Sunday, 22 April 2012

A niche for negativity

There are times in life when a negative attitude starts to invade your thoughts.  Maybe your job is boring or your home life is frustrating - or both.   This must affect virtually everyone.  Even those irrepressible (and annoyingly) optimistic individuals who are good at putting on an act all the time must feel something inside, even if they try not to show it.

Although often accused of being negative myself - yes really - I actually believe that I tend to take a pretty positive attitude.  How many people could work in development of a product that will not be commercially available in their own lifetime, and still be enthusiastic about it?  Well, most of the time I can.  I might say that I am equally often accused of over-optimism and over-simplification. 

Let's assume that, like everyone else, I might be negative sometimes.  Is this such a bad thing?  After all, negativity is in very plentiful supply and it is free at the point of use.  Rarely will it actually create risk in the same way that overt optimism can do.  I have blogged previously (in Don't be so negative!) about the way that some people confuse negativity with realism, and pointed out the semantic errors in the way that they tell you about it

Are there some cases where negativity provides a very positive benefit?   Certainly it is unfashionable among the chattering middle-management classes to think so.  And among the droves of 'business consultants' who blight many of our lives it is almost unheard of.  I say 'almost' for a good reason, and I will return to that shortly.

One area where I have observed positive negativity is in the field of safety and emergency management - although I am sure that most trainers on this topic would dress it up in a different way.  I'm not talking about the type of safety management where we are all advised about everyday hazards, wearing highly visible clothing and cycle helmets etc.  I'm thinking more of the sort of situation where professional people have to work to avoid putting the lives of others at undue risk.

It might be a fire officer faced with the decision about whether to send a fireman into a building where there is a risk of a potential gas explosion, just because one of the occupants has not been accounted for.  After all, perhaps someone had felt ill and gone home early without telling their boss.  It would be a foolhardy action to rush into the building without assessing the risks, when the missing person might not be in the building anyway.

It might be a new project to build a nuclear power station just across the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament.  Being positive, we could say that the risks are infinitesimally small.  If we have enough confidence and optimism then we know that the facility will run safely for decades with no chance of exposing the public in the City of London to radioactive contamination.  After all, it has hardly ever happened at the plants built in the more remote areas of the world - honestly!  Be positive!

You see - in cases where the risks really outweigh the benefits, not many would claim that it was clearly and obviously correct to take a solely positive attitude.  (This is not to say that I would be completely against the idea of a nuclear power plant on the site of Bankside Power Station by the way.  I say build it!  Focus the minds of the planners and politicians on real risks for a change, instead of implying that parts of rural England do not matter as much!  And it would get rid of the pretentious Tate Modern art gallery at the same time!)

I truly believe that people often have skill of being able to think through a situation from a realistic point of view and identify the real reasons why it is hopeless to try it.  It simply MUST be true that overt optimism brings unconsidered risks to most situations.  OK, the odd surprising win might be experienced, just as people sometimes claim miracles to prove that their god exists, but on the whole a well considered and honest assessment of the risks and benefits must always be better, however unfashionable.

Coming back to business consultancy though, I am delighted to see that a few of them have at last recognised the value of harnessing negativity for profit and benefit.  Here is one example.  In his article Using Negativity Wisely, Derek Cheshire takes a refreshingly positive attitude to negativity.  (He mentions an earlier article about Reverse (or Negative) Brainstorming but does not link to it.  (I think this is the one.)

So tell me . . . have any of you tried using these techniques and found them useful?  My gut feeling is that this is a powerful and untapped resource, but as Carl Sagan said, "I try not to think with my guts".

Let's all continue to use our negativity wisely.  After all, we've been doing it quietly all our lives, even if we have never been recognised for the benefits it brings.

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