Turn to the Dark Side: The Power of Negative Thinking

The Dark Side of the Moon by gonzalo_ar

The Dark Side of the Moon by gonzalo_ar

The other night at 4:30 a.m. my young son Dylan (one month old), woke us up wanting a diaper change and a breast feed.  Dutifully, I got up and changed his diaper and handed him to Catherine for a feeding.  Normally, I would go back to bed at this point, but because it was a Friday, and I did not have to work the next day, I stayed up, burping Dylan mid-feeding, and giving him one more diaper change before putting him back down in his bassinet.  “Thanks a lot for your help,” Catherine told me as I slipped back into bed, “it makes a big difference.”

She was showing me an expression of gratitude, but I could immediately feel my mind probing around, in search of any negativity that might be hidden in the message.  “Is she making the point that I don’t always stay up with her and do the diaper changes?”  “Does she resent the fact that she is home alone with the baby while I am at work all day?”  This is the way our minds work.  Even when offered something positive, we ignore the soft, fluffy middle, and look for the sharp edges.  Where is the negativity?  What needs to be fixed?

Psychology has identified this pull towards the dark side as a “negativity bias” (see here too) that we are all predisposed to.  From an evolutionary perspective, human beings have learned that paying attention to the negative is more important than dwelling on the positive.  Those whose gene pools encouraged them to ignore predators in favor of stopping to smell the roses have been killed off in favor of a more pragmatic genetic profile.  There is value (sometimes critical value) in addressing the negative.

That being said, ruminating on the possible negative implications of Catherine’s statement would be wrong, and would place a strain on our relationship.  But accepting it at face value with a cheery “you’re welcome!” would also be wrong, as it would not offer me the opportunity to learn from her how I can best love her. The best path is somewhere in the middle , and not always easy to find.

In my professional life, working in luxury hotels and resorts, we practice a relentless focus on the negative.  We don’t waste too much time patting ourselves on the back for all of our happy customers.  But when a customer is less than satisfied, we launch into action.  We want to know what mistakes we made, how we can repair the damage done, and how can we learn from this to ensure that future guests have a better experience.  With my employees, I would also focus on the negative side, asking them to bring to each team meeting a list of their biggest problems and what they are doing to fix it.  I saw this as a positive (read “proactive”) way to address negative issues.

Stanford professor and “Work Matters” blogger, Bob Sutton is publishing later this year “Good Boss, Bad Boss,” indicating that dealing with the negative is an effective management strategy.  Recognizing the negativity bias we all have, a good manager has to address the negative thoughts and challenges of his or her customers or employees because those will become most salient to them.  But the negativity bias works both ways.  While counteracting the saliency of the negative among employees and customers, the good manager also has to be aware of his own bias.  His tendency to scan the horizon for problems may cause him to overlook the strengths, missing opportunities to learn from what is being done well, and failing to motivate his team by recognizing what they do right.

Negativity is important, but it is also draining.  A manager in a luxury hotel will sometimes dread picking up his mail each morning.  He knows he will not hear much from the hundreds of customers who had a wonderful experience with him.  But there will be a letter (or maybe two) from the guest whose vacation was ruined by a rude bellman, or a note to see the Human Resources Director because one of his employees has filed a grievance (maybe they don’t like their uniform, or they are not happy with this weeks schedule.)

I have learned that there is also value in focusing on the positive side of the equation (“tilting toward the good” by Buddha’s Brain author Rick Hanson).  Fixing problems is important and it yields results.  But it can only take you so far.  If we want to exceed our customers’ expectations, we have to not only learn what mistakes we have made, but when did we get it right?  Who did we blow the socks off of, and how did we do it?

Now in meetings, I not only ask about the biggest challenges, I also ask about the biggest successes. If negativity is draining, positivity is energizing.  I teach my employees, who regularly have to give a gift or a rebate to the most difficult negative clients, to occasionally do that for their favorite, most positive ones . . . just because.  We are wired for negativity, but positivity has its place too (see “The Power of AND”).  The best path is somewhere in the middle . . . and it’s not so easy to find.

References and recommended reading:

Hanson, R. & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. New Harbinger Publications.

Schneider, S. L. (2001).  In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56(3): 250-263. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11315251

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006).  Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage.

Sutton, R. I. (2010). Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst. Business Plus.

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13 Responses to Turn to the Dark Side: The Power of Negative Thinking

  1. Lisa S. June 15, 2010 at 10:39 am #

    Fantastic post – and thanks for the link! This is helping me to sort a few things out in my own head. Like, if we are hard-wired for the negative, and the negative is stronger than the positive, then what does that mean for parenting, managing, leading, etc. Now, as an educated positive psychology practitioner, I feel horribly guilty when I “punish” my child – yet, in some cases, that is considerably more effective than the “carrot” approach (which we also use) as my child seems to remember the negative and will work to avoid it much more than he will remember the reward and work to get it. Still so much to figure out in the balance. Fredrickson and Losada’s 3:1 (and Gottman’s 5:1 and so on) ratio helps, but who keeps track? And how big does the 1 have to be to counter the 3? And what counts as 3? And who decides if it’s positive or negative – what if the giver intends for it to be positive, but the receiver hears it as negative? Sometimes, I think the more I learn, the more questions it elicits! Thanks for the continued discussion and insights!

  2. Marie-Josee Shaar June 15, 2010 at 12:13 pm #

    Great post, Jeremy! Love how you illustrate concepts clearly and vividly! 🙂 Fun and value-added read! Thanks! MarieJ

  3. Craig Oliver June 15, 2010 at 2:56 pm #

    Excellent article Jeremy. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Mama-san June 15, 2010 at 8:26 pm #

    What a well written and cogent article. You had me thinking about my life as a parent,
    as a manager, leader, owner… I was left wondering what you said or did with Catherine
    to complete with her about it. Granting being to the dark side has been a theme of mine
    for a year now and I so appreciated the point of view you offered of being generous ‘just because’ to acknowledge that there are good guys among the bad guys and to ’tilt
    toward the positive’. Well done!

  5. Jeremy McCarthy June 15, 2010 at 11:10 pm #

    Thanks Mama-san! When I read her the article, Catherine actually assured me that there really wasn’t any negativity behind her gratitude. Another example of how our mind will often create negativity out of nothing. But in response to this propensity to find negativity most of the advice out there is about “positive thinking” which doesn’t really tell the whole story. There are times when it is important to sensitive to the possible negativity that might exist and to spend some energy on trying to correct it. In “Learned Optimism” which is all about how and why it is good to develop your sense of optimism, Marty Seligan says there are times when pessimsm is important to. He gives the example of a pilot who is de-icing the plane. You don’t want him to be an optimist!

  6. Jeremy McCarthy June 15, 2010 at 11:12 pm #

    Thanks Lisa! I tried to make the same point you made in your blog . . . it’s not about being positive or being negative but something in the middle. Of course that is the grey area that is hard to define so perhaps it is much less useful advice. At least the ratios of Fredrickson and Gottman and give some sense of where in the middle you should try to land! Thanks for your great comments and the mutual inspiration.

  7. Bill Taylor June 17, 2010 at 2:37 pm #

    Jeremy,
    Meaghan mentioned your blog on Facebook today. I am glad I read it. It is a very well written and inspirational article. It is easy to talk about positive and negative thoughts but your examples made it all real.
    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. My congratulations to you and Catherine not only on the birth of your baby but also for sharing your personal experiences with us.
    Our daughter and her husband are expecting twins in Oct. I am sure she will read this and be inspired as well.

  8. Frank Pitsikalis August 4, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

    This really resonated. Thanks Jeremy

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