Boosterism alert: relentless positivity alone will not achieve results

Leaders who set a goal, without rooting it in reality, set followers up for disappointment

Three cheers for positive thinking! The evidence suggests instilling what the psychologists call “positive affect” has a variety of knock-on benefits.

Happy individuals enjoy improvements in intuition, creativity and resilience. Happiness reinforces our immune function, reduces susceptibility to strokes, among other things, and even improves longevity.

Positive emotions also widen the number of ways in which people react to threats and challenges. Too much negativity merely encourages us to fight or flee from danger.

So it is entirely logical, even desirable, that leaders should aim to encourage this self-reinforcing attitude.

Listen to the London Stock Exchange's chief executive David Schwimmer on the prospects for his group's $27 billion (€24.3 billion) high-stakes takeover of Refinitiv, the data provider: "We feel that this is a very strong combination that we feel very good about strategically, we feel very good about the leverage and our ability to pay it down. We feel good about integration and we feel very good about the combined team."

It is fair to say he feels good and wants everyone around him to feel good.

Boris Johnson is the current highest profile exponent of this art. The UK's new prime minister has evoked a "can do spirit" to defeat "the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters", whom he believes threaten Brexit.

Government insiders have already dubbed his economic policy "boosterism". That is either a deliberate or an inadvertent echo of the coinage by Sinclair Lewis, the US writer, who satirised midwest American cities' hyperbolic self-promotion. The property-speculating protagonist of Lewis's Babbitt is an active member of "the International Organization of Boosters' Clubs . . . a world-force for optimism, manly pleasantry, and good business".

Johnson has drawn heavily from club members for advice. Around him, he has assembled a group of supposedly can-do ministers and advisers, who are themselves seeking counsel from pro-Brexit outsiders. After convening a roundtable last week, loaded with business leaders who favour leaving the EU, Andrea Leadsom, the new UK business secretary, said she had urged them to "continue their positive approach to the future" and lauded their optimism.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump cuts a different figure: more aggressive, less ludic. His inauguration speech played on fears of "American carnage", whereas Johnson emphasised British "pluck and nerve and ambition". Yet the US president, too, was raised on the power of positive thinking – the title of the bestseller by Norman Vincent Peale, the pastor who presided over Trump's first marriage and preached at the church to which the president's father used to take the budding real estate magnate.

Mindset

In business, the influence of psychologist Carol Dweck’s concept of the “growth mindset” – openness to learning and trying new approaches – is spreading. It has been key to Satya Nadella’s plan to change Microsoft’s culture. When he stepped in as chief executive of Volkswagen, mired in the “Dieselgate” scandal, Matthias Müller talked of the need to change the carmaker’s mindset and adopt “the right attitude and mentality”.

Both chief executive recognises relentless positivity alone will not achieve results, though.

Prof Dweck has criticised the common misconception that just by assuming a growth mindset, “good things will happen”.

Leaders who set a strategic goal, without rooting it in reality, or laying out the steps to execute the strategy, set followers up for disappointment, cynicism and chaos. Boosterism risks being exposed as mere blusterism.

Before leaders take to the battlements to rally their troops with positive messages, they must understand their own abilities. Adam Grant of Wharton business school points out that "whether people succeed is not a matter of thinking positively or negatively, but rather whether they choose the strategies that match their thinking styles". A defensive pessimist will look foolish and unconvincing making a tub-thumpingly upbeat speech to the Boosters' Club.

Leaders who are strategic optimists actually perform no better than pessimists, who are able to turn anxiety into action. What is needed is a mix of both. “We do not wish to knock the booster,” Lewis wrote, “but we certainly do wish to boost the knocker.”

Studies back him up. Too much positivity can be bad for you. In fact, there’s an ideal ratio for human flourishing of about three to one, between positive emotions - amusement, hope, joy and so on – and negative ones. Three cheers, then, for positive thinking – and one carefully modulated catcall. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019