Monday, May 07, 2007

When Negative = Positive

Positive thinking is the backbone of everything good that gets done -- and it is certainly the foundation of every internal and external communications program.

I believe strongly in the power of positive thinking, a concept pioneered by the late minister, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Positive thinking often produces positive results and creates positive energy in every organization bent on success. Success builds confidence and -- as Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s book, Confidence, demonstrates through surveys-- confident people are more successful than those who lack confidence.

So you can understand why I was challenged by the headline, “The Power of Negative Thinking,” in a New York Times piece on May 1 by guest columnist, Atul Gawande, a general surgeon at Harvard Medical School and staff writer for The New Yorker magazine.

Why the change in philosophy, I wondered. However, what the column demonstrates is really not a change in philosophy. Rather, it shows why thinking “negatively” in advance about what could go wrong or concurrently why things are not working out – can advance one’s cause, thereby making the individual more successful.

Mr. Gawande addresses the recent scandal at Walter Reed Hospital as his example. He distinguishes leadership thinking in two separate areas of the Hospital: patient care for those entering and after-care for those in rehabilitation and outpatient facilities. Lives were saved in “unbelievable situations” in the former; while the latter involved the cases that led to the scandal (e.g., wheelchair-bound soldiers stranded without food).

“The primary difference,” the author advises, “was whether leaders accepted the value of negative thinking.” In one area, leadership looked for failures and how to overcome them, as they tracked data on injuries and survival rates. Instead of just being proud of the soldiers they saved from blindness, for example, the doctors asked a harder, more unnerving question: why had so many injuries occurred in the first place? They discovered soldiers weren’t wearing their protective goggles and came up with a strategy to correct that. In the after-care section, there was zero effort to track how soldiers were doing in rehab, for example.

How does this translate to the public relations business and how we carry out campaigns for clients? Here is one example. Once, and only once, did a prospective client -- in a very competitive bid – ask us to give a presentation on all the things that can go wrong in a communications campaign and in an agency-client relationship – supported by real case histories. We did it, and we won! The client relationship lasted ten years, far exceeding the length of the average client-agency relationship. Further, as the campaign progressed, we continued to apply “advance negative thinking” to everything we did, and the positive results just kept rolling in!

“Negative thinking is unquestionably painful. It involves finding and exposing inadequacies,” Mr. Gawande says.

Some may call it crisis planning, which we always advise clients to do, although few pay heed. However, here we are not talking about crises, but regular operations. It may be an unhealthy way to proceed in some parts of our personal lives, the columnist advises, “but in running schools, businesses, in planning war, in caring for the sick [and, I would add, in managing communications campaigns] … negative thinking may be exactly what we need.”

Technorati Tags: Positive Thinking, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Marble Collegiate Church, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Confidence, The Power of Negative Thinking, New York Times, Atul Gawande, Harvard Medical School, The New Yorker, Walter Reed Hospital, negative thinking, communications, public relations, business,


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