Positive thinking – in practice

Think Positively. Yes, Even in This Economy

With the economy in the state it’s in, encouraging your employees to think positively may make you look foolish and insensitive. Yet, focusing your employees on what they can do rather than what they cannot do will lead to better attitudes and results. Here are three ways to promote positivity in your people:

1. Treat employees as contributors, not costs.

Emphasize each employee’s role in contributing to the business. The minute you start talking about people as costs, negativity will take over.

2. Never sugarcoat reality.

Don’t hold back information. Talk frankly with employees about the economic realities your company is facing, while you also explain what they can do to help.

3. Challenge your people.

Slow economies provide time to reflect on and re-think your business. Ask your people to come up with ideas for improving processes, systems, and products.

Source: HBR


Could positive thinking have negative consequences for “those who need it the most”?

Browsing the news this morning, I found myself waking up when reading this article in The Economist. It made me realise some things that may have broken some of my fundamental values and beliefs… I really don’t know yet…

Say WHAT…?

Recent research, however, shows that for some people, optimistic thoughts can do more harm than good – to those some of those we traditionally think “need it the most”.


“I CAN pass this exam”, “I am a wonderful person and will find love again” and “I am capable and deserve that pay rise” are phrases that students, the broken-hearted and driven employees may repeat to themselves over and over again in the face of adversity. Self-help books through the ages, including Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 classic, “The Power of Positive Thinking”, have encouraged people with low self-esteem to make positive self-statements.

Since the 1960s psychologists have known that people are more accepting of ideas close to their own views and resistant to those that differ. With regard to self-perception, if a person who believes they are reasonably friendly is told that they are extremely gregarious, they will probably accept the idea. But if told they are socially aloof, the idea will most likely be met with resistance and doubt.

Wondering if the same tendencies could apply to making positive self-statements, Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo in Canada and her colleagues designed a series of experiments. They questioned a group of 68 men and women using long-accepted methods to measure self-esteem. The participants were then asked to spend four minutes writing down any thoughts and feelings that were on their minds. In the midst of this, half were randomly assigned to say to themselves “I am a lovable person” every time they heard a bell ring.

Immediately after the exercise, they were asked questions such as “What is the probability that a 30-year-old will be involved in a happy, loving romance?” to measure individual moods using a scoring system that ranged from a low of zero to a high of 35. Past studies have indicated that optimistic answers indicate happy moods.

As the researchers report in Psychological Science, those with high self-esteem who repeated “I’m a lovable person” scored an average of 31 on their mood assessment compared with an average of 25 by those who did not repeat the phrase. Among participants with low self-esteem, those making the statement scored a dismal average of 10 while those that did not managed a brighter average of 17.

Dr Wood suggests that positive self-statements cause negative moods in people with low self-esteem because they conflict with those people’s views of themselves. When positive self-statements strongly conflict with self-perception, she argues, there is not mere resistance but a reinforcing of self-perception. People who view themselves as unlovable find saying that they are so unbelievable that it strengthens their own negative view rather than reversing it.

Given that many readers of self-help books that encourage positive self-statements are likely to suffer from low self-esteem, they may be worse than useless.


…like always – there is no single cure for ALL



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Overconfidence – Krueger Dunning effect

Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) wrote in “An Essay on Criticism” in 1709, the following:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”

Yes, we’ve all had the pleasure of meeting him: he lacks nothing when it comes to self confidence, but he does lack realistic assessment of his own competence – at least in your areas of high competence and you’re able to tell.

I recently came across a seemingly odd and quite academic article by Kruger and Dunning . The article “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulies in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetences Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” explained this phenomenon to me in ways I haven’t previously realized. The study was set up to test a few hypotheses :

  • Incompetent individuals tended to overestimate their own level of skill
  • Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others
  • Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
  • If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge

They set out to test these hypotheses on human subjects consisting of undergraduates who were registered in various pshychology courses. In a series of studies, Kruger and Dunning examined self-assessment of logical reasoning skills, grammatical skills and humor. After being shown their test scores, the subjects were again asked to estimate their own rank, whereupon the competent group accurately estimated their rank, while incompetent group still overestimated their own rank.

Across four studies, the authors found that participant scoring in the bottom quartile on the tests GROSSLY overestimated their test performance and ability. Although the test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Conversely, people with true knowledge tended to underestimate their competence.

So what?

All in all, I didn’t find the results particularly mind blowing – but it did make a lot of sense. However, when I started to ponder upon what I had just read, a few things dawned on me:

First of all, if this is true, it means the people who need it the most, don’t realize themselves they need help. Trying to persuade people like this is a hurdle that is hard to cross. Not to mention those who have been forced to get help – they resist you more than anyone. This could be a topic by itself (and probably will be). I’m a management consultant by trade, and thus I’m trying to make a living of helping people. I’ve seen a lot of this up close, so it is not shocking news, but I think this article provided a good explanation.

Second, self assessment is a dangerous game – as if we didn’t already know. I’ve found that people either think “people are harder on themselves than you would ever be – let them assess themselves” or “they need to be told the hard truth”. In either case, I believe it is “lost cause”. I have a hunch this is based on how they themselves do such assessments.

Third, when I am in the unskilled category, and when I am, do I realize my own inadequacies? Scary…

However, we need to remember that although these findings are significant and statistically true, there are individual variations. In my experience some people consistently either overestimate or underestimate their own abilities. I’m wife falls in the latter group, and some would also argue I’m part of the first group…

What is the solution?

According to this study, the only solution is more competence. Maybe not a surprising conclusion from academia… 🙂

More knowledge is always a solution – at least I find more knowledge exciting…