Why Positive Thinking Isn’t Enough
Have you ever worked with a family business owner who said all the right things, had a clear goal, but never took action to make the key changes that he or she identified as important? Generally, we preach the benefits of taking a very positive approach—helping owners to visualize the possibilities and identify their priorities, and finally, articulating the pros of taking action. Sounds great, right?!
Well, the positive approach may only take you so far, and, in fact, can be a barrier to implementation. Research by Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation (2014), has shown that highly positive people who can easily envision their goals are less likely to actually implement them. Those of us who can see change so clearly in our own minds, sometimes, mentally experience the same level of satisfaction that would come with actually having achieved our goal. Therefore, we may lose the motivation that we need to move to actual implementation.
Or, in other cases, some people may want to make a change, but are easily flummoxed when life or circumstances get in the way, which, again, blocks motivation and implementation.
To counter this tendency to let good intentions slide, Oettingen and her team have developed a technique called: WOOP – Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. The key to using this technique is to help your client to fully describe their goal, flesh out the potential outcomes of achieving the goal, then identify potential obstacles.
The final step is to envision a solution to the obstacles—using if/then statements. “If I find that I cannot afford to invest in new equipment, then I will generate at least 2 different strategies to get to the same end”.
Oettingen’s research demonstrated that those individuals who went a step beyond just thinking positively and identified obstacles and strategies for implementation were far more likely to move forward.
- Wish: Help your client to envision the future
- Outcome: What might be the impact or outcome of taking action?
- Obstacle: What obstacles might get in their way?
- Plan: Put together an ‘if/then’ plan for overcoming the obstacles.
In line with our hypothesis, about 80 percent of the participants trained in WOOP achieved their goals, as opposed to just over 30 percent of participants in the control group. – Gabriele Oettingen
As an example, I am working with a client who really wants to move from his current role as the leader/manager to be an effective manager and coach as he prepares the next generation to take over. However, he keeps slipping back to his old behavior of “telling” people what to do and making decisions for others. We decided to use the WOOP technique to provide him with new options for adjusting to overcome his obstacles. Our plan looks like this:
- Wish: To become an effective coach and help my son and niece to become more aware of their strengths and gain confidence. That way, they’ll stop turning to me to make the final decisions and grow more secure in making their own.
- Outcome: I’ll become more of a “wise old sage” who can help my young successors to make better decisions more quickly. And, I will be able to stop feeling so guilty—which I always do when I take a knee-jerk approach and just solve the problem.
- Obstacles: I may react too quickly when a team member comes to me for advice. I feel responsible for Todd’s wellbeing and want to relieve pressure for him by making the decision. I sometimes get a “feel-good” rush when I am able to make good decisions quickly.
- Plan: When Todd or Amy turn to me in a crunch situation to make a decision, I am going to practice asking three questions in a row, to encourage reflection and analysis. If I am tempted to solve the problem, because I know I can… I am going to stop and ask, “if you were standing in my shoes, what would you do?” Or, I can be transparent and say “I’d love to solve this, but that wouldn’t help you to learn the ropes—let’s talk about the options.”
When my clients have a range of techniques for dealing with the obstacles, in the moment, they are much more likely to stick with the goal and see incremental improvements.
For more information, check out Oettingen’s original article at Aeon Magazine: Don’t Think Too Positive!
Also, here’s my short video on moving from a leader to a mentor/coach!