flags. Recall ABN AMRO’s acquisition by Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) where the acquisition was completed with insufficient risk analysis, little due diligence, and a disregard of red flags (due to their delusional optimism and no one was ready to speak out so as not to be termed negative and a deal killer). Years back, an industry colleague asked me to join him in facilitating a strategy retreat for his client and behold I was shocked by the way they were ignoring and suppressing some key issues that would have given them a big blow. Indeed, they were not facing the reality; they were more interested in covering up their issues and sounding more positive – but of course we succeeded in prying out their issues.
Again, the positive thinking culture in organizations has ended up becoming a wishful thinking. Today, performance optimization is one of the organization’s biggest issues. On employees’ side, they are always upbeat or positive in meeting or exceeding their performance targets, but why are most of them having performance issues. This is simple, their optimism or wishful thinking cannot magically produce results, but will end up producing suboptimal results. Remember, every time an employee thinks suboptimally, productivity, efficiency, effectiveness and profitability are impacted.
Also, positive thinking has different shades. There are extraordinary positive thinkers and mediocre (moderate) positive thinkers. Communications between positive thinkers on different levels is often problematic. Conversation between them does not provide the best outcome because they are not on the same wavelength.
Importantly, suboptimal thinking is not the mental basis of peak performance. If we don’t optimize a situation, we don’t complete it. This means instead of suppressing someone’s negativity, the best thing an organization can do is to accept that negativity (or bad news), understand the cause of the negativity and then try to optimize the situation. Whenever negativity is shelved, the vital lessons that should be learnt and the optimizations gains are lost.
No one will get into the car and say, “I’m not going to wear my seatbelt today. Instead, I’m just going to think positively about arriving at my destination safely.”But that’s exactly the mentality of most people in organizations. They seem to believe that the culture of positive thinking will make good things happen in their organizations – even without doing all they could to make it happen. It may be fashionable or ideal for a CEO to say, “In the coming quarter we are going to think positively about increasing our revenue by let’s say 20%”. Now, if that CEO or the organization fall short of combining their positive thinking with positive action or having a solid game plan, that CEO will unlikely see positive results. The CEO’s positive thinking has ended up becoming a mere wishful thinking.
The truth is optimism can’t change the reality of a situation. This does not mean, one should not hold out hope or look on the bright side of things, but what I am saying is that deluding oneself into believing, “If I think positively enough, everything will work out,” isn’t realistic. It does more harm than good in optimizing the organization’s performance.
How much do you understand about optimal thinking? Would you want to learn more on how optimal thinking can be used to drive optimal results and growth in your organization?
Feel free to ask your questions or share your views.
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