Enlist The Power of Negative Thinking for Rising Leadership

Strength through negativity! Right. Now before you get the idea that I’m proposing leaders become more woe-is-me, cynical, “nothing-will-change,” “the-world-is-hopeless” or otherwise Eeyore-depressed—please negate that assumption. I’m actually suggesting that strategic leaders can tap significant advantages from noting and incorporating at least two countervailing viewpoints. Both 1. a yin of assessing potential downsides along with 2. a yang of enthusiastically progressing towards further improvement. These should be woven together into all planning and execution. 

Because the world of leadership advice overflows with “be your best,” “look on the bright side,” “emphasize the good” (and I’m not at all downplaying nor mocking this—I’ve seen the power of Ted Lasso-like optimism and sincerely conveying belief in others’ capabilities that may be hidden even to them), I want to offer a balancing approach: the power of negative thinking. 

This is NOT about “being negative,” but it is about scoping out negatives/what might be blocking potential improvements in order to then reduce or even eliminate them. Similarly to how, in mathematics, subtracting a negative turns into a positive (as in paying off a financial debt raises your fiscal standing). Or in communication, how a double-negative is actually a positive (“I’m not unconvinced many will get this point”). And, in personnel decisions, the addition by subtraction of separating from an ardent anti-safety supervisor.

I’m basing the power of negative thinking on the work of changemaster Kurt Lewin, renowned for his ability to plan then achieve improvements in a wide host of difficult scenarios.

He applied “Field Theory” from physics as his inspiration; this states that any status quo condition tends to be caused by the combined interaction of all the forces acting on it. In other words, a magnetic particle resting on a table isn’t stationary because there aren’t any push-pull forces affecting it. Just the opposite. It actually stays in place because of the resultant of forces from all directions, some of which magnetically attract it, others that repel it. There is no such thing as stasis, Lewin contended. Rather, everything is in a state of “dynamic equilibrium.” And this balance of forces can change at any time. By circumstance or when directed by an expert changemaster. 

To start, look for instances where one foot is on the accelerator and the other on the gas pedal. Rather than pushing harder on one side to make something happen, let up on the other that’s impeding what you’re trying to do. For example, root out, then reduce mixed messages that have been lowering credibility and creating safety-distracting confusion (“Hurry up” along with “Safety is number one”). 

Help everyone move away from being “can’t-do-can’t-be-done” with some of these strategies:

  1. Watch for early signs if/when things begin to veer “south” (why it’s important to craft the right leading indicators towards potential outcomes).
  2. Do less of what isn’t working: Trigger actions that avoid continuing down a spiraling, ineffective path, rather than ploughing on head down (as in “stay the course” when “the course” clearly isn’t working or even backfiring).
  3. Develop contingency plans that offer realistic alternatives if most-desired outcomes don’t come to fruition—being sure to NOT abandon ship too early/doing this to the point of inaction/being paralyzed by fear of making mistakes.
  4. Identify/understand and strengthen connections with those who are pessimistic by default in order to help turn them around. There are few things more disconnecting to those who feel hopeless or depressed than a perpetually sunshine/Pollyanna-ish always-cheerful person trying to exhort them to “put a smile on your face.” 

My internal martial arts training has consistently reinforced that the most effective way to redirect others’ attacks by far is to first “join” with their force, not attempt to directly/180° nor perpendicularly block it. In other words, with negative people, reflect that you understand (not necessarily agree) with their concerns and pessimistic views of what might happen, then to ask about the possibility of better results (“I understand when you just said, ‘I don’t know if safety will ever actually improve here.’ And I agree. None of us knows if this will work out; could go lots of ways. And I know there’ve been many false starts in the past, attempts that didn’t improve things as much as was hoped. That’s why we’re working towards moving the needle even a little towards making work much more protected and sure. I’d like your help. What should we consider to make it more likely this isn’t another failed start?”). 

  1. Become a much more effective agent of crafting and implementing lasting change by identifying other “invisible” forces that have been blocking movement towards higher safety performance and culture. Such as boring and uninvolved training. Pro-forma, uninspiring, overly generic safety messaging. Overly complex safety investigation forms that, while intended to gather as much information as possible, are seen as a significant obstacle to even filling out a report. Ambiguous, confusing or impractical policies and procedures (e.g. requiring hearing protection among office workers where there isn’t actual noise exposure). Communications that are unhelpful and dishonoring, implying that people who get injured are idiots or don’t care about their own safety (“Work Safe!”, “Safe productivity!”, “Pay attention,” “Watch what you’re doing,” “Leave your work at work and your home at home,” etc.) Other energy depleters/sappers that pervade organizations often below their radar (planning and talking without actual prompt action, not relating interim progress towards objectives, squelching reports of safety risks, so much more.)

And press the undo button to the degree possible: promptly and sincerely apologize when (not if) you’ve made a mistake, falsely accused another, even unintentionally harmed or been misunderstood. Leaders epitomize taking personal responsibility before these messages can fester and deeply wound. Root these out as yet another addition by subtraction. 

Positive thinking, reflected by anticipating and working towards the most-desired outcomes is definitely a critical leadership attribute. But I’ve found that even with a carefully cultivated mindset and planning, unexpected “bad” things happen. As champion boxer Mike Tyson said “Yeah, everyone has a plan—until they get punched in the face.”

Akin to navigating an object-strewn surface to avoid a trip, enlist the power of negative thinking to see, avert and reduce snags, potholes and blockages along the path to higher safety performance and culture. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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