Google the phrase “negative thinking” and you’ll get hundreds of missives telling you to banish that kind of behavior from your life. But research shows that looking on the downside isn’t always bad. It can even work in your favor, if you transform negative thinking into critical thinking, and use it to assess and overcome obstacles rather than simply letting black thoughts bring you down.
I know this to be true. For 15 years I ran a Girl Scout council in North Carolina. My prime responsibility, other than raising money and avoiding the temptation of year-round access to Thin Mints, was to keep the 3,500 Girl Scouts in my council safe. That meant saying no to a lot of things, including passenger vans with power windows. Why? On the off chance that if girls ever got trapped in the vehicle, they’d need to be able to roll down the windows to escape. I engaged in this worst-case-scenario thinking all the time. We didn’t call it negative thinking; we called it risk management.
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But there’s so much pressure to be upbeat and cheery—at work and at home—that the benefits of what I call “consequence-focused” thinking rarely receive the spotlight. While dwelling constantly on the downside of life may be bad for one’s mental health, a little bit of skepticism is often good for business. Studies show the upsides of downbeat thinking: you pay more attention to detail; have more motivation to work; are more polite and attentive to others; and are more vigilant for risks and threats. Whereas someone who’s in a perpetually positive mood is prone to overlook threats and dangers, be open to unwise risks; be more gullible; and lack appropriate embarrassment or guilt.
There’s a payoff, too. An international study of 188,519 people revealed that while people who are super-upbeat tend to form more rewarding relationships, those who are less happy earn higher salaries and attain more education. The study, which was published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, says that people who tend to be moderately downbeat may actually be better at adapting their thinking and behavior to the task before them, a trait desired by almost every employer.
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Using consequence-focused thinking helped me not just avoid catastrophes, but forge productive relationships too. For every decision I made, except the most minor ones, I’d think about who was going to get pissed off and why (and believe me, with 1,200 female volunteers to keep happy, incendiary reactions were inevitable). Then I’d implement damage control on the front end. The result was that people felt respected, informed and valued, even if they didn’t like whatever decision I’d made. There was an unforeseen benefit too. Over time, the staff and volunteers came to trust that before committing to something, I’d think through every scenario, imagine every potential disaster, and research every safety statistic. Eventually, the pushback diminished until it rarely manifested at all. And not having to spend big chunks of time managing people problems freed me to focus on the organization’s mission instead of dousing fires.
While I’m mindful to keep a healthy balance between light and dark thinking, I admit one of the best compliments I get is when my partner is about to make an important decision and seeks my counsel. “Tell me everything that could go wrong,” he asks me. And I do.
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