Applying the Positive Flip in the Real World

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Last week, I talked about the “positive flip”:  the idea of taking an area where a negativity bias may be narrowing our perspective and considering it from a more positive vantage point.  Today’s article is about how to apply this in the real world.

First of all, there is some research on this in the sports world by psychologist Dr. Daniel Kirschenbaum.  Kirschenbaum looked at novice golfers and bowlers to see if they would learn more from their mistakes or their successes.

In the bowlers’ study, all participants were given a lesson from a pro that covered 7 fundamentals of the game (stance, grip, foot position, etc.)  After the lesson, one group was given instructions to “self-monitor” their performance in a negative way (they were given a checklist of the seven fundamentals and asked to note every time they made a mistake so that they could avoid those mistakes in the future.)

A second group was asked to positively “self-monitor” their performance.  In this condition they receive the same checklist, but with instructions to note down every time they do something well so they can learn from their successes.

A third control group was just told to practice what they learned in the lesson with no self-monitoring instructions given.

As predicted, the group that focused on the things that they did well showed the most improvement after practicing. (It should be emphasized that these were novice bowlers.  Presumably, advanced athletes would need to focus more on correcting their mistakes.)

This is a perfect example of “the positive flip.”  Take an area, like athletic coaching, where our natural tendency is to focus on the negative, to fix what’s broken, to point out what’s not working, and flip it on its head.  It turns out that the positive approach is a more effective way to develop new skills.

If I've Told You Once....
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So how else can you apply this in the real world?  Just think about anywhere that you might be falling into a natural tendency towards negativity.

Parenting, for example.  How often do you find yourself reacting to the things you don’t want your child to do:

“Be quiet.” “Stop doing that.” “Don’t hit your sister.” “That’s not nice.”

As opposed to reacting to the things that are going well:

“I love it when you play quietly like that.” “Thank you for being so respectful to your sister.” “You are being so good right now!”

Professionally, how much do see your job as fixing problems, disciplining employees when they do something wrong, or handling customer complaints?  Many mid-level managers will say they spend a majority of their time “putting out fires.”

I've got an 'M'...
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Applying the positive flip means focusing on what is going well.  Instead of calling the employee who has been late three times that month into your office, give a reward in a public meeting to the employee who has never been late.  Instead of giving a discount to an irate customer, give a discount to a customer who has been a pleasure to work with.  The “Appreciative Inquiry” commons website has a database of case studies on companies that have applied the positive flip to their business in some way.

I want to clarify that the positive flip is not the same as positive thinking.  The presumption is not that the positive flip is always better.  Rather, this is about recognizing that sometimes these positive approaches will escape us if we don’t consciously consider them.  Because we have evolved to be on the lookout for danger, we are naturally drawn towards the negative.

The positive flip is simply about being open to other possibilities.  It’s about trying on a new perspective and seeing if it works better or not.  If the positive flip works, you’ve found a new strategy for success.  If it doesn’t work, you can always flip back.


by Jeremy McCarthy

P.S. My course on Positive Leadership in Spas and Hospitality will be starting again next week on January 21.  The course teaches how to apply this positive flip in business to overcome negativity bias, learn from and use strengths, and create a culture that celebrates success and fosters meaningful work.  If you would like to learn more about the course, please email me:

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5 Responses to Applying the Positive Flip in the Real World

  1. George P.H. January 15, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    This is really good advice, Jeremy, thank you for sharing it. I agree that we always look for something to be unhappy with, something to be anxious about. To me, this is especially funny in social situations where we almost expect others to judge us without realizing that they feel the exact same way about *us*. Negativity bias can really obstruct the truth from our view.

    With regards to positive reinforcement, I realized how powerful it was when playing around with Maxwell Maltz’s psycho cybernetics. He recommends you use positive statements to define what you want because the brain doesn’t fully process words like “no,” “not,” “don’t” => i.e. when you say “I don’t want this cake” your brain just hears “I want this cake”. Interesting concept and one that’s definitely worked for me.

    Best regards,


  2. Judy Krings January 15, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    Great, Jeremy. This reminds me of ages ago when I taught special education kids. I would tell the parents to , “Catch your kid doing some behavior or being the way you want. Praise and celebrate. Look for the good and you will find it.”

  3. Jeremy McCarthy January 16, 2013 at 8:03 am #

    George, probably one of my biggest regrets from childhood is how much anxiety I had over how I was being judged by others. I think my Mom even tried to explain to me how they were probably more worried about how others were judging them than to be busy judging me but this is one of those pearls of wisdom that is hard to absorb until some maturity sets in.

  4. Jeremy McCarthy January 16, 2013 at 8:05 am #

    Judy, it reminds me of the “One-Minute Manager” by Ken Blanchard. Iconic leadership book that still works today. As far as I know, he coined the phrase of “catch people doing something right” in his lessons on “one-minute praisings.”

  5. Judy Krings January 16, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

    So glad you reminded me of that book, Jeremy. I will re-visit and smile. I had totally forgotten the “one minute praising”.

    I have a fun story. Way back in 1970, my first year out of college, I taught 13 special needs kids. The first class for “behavior and learning disability” kids in Baltimore Co., MD. It was the blind leading the blind, but I was thrilled with the opportunity to create a new frontier.

    I had a very bright kid, Mikey, with mutism, perhaps selective, but he never talked. I asked his Mom if she could drop him off to school half an hour before the bus brought all the other kids. He was my designated helper. I talked to him as if we were having a cool conversation the whole school year. I often told him what a great helper he was. Still he did not talk.

    At the end of the year, his Mom came in with him the last day of school to thank me. I was appreciative, but wondered why she was so effusive with her compliments. Mikey was standing there with her smiling, but still speechless. His Mom sweetly looked down on him. He shrugged. She said, “He has been talking at home for months! he loves school! He can’t wait to get up in the morning and get here. And she cried. Mikey was supposed to tell, me, but he never did, bless his little heart.

    Jeremy, I had forgotten this until now. Thanks for some great positive reminiscing…

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