Overcoming negative thinking to peak performance

Every day, most employees face tough challenges and pressures impacting their work and psychological state. Choosing how to respond in any given situation provides a “moment of truth” which determines how a person is perceived by co-workers and how well they deliver outcomes that create value for the business.

People typically find themselves alternating between the two paths shown in the diagram below. Their assumptions, beliefs and interpretation of a situation place them at some point on either path and directly influence how they react to their circumstance. However, some people have a tendency to stay more on one path than the other based on their personality, background and how they choose to view the situation.

The lower path, the Path of Limitation, drives thought and actions narrowed by a negative mindset that focuses on problems, issues, failures, weaknesses and independent action. It results in fear, mistrust and pessimism. This in turn contributes to a culture of learned helplessness where individuals feel isolated and unable to progress. This self-doubt leads to lower performance and undesirable and unintended consequences, such as missing targets and damaged relationships.

The upper path, the Path of Possibility, is more productive. Thoughts and actions are broadened and focused on strengths, successes, opportunities, solutions and building collaborative partnerships. Performance is based on trust, hope, optimism, purpose and energy-boosting habits. This leads to a sense of powerfulness, positive energy, confidence and meaning at work, which fuels higher performance.

Most people don’t intend to be negative and aren’t even aware when they end up spending the majority of time on the lower path. This happens for several reasons, the most common being:

  1. They are naturally more pessimistic and critically-minded and when these behaviors are overdone, they can be perceived as too negative.
  2. They experience really tough events at home or at work that push them into the negative zone. Even the most upbeat and optimistic person can end up with a negative mindset if they experience cumulative events which cause distress, such as marital problems or major reorganisations creating uncertainty and insecurity. This can result in them feeling helpless, disengaged and lacking in confidence.
  3. They don’t get any feedback from their manager or co-workers about their negative outlook.

So how can people shift their mindset to a more positive one? By adopting and practicing the 4 steps below, individuals can become more aware of their mindset and guard against any detrimental impact on performance and relationships:

1.Understand what triggers your negativity and pivot

It is important to understand where you are at any point in time, and to understand the impact (including the risks and benefits) of your mindset on your performance and that of the team and other stakeholders (e.g., customers). Identifying specific triggers (people, events, etc.) that move you to the Path of Limitation, and the risks of staying on this path, will help you to pivot and move back to the positive path.

2. Focus more attention on strengths and solutions

Research shows that even if people are naturally pessimistic and critical, they can consciously choose to focus more attention on the positive aspects of their situation and performance. After a few months of patient and conscious practice, new habits will develop around a more positive mindset. Specific techniques people can apply to help shift their mindset include:

  • Inviting feedback from others (co-workers and key stakeholders) about both their strengths as well as areas for improvement.
  • Reflecting on, and keeping a diary, of what went well during each day and how these successes can be repeated and built upon.
  • Learning ‘flip thinking’ techniques to think about problems and issues using a more positive lens. The one I often recommend is POINT, a mnemonic which stands for Pluses, Opportunities, Issues, and New T When applying this technique it is important to frame issues as questions which encourages a search for new and creative solutions. So rather than saying: “My manager doesn’t provide me with clear goals”, it is far better to ask something along the lines of: “What can I do to ensure I get more clarity on my goals from my manager?”

 3. If you are prone to negativity, draw on positive co-workers

If you are naturally a more pessimistic and critical thinker, leverage the art of complementary partnering by bringing in more positive colleagues to support you in spotting the upside and possibilities in situations. This will ensure a more balanced perspective in your team and will keep your negative excesses in check, particularly if you invite honest and regular feedback.

 4. Express negative feelings, but don’t dwell on them

Maintaining a positive mindset doesn’t mean you need to be happy and upbeat all the time. As was so well illustrated by the recent Pixar movie, Inside Out, every emotion – including sadness and anger – has a role to play in ensuring success, productive interpersonal relations and wellbeing.

A positive, strengths-based approach doesn’t encourage people to suppress ‘negative’ emotions, as this is unhealthy. It highlights the need to remain aware of them and to learn to build agility in moving on from them and mitigating any negative effects associated with these emotions.

Developing and maintaining a positive mindset is essential to great performance and relationships at work. What we now know, based on the latest research into neuroscience, is that any person, regardless of their personality and how negative they are, can learn to become more positive in their approach and contribute to a high-performing, positive workplace.