Negative thoughts can become viruses that eat away at our creativity and motivation.
As one of my mentors, Eugene Kleiner of the legendary Kleiner Perkins venture capital firm, told me, “It’s not what you know or even who you know that determines success. It’s how you manage yourself—your frame of mind, your outlook on life.” I’ve certainly found that to be true for myself. If I’m not in a positive frame of mind, my thinking becomes narrow and self-protective. I miss seeing opportunities before me. I don’t engage as productively with others to get things done. Have you noticed the same about yourself? The perspectives we hold, the thought patterns we follow, and the images we convey to others forcefully affect our organizations.
One of the toughest issues for entrepreneurs and managers is how to deal with negative thoughts that crop up. Some negative thoughts are rational and helpful warnings. These encourage us to give attention to issues or concerns we may have overlooked.
Other negative thoughts simply prey upon our fears that we don’t have value or that some hidden weakness will cause our enterprise to fail. Such negative thought patterns rapidly infect our thoughts and actions. They distort our intuition so that we are reluctant to trust it.
I’m not addressing persistent negativity. That’s a topic for psychologists and other trained professionals. Anyone experiencing such anxiety or depression should consult professional resources. Rather, I am focusing on garden-variety worries that confront healthy people trying to create and build businesses.
Managers need a way to examine and squash unproductive negativity. Here are some approaches I use.
- Become aware of your underlying thought patterns. Observe all of the voices chattering away in your mind.
Sit quietly for 15 minutes and notice the thoughts that stream through your mind. What themes come up? What patterns do they follow?
Meditation and mindfulness practices offer tools to observe our thoughts. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, “Full Catastrophe Living,” local courses on mindfulness, and other resources can help you learn these practices. As we become more aware of our underlying ideas and assumptions, we can choose how to respond.
Another approach is to write down your thoughts when you first wake up. Capture the flow in raw form. Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way,” describes the practice of writing morning pages.
- Check out the accuracy of your negative thoughts. Determine what is real and what has become distorted by your thought patterns.
For example, a CEO who had profitably grown a business became unsettled when his company changed ownership. The new owners had a different style. The CEO felt threatened by what he perceived to be critical comments about his management. For months he delayed checking out his interpretations. Meanwhile, his pattern of negative thinking reinforced itself.
Another professional had an important client who frequently sent terse comments. His immediate reaction was one of feeling criticized. Whenever such comments arrived, he felt crushed. Over time, he changed his response. He suspended judgment or reactions until he politely but directly asked the client for clarification about the comments. Frequently, he discovered the client’s comments related more to the client’s fears than to the quality of his work.
- Write down your balanced assessment of the situation. Put the picture into focus for yourself.
A talented executive encountered some business reversals and found himself in a cycle of negative thinking. To help break the cycle, he wrote down situations as they arose over the course of several weeks. For each situation, he noted the negative thoughts that arose, how those negative thoughts were a distortion from reality, and what a more balanced response would be to the situation. David Burns’s book, “Feeling Good,” describes this process of observation and reflection.
The executive discovered more than 50 instances of negative thinking that had become distortions of reality. He had been digging his hole deeper and deeper. With a fresh and balanced perspective, he climbed out of his destructive negativity.
- Snap out of your negative thought patterns. Use reminders to shift your thinking.
Once ingrained, negative thinking can be tough to root out. Find mental and physical cues to help you shift gears.
One manager wore a rubber band around his wrist and gently snapped it each time a distorted negative thought arose. It was his simple, but effective, biofeedback loop.
- Get support from others. Organize a support team to help you realize what you want.
My friend and colleague Art Stevens recommends what he calls abundance groups. Draw together three to five people who know you and want to support you. Ask them to help you see the reality of your situation. They can help you perceive and respond to positive opportunities.
Self-management is critical for good management. Negative thoughts are common and sometimes useful in our rapidly changing business and social environments. Managing these thoughts so that they don’t become destructive patterns will enhance your business and your life.
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