As a small boy, my Dad never stopped speaking of an erstwhile cousin of ours. He did it through story. It was James this and James that. “Here’s what he did lately” he would say. “Got fired from yet another job because his boss didn’t ‘understand’ him”. Even at a young age, I knew poor James was a stand-in, a proxy for training me. And it worked too. My dad drummed those James stories in my head so early and so often, I became the opposite of James in almost every way as I grew up. Kind of the anti-James.
Later on my business career I used the same technique with direct reports. Talking in negative story served as a way to communicate with the team, set expectations and give them clear guardrails of expected behavior. We would even use hypothetical examples to test the bounds of this teamwork. And anticipate reactions to problems and dark scenarios. “Okay, it’s the morning of the big presentation. Cheryl is key for us and she calls from the road with a car tire problem. So…do we detach Glenn who is learning from Cheryl to take care of Cheryl’s ‘personal’ issues? And if Cheryl is so key to the day, is getting her tire fixed really a personal issue at all? Or a business one vital to all of us?”
You can imagine the conversation. And if you can’t, try one like this in your work group. About half said. “absolutely…whatever has to get done, gets done”. While the other half was very uncomfortable having Glenn run Cheryl’s personal issues down. “It’s her responsibility to maintain her own tires…and where does this end anyway? If we’re more junior, are we supposed