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Kim Ki-Ho

The Power of Negative Thinking

Kim Ki-Ho

May 7, 2013

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In today's society, only the positive is emphasized. People strive to have a positive attitude and positive elements are accentuated and encouraged in all types of environments. A perusal of bookstore shelves finds no shortage of treatises on the power of positive thinking written by evangelists and psychiatrists to TV producer. On the other hand, it has become the norm to reject negative thinking and attitudes.

There's little doubt that that positive thoughts can help improve performance. Tests after tests exhibit a non-factor placebo having an impact simply because people believe it is beneficial. However, too much positivity can lead to over exuberance and disregarded risks. In her book Bright-Sided, American feminist and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich argues that positive thinking has become almost like a religion and was the root cause of the global financial crisis. Likewise, the demise of London's Millennium Dome is explained as the consequence of overly rosy predictions of 12 million annual visitors.

These missteps suggest a dose of negativity can be healthy. Indeed, research by University of New South Wales professor of psychology Joseph Forgas shows a negative opinion of someone may lead to a conflict but it also minimizes the chance of being deceived.

For workplaces, negativity can not only mitigate risks it can boost performance. Of course, it is a delicate issue that requires balance and intuitiveness. While positive feedback and encouragement can invigorate morale and confidence, too much of it may actually be counterproductive; employees may avoid challenges that could threaten positive assessments or feel too much pressure to perform at extraordinary levels.

Obviously encouragement can give beginners an emotional lift to overcome challenges but for experienced employees and specialists, negative feedback is more effective in enhancing their abilities and expertise.

Negative feedback differs from reprimanding. It can be used as a guidance mechanism. To prove the effects of negative feedback, an interesting experiment with participants of an environmental protection activity was conducted. The subjects were given feedback and asked to assign a donation amount from their participation fee. Novices claimed they would donate an average of $8.31 if they received positive feedback and $1.24 when they received negative feedback. Veterans were the exact opposite: an average of $2.92 on positive feedback and $8.53 after negative comments.

However, for negative feedback to be effective, the organizational culture must be accepting of it. Furthermore, the person giving the negative feedback must be well versed in the art of conveying opinions constructively. The point here is not to reprimand but to lead employees in the right direction.

Second is to encourage and embrace employees' critiques. Leaders are rarely comfortable with frank statements, but ignoring these comments can mean that the right decisions may not made, consequently bringing about failure. Nokia experienced a slump during the development of its smartphone after the opinions of the development team were ignored. In contrast, there are many examples in which criticism were embraced and trouble averted. Before the US financial crisis in 2008, the Vanguard Group, a giant investment management company, accepted the objection of one employee against investing in subprime mortgages. As a result, Vanguard spared its customers from huge losses when the US housing market collapsed. We all know the fate of the mortgage's main trader, Lehman Brothers Holding Inc.

Thirdly, organizations must prepare for the worst. Specifically, preemptive measures must be established on the basis of a hypothetical worst-case scenario. The greatest leaders have all had the ability to prepare themselves for disaster even when times were good. In his biography, management consultant James C. Collins termed this behavior "productive paranoia." Bill Gates was the epitome of productive paranoia, constantly writing down future risks in his "nightmare memo," which was consequently hailed as the basis for Microsoft's success. In addition, all organizations need self doubt to prevent resting on their laurels and knowing when to give up and shift direction. Some of the most successful companies in the world, such as 210-year-old Dupont in the US, have reinvented themselves many times to a radically different form from their origin.

The most important thing is to strike a balance between the positive and negative, that is, to adequately allocate the two depending on the situation. Psychologist and consultant Marcial Losada claimed that the positive-negative ratio for success was 3:1. And the head of The Relationship Research Institute and professor of psychology John Gottman believes that the positive-negative ratio for a blissful marriage is 5:1. In dire straits, it is healthy to have hope. On the other hand, when conditions are smooth, it is good to keep an open mind toward naysayers. In particular, during hard times such as the current low growth era, employees tend to keep their eyes and mouths shut and avoid taking risks even more. But it is vital to keep in mind that the worse the situation, the greater the need to pay attention to criticism.

The column originally appeared in JoongAng Daily
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