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5 Ways to Avoid the Tyranny of Positive Thinking

As we move into a more proactive mode instead of just the reactive one we have been in for the last two years, leaders are key players in an organization’s future change strategy. Leading your workforce through upcoming changes and helping them navigate the future requires skill development and behaviour change – two areas in which some of us thrive, and some of us don’t.

But what happens if you meet with resistance rooted in negativity and skepticism, which can hamper the change process? How can you turn things around for the better and get things back on track?

You might be tempted to tell your team to “think positive”, hoping that will improve the situation. In many cases, thinking positively is an excellent approach to handling negative situations and coping with all of life’s little challenges (and even some of the bigger ones). However, during organizational change, positive thinking alone won’t resolve negativity among your team when it arises. 

Why Positive Thinking Alone is Ineffective

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If you rely solely on positive thoughts to get your people through change or insist they simply “think positive” when they express concerns about the future, you can actually make matters much worse.

Many years ago, I heard someone coin this phrase: “the tyranny of positive thinking”, and I thought it applied perfectly to my philosophy on addressing negativity during change. This is because your team might consider positive thinking alone as being ineffective, especially when they consider their feelings about the future completely warranted.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever think positively, but rather include it as a part of your overall strategy when dealing with negativity about the future in the workplace.

In other words, enhance positive thinking with a positive approach to help ensure a smooth change process. This helps people navigate the future strategically AND decisively.

5 Ways to Avoid This Type of Thinking in the Workplace:

Avoiding the tyranny of positive thinking by changing negativity with a positive approach can be accomplished with five key strategies:

1. Avoid positive spin

Be honest about what people are losing and what people are gaining. Tell people what they still have control over and what they don’t. Be as honest and transparent as you can be at that time and in that situation. Manage people’s expectations as you guide your team from A to B.

2. Ground yourself and your team in facts while balancing the emotional aspects

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If you find the team slipping into a negative mindset, counter it by asking them one of these questions:

  • Is there an alternative explanation as to why this happened?
  • What evidence is there to support this belief?
  • Does doing this really mean that a negative situation will happen, or could something else happen?
  • Does X have to lead to Y?
  • What led you to that conclusion?
  • What is the basis of that assumption?

Chances are, the available facts don’t support their negative expectations. By addressing them head-on, you can right negative thinking without resorting to putting a positive spin on the situation. 

3. There is no “should” or “but”

Using the word “should” when discussing issues can create self-blame about the past. For example, when you tell someone what they “should have done”, you risk leaving people paralyzed and wallowing about the past. Instead, try saying, “Let’s look what you could do next time.” This approach involves learning about what didn’t work in the past, so that we can apply those lessons to the future. After all, to be change ready, we need to be prepared for the future.

On a similar note, you can help people down the path of change by replacing the word “but” with “and”. When we use the word “but” in a sentence, it negates everything you said before it, such as: “You’re really good at this, but you need to change that”. A better approach would be: “You’re really good at this, and there are even more things we could try”. This way, we’re still giving constructive advice while acknowledging the good.

4. Prepare your team to be unprepared during change

tyranny of positive thinking prepare your team

 Work with your people to identify and provide the skills that foster resilience so they can easily get themselves “unstuck” during change. One way is to examine past strategies that worked, (and we’ve all developed those in the last two years!) and analyze whether those same methods can be repurposed in the present.  

Coach them by asking these 3 questions:

  • In which other situation did you manage change well?
  • What skills, abilities, or attributes helped you handle the change?
  • How can we apply those skills and abilities to this current situation or to the future?

The situations don’t even need to be similar, as our underlying strengths are transferable. In some cases, we can use the same approaches to solve parallel problems and get positive results.

5. Don’t feel you have to solve all your team’s issues

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 As leaders, we tend to be great problem solvers. The only trouble is that when you’re a great problem solver, people will give you more problems to solve! 

I used to have this sign on the wall of my office many years ago that contained 3 questions:

  1. Do you want me to solve this?
  2. Do you want me to help you solve this? 
  3. Do you want me to just listen?

Believe it or not, most people chose option 3 – they just wanted me to listen. What I wanted to do was option 1 – solve problems for people. 

We sometimes forget that we can move people down the path of change just by listening and acknowledging their concerns. We cannot solve everyone’s problems or give them more time, make them less busy, or allocate more resources in order to make everything perfect. However, we can take the time to listen. 

Once people have expressed their concerns, even without you solving them, you’ll find they can continue navigating the future and be a stronger advocate for you as a leader.

Being an effective leader, who is the major promoter of behavior change in an organization, means complementing positive thinking with a positive approach. You then provide a support system for staff, equip the team with the proper techniques and tools to help them navigate the future and embrace negativity to convert skeptics into supporters.

If you follow the above steps, you’ll avoid the tyranny of positive thinking and help your team navigate the future strategically and decisively.