Monday, 13 June 2016

Does positive thinking leave us bright-sided?

I wonder how many of you have heard of the book, "Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America", by Barbara Ehrenreich?

I came across a reference to this book in another article I was reading recently, and got myself a copy to read. I am thoroughly enjoying the book, and - through Barbara's well-constructed and well-researched argument - I feel I have rationalised a lot of the reluctance I have felt around the "positive thinking" movement which seems to inhabit the fringe of the management field.

Proponents like Stephen Covey, Tom Peters and Dr. Spencer Johnson have always made me a little uneasy. What has always disturbed me about these "gurus" is that they offer no scientific underpinning for much of their writing. When being presented with new ideas,I do like to have research links to read and further explore myself, and these authors usually do not usually supply any additional information or evidence.

Effectively they are - more or less - modern parable writers.

A little positive thinking probably can help us get that extra fraction of a second, or that tiny bit extra motivation to help us close a sale. However, I am very distrustful of the attitude that "positive thinking [alone] will make it happen" which seems to be prevalent in this sector. I agree with Barbara, that this is so much "pseudoscience flapdoodle" (what a gorgeous phrase!).

A few years ago I borrowed a copy of The Secret from the library, another shockingly successful piece of pseudoscience flapdoodle. The Secret is simply an amalgam of positive thinking writers' works, since the positive thinking movement began, filtered into one summarised whole (... and at least the sources are acknowledged appropriately). 

Reading The Secret was like eating candy floss. You feel like you are eating something, but the second you close your mouth, it vanishes. Once finished, there is no sign left of its existence.

I freely admit that the "positive thinking" movement leaves me cold. I abhor the culture generated within organisations such as Amway. I think this reluctance to climb on the "positive thinking" bandwagon is also why I feel reluctant to embrace the term "coach" in my career practice. It too smacks of shamanism. 

I like to leave my clients with a range of practical tools which they can use when I am no longer there. Unlike positive thinking practices, such as positive affirmations, they are not tools which need to be repeated daily, ad nauseam, in order to brainwash ourselves.

I am starting to think that positive thinking links to an external locus of control (Daft, 2008). Daft defines this as "those who believe outside forces determine what happens to them" (p. 103). An external locus of control is where, when a situation changes, you don't take action about it, or blame yourself for an action (or inaction). Instead you blame the fates for being against you, or others for taking inappropriate action. 

Positive thinking proponents would say, I'm sure, that belief is action, and that the power of positive thinking comes from one's own strength of belief. However I am more of a subscriber to the adage that "if wishes were horses, beggars would ride" school of pragmatism. You can believe until you turn blue, but unless you get yourself out of the water you're going to drown.

If you feel under pressure to always look at the positive until you feel sick, you may well enjoy Barbara's book. 

It is a breath of fresh air. Take a walk on the bright side.

  • Daft, Richard L. (2008). The Leadership Experience (fourth edition). USA: Cengage.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara (2009). Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. USA: Metropolitan Books

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