How “Positive” Thinking and Vision Boards Set You Up To Fail

I wish I could make the universe deliver wonderful things to my doorstep just by imagining them.  I can’t – and neither can you, no matter what anyone tells you.   There is not a single piece of hard evidence that “visualizing success,” and doing nothing else, will do a damn thing for you. 
In fact, there is plenty of evidence that it will leave you even worse off than when you started.  Scientifically-speaking, focusing all of your thoughts on an ideal future reliably leads to lower achievement.  In other words, you are less likely to achieve your goals when all you do is imagine that you already have achieved them. 

“Negative” thinking, on the other hand, has gotten a bad rap.  This is mostly because the people who advocate “positive” thinking lump all the “negative” thoughts together in one big unpleasant pile, not realizing that some kinds of negative thoughts are actually necessary and motivating.  There is a big difference between “I am a loser and can’t do this” (a bad, self-defeating negative thought), and “This won’t be easy, and I’m going to have to work hard” (a very good negative thought that actually predicts greater success).

In fact, study after study shows that people who think not only about their dreams, but about the obstacles that lie in the way of realizing their dreams  - who visualize the steps they will take to make success happen, rather than just the success itself – vastly outperform those who sit back and wait for the universe to reward them for all their positive thinking.   Whether it’s starting a relationship with your secret crush, landing a job, recovering from major surgery, or losing weight, research shows that if you don’t keep it real you’re going to be really screwed.

A new set of studies by NYU psychologists Heather Barry Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen offers insight into why this kind of thinking isn’t just useless, but actually sets you up for failure.  These researchers found that people who imagined an uncertain and challenging future reported feeling significantly more energized, and accomplished much more, than those who idealized their future.  The purely “positive” thinkers’ lower energy levels even showed up in objective, physiological measurements.  (Ironically, these studies showed that the more important it was to the participant that the dream come true, the more idealizing sapped their motivation!)

Kappes and Oettingen argue that when we focus solely on imagining the future of our dreams, our minds enjoy and indulge in those images as if they are real.  They might be reachable, realistic dreams or impossible, unrealistic ones, but none of that matters because we don’t bother to think about the odds of getting there or the hurdles that will have to be overcome.  We’re too busy enjoying the fantasy.

Admittedly, there are some people that might experience a benefit from visualizing a positive future or a vision board.   People who are depressed, or have very low self-confidence, are more likely to think about obstacles, and only obstacles. They may need to be reminded that a positive future is possible, and a vision board when used hand-in-hand with some realistic thinking and planning, can be an effective tool.

Believe me when I tell you that I truly wish the Law of Attraction would work.  I also happen to wish that Hogwarts was a real place, and that Antonio Banderas was my next-door neighbor.  But wishing will not make it so, and that’s exactly my point.


How Much Feedback Is Too Much? Finding The Sweet Spot.

Everyone needs feedback.   It’s hard to get motivated to reach a goal or complete a project, and impossible to stay motivated in the face of difficulty, when you aren’t sure if you are on the right track.  None of us are truly comfortable flying blind.   For any leader or manager, giving frequent, carefully-crafted feedback is one of their most important (and most challenging) responsibilities (as I’ve written about here.)

Feedback should be frequent – but how frequent?  Much has been written about the futility of the traditional annual review, and how it offers far too little too late in terms of useful information.   So we can probably all agree that feedback needs to be given more than once a year…. but once a month?  A week?  A day?  Every hour on the hour, like a traffic update?

Since feedback is a good thing, you might think that you really can’t have too much of it.  But according to new research, if you thought that, you’d be wrong. 

Receiving feedback, it turns out, comes at some significant cost.  Processing what you are being told (whether it’s positive or negative) and responding to it appropriately (or even inappropriately) creates cognitive and emotional demands that can interfere with learning and performance.

