Sometimes motivation is more important than math. — Dave Ramsey.

There seems to be regular patterns among successful change efforts, regardless of the scale. It could involve an individual or a group but one thing is clear: every successful effort requires a significant amount of energy often invested in a steady, incremental approach as described in yesterday’s article. Such efforts often come about by envisioning an attractive future more so than responding to a particular problem. And just about every effort of this sort is built off new habits, rituals, or formal programs that emerge.  

In the same way we can find common patterns attributed to successful change, we can find common patterns that attribute to unsuccessful change. True to the title, the first and most obvious cause of failure is negative emotions. How many people begrudgingly attempt to change a bad habit and succeed while maintaining that reluctant attitude? I don’t know of anyone. How many organizations make a real shift in their business while being cynical at every turn? Again, I’ve never seen it.

Make no mistake: there is real, useful power in negative emotion. It can stimulate a tremendous amount of action. It just can’t sustain an effort.

The Cool, Positive Thinker Always Win Over Time

I’m reminded of so many bad martial arts movies. The angry, fiery combatant in the red gi fights against the calm, confident hero in the white gi. The Red Fighter wins the initial round handily. But in the next round, our hero finds the pattern to Red Fighter’s attack, thus finding the weakness, and the tables turn.

Positive thinker versus negative thinker. The age-old battle continues.

The obvious point here is that, from a competitive standpoint, cooler heads always prevail. But it’s important to understand why. For that, we turn to our authors for this week’s book, Switch.

Negative emotions provide dangerous side effects. They have a narrowing effect whereas positive emotions are designed to broaden and build our repertoire of thoughts and actions. Joy, for example, makes us want to play. Play doesn’t have a script, it broadens the kind of things we consider doing.

We always need a good strategy when we’re facing a difficult challenge. Bad news hits us, situations worsen, and we have to think about a new way to manage. Ordinarily, in these situations, we feel all the negative emotions at once. We get angry, maybe a little fearful. We know in those situations that we have to let those emotions cool. Just take a breather. Relax.

But subduing negative emotions isn’t enough for us to successfully address a challenge. Even if we swallow the anger and let ourselves cool off, we won’t be as creative and strategic as we need to be until we completely flip the switch on our mindset. The best responses, the best strategies in the moment, come when the situation is seen as something positive, something valuable.

I’m reminded of something Bill Gates once said:

Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.

Post Traumatic Growth

This attitude points towards an antifragile mindset. The customer experience, however bad, is seen in a positive light as an opportunity for real improvement. If one values learning above all, as Gates surely does, you can mold that unhappy customer experience into improvement.

It’s the definition of resilience. It’s the epitome of post traumatic growth. More importantly, it belies a deeper vision. Gates sees the unhappy customer as another key for making a better service. Though unspoken, that vision of happy customers is front and center in this attitude.

If we operate from this positive emotional base, we can be far more creative in responding to the issues we face. The setbacks and disappointments really become the step to something better.

Eyes On The Prize

Of course, it’s one thing to say this and another thing to really believe it. There are so many times that managers or teachers or others have tried to frame challenges as “opportunities” as if just switching the words in the sentence makes it real. Not only can this sound hollow at times, it can even feel fake.

If someone said, “This disciplinary action is an opportunity for you to improve,” it sounds both creepy and disingenuous.

But if the idea of “opportunity” is married to a real vision or ideal, it can feel quite different. Again, even in an otherwise-negative situation of a disciplinary action, think of how much better and honest this sounds:

“I believe you have a lot more to offer than this. So yes, this is a disciplinary action. But it’s also an opportunity for us to take a new direction. Your best is far better than this. Let’s get there.”

Suddenly, a disciplinary action is also a pep talk. A real, honest-to-goodness spark. The key is to switch the thinking to a more-forward view. Look ahead at a new, better destination. 

Without an ideal state on the horizon, a vision or destination, we just take whatever direction the situation gives us, a direction that points downward to things going bad. So creating and maintaining a proper vision is like a counterpunch to setbacks, keeping your eyes on the prize and maintaining positivity.

Back to the core topic of this week’s book, this is what also motivates change. As our authors put it,

[A great goal or vision] show the Rider where you’re headed and they show the Elephant why the journey is worthwhile.

In conclusion, negative thoughts lead to a spiral. We think narrowly, become less creative, make more mistakes, and bad patterns start to emerge. Along with cynicism, defensiveness, and other bad thought habits. If and when a setback is seen in a different light, a change effort can be sustained. It’s all in how you think of it. This isn’t the stuff of naive optimism, either. True to Hans Rosling’s great idea, this is what it means to be a possibilist. Maintain the right attitude by contextualizing the setbacks as another step towards the destination. 

You might think that’s easier said than done. Maybe so. But only if you see it in a negative light.  

Photo by Jungwoo Hong on Unsplash