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The power and pitfalls of positive thinking

Positive thinking is great, but there's a downside, precisely because it is so powerful. Too much of it can cause skewed decision-making that, in business, can be disastrous.

A quarter of a century ago (I've always wanted to say that), when I was a young engineer with Texas Instruments, I had a manager named Dick Carroll. Dick was a big guy who looked a lot like Mr. Clean without the eyebrows.

One day, I was working on a drafting table in a large, open bay, when Dick walked up and started talking about how great his sex life was. That was more information than I needed to know, but I held my tongue. Conversations with the big boss were always precious, regardless of how they began.

On this occasion, Dick's upbeat demeanor so contrasted with how crappy I felt that morning - how I felt every morning, in fact - that, instead of asking what middle-aged, wrinkly sex was like, I asked how he always managed to be so optimistic.

That's when Dick explained the power of positive thinking to me. In a nutshell, when you whine and complain, you annoy people and they avoid you like the plague. When you're positive and optimistic, that attracts people and opportunities.

The concept wasn't new; the book by Norman Vincent Peale was originally published in 1952. But it was new to me.

I never did read the book, but the idea resonated with me. Dick taught me a lot, but I'll always remember that morning as a turning point in my career. And you know what, I never thanked him for it. Thanks, Dick. Now that my Karma's back in balance, onward with the topic.

It turns out that there's a downside to positive thinking, precisely because it is so powerful. Too much of it, and you may find yourself in an almost delusional state of euphoric denial.

It's one thing to be optimistic, but telling people what you think they want to hear and sugar-coating bad news can really screw things up. It causes skewed decision-making that, in business, can be disastrous.

You think that's an exaggeration? I've seen great companies fall because executives painted too rosy a picture and others bought into it and acted on it. It happens all the time.

If you think about it, positive thinking is powerful because people really want to hear happy things and believe in good news. And that doesn't just mean the people on the receiving end. In time, it can have an addictive effect on the person doing the positive thinking.

In the extreme, it can cause people to compartmentalize feelings of concern, sadness and even fear. Emotions are important barometers for the human condition, regardless of whether the environment is professional or personal.

I've known a number of senior executives that appear to suffer from this problem. I believe it results in a significant number of product and corporate failures, not to mention miserable human beings.

So, if you want to think and speak positively, that's fine. But don't let it disconnect you from your feelings, especially the so-called negative ones. They're real indicators that things aren't going so well. If you don't pay attention to them in real-time, they have a way of coming back to haunt you later.

And when it comes to important matters that affect decision-making, keep your thoughts clear, your behavior straight-forward, and your communications honest. If you don't, your positive thinking will surely turn into negative results.