In fact, if you plotted the relationship between feedback frequency and performance out on a graph, it would look like an inverted U.  In other words, as feedback frequency increases, performance improves…until it starts taking a nosedive.  Past a certain point, receiving and responding to too much feedback becomes a liability because it takes your attention away from the work you need to do.

For example, in a study conducted by University of Michigan researcher Chak Fu Lam and his colleagues, participants engaged in a 70-minute long defense simulation exercise.  They were given feedback either 2, 4, 7, or 14 times.  Lam found that overall performance increased with increases in feedback frequency until it peaked at 7 instances (i.e., every 10 minutes), but it went significantly down when feedback was given 14 times (i.e., every 5 minutes). 

Interestingly, the effects of receiving too much feedback were most pronounced during the early learning phase, when participants were trying to get the hang of the task.  So having to turn your attention away from what you are doing in order to process feedback is most disruptive when you working on something new and unfamiliar.

Unfortunately, there can be no hard-and-fast rule about how often you should give your team feedback.  The ideal amount will vary according to the nature of the work they do  - the duration of projects, complexity, how motivated they are, etc.  But here are some strategies to keep in mind when you are trying to find the sweet spot:

1.    When your employee is taking on a new project in an area in which they lack experience, be careful not to overwhelm them with frequent feedback.  They will need their energy and effort to be focused where it belongs.    Instead, make it clear that you will gladly provide feedback and guidance when they ask for it.

2.     Keep feedback straightforward and to-the-point, to minimize the amount of time employees will spend wondering what you meant.  Whenever possible, be specific about what they did right or wrong, and make concrete suggestions about exactly what they need to do differently. 

3.     When in doubt, ask your team directly if they would like more, or less, feedback.  People generally have a good sense of whether it’s a help or a distraction.


Are The Best Innovators Those Who Have Power, or Those Who Want It?

Where should you look to find the most creative, flexible, forward-thinking people in your organization - at the top, or in the rank-and-file?  For years, the answer provided by research seemed a straightforward one:  powerful people are more creative.  But thanks to a recent set of studies, it’s clear that the story is a bit more complicated than that.

Being in a position of power certainly changes you - not necessarily in an evil way, but there is a definite shift in how you perceive the world around you when you’re the one in the driver’s seat.  You think in a more abstract, big-picture way.  You become more optimistic, more comfortable with risk, and more open to new possibilities.  (A series of studies by Cameron Anderson and Adam Galinsky showed that when people felt powerful, they preferred riskier business plans with bigger potential rewards to more conservative plans, divulged more information and were more trusting during negotiations, chose to “hit” more often during a game of black-jack, and were more even likely to engage in unprotected sex during a one-night stand.)

The relatively powerless, on the other hand, are more concerned with safety and security.  They’ve got their guards up, and have to stay focused on not making mistakes or displeasing the higher-ups.  Their thinking is more concrete, more conventional, and more risk-averse – not at all conducive to great innovation.

When you are in power, you can be more innovative because you feel more comfortable and secure, and less sensitive to or constrained by what other people think of you.  Unless, of course, you don’t feel secure – because your position of power is not guaranteed.  Then, according to new studies from researchers at the University of Amsterdam, the tables turn.

When the powerful can become the powerless, and vice versa, psychologists call it an “unstable power hierarchy.”  If you are operating in that kind of environment and staying in power is your primary focus, then feelings of power can actually make you more conservative. 

Basically, when you don’t want to lose the power you’ve worked so hard to attain,  you avoid risks and your creativity is diminished.  But unstable power hierarchies are terrific for unleashing the potential of the rank-and-file, because the very real prospect of becoming powerful has the same mind-expanding effects on our thinking that being powerful has in a stable environment.

So if you are at the top of your game and your position is essentially irrevocable or at least particularly secure (think Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, or a second-term U.S. President), you mind is likely teaming with bold and possibly brilliant new ideas.  But where gains and losses of power are not only possible but likely, ordinary Joes and Janes may be your organization’s most creative innovators.