Why positive thinking is problematic for professional development

by John Hilton31 Mar 2016
If you’re having a difficult time progressing in the workplace, the last thing you want to hear is "Be positive!" Instead, what you need is a practical strategy to change, develop and move forward.
Indeed, positive thinking is not the answer to achieving professional goals, according to Chris Helder, professional speaker and author of the new book Useful Belief.
“I’m talking about this idea of ‘useful belief’ or ‘useful action’, so you are instead thinking: what’s the most useful thing to do right now to get from ground zero to two? What’s the most useful thing to do to get from two to five?,” he told L&D Professional.
“‘Useful’ is a much better word than ‘positive’. What’s the most useful action for me to take to achieve professional goals? It will actually give me a criteria to follow.” 
For Helder, the problem with positive thinking is that it’s a feeling that fluctuates, so some days we feel good, some days we feel bad.
“The reality for most people is when they lay in bed in the morning and say: ‘Come on, just be positive today’, it will be 10 o’clock and they won’t be able to sustain it because something goes wrong. Then you actually feel worse about yourself than when you began,” he explained.
“Positive thinking, while its intent is right, at the end of the day is just emotion-driven. Whereas if I think about the most useful thing to get me through today then I’m going to have a criteria for action.”
In contrast, negative thinking can actually be useful as long as we are conscious of it and move on from it, said Helder. He offered the example of grieving when bad things happen to us.
“Sometimes we need to grieve because bad things happen to really good people and it’s not fair. Sometimes you need to be angry, but not for long - you need to be conscious. So you can be angry and then you should stop being angry, and decide what is going to be useful,” he said.
“But it is going to be useful to grieve after terrible things have happened. It’s useful to be angry if somebody does the wrong thing by you.
“Those are normal human emotions, so thinking negative can be useful without question.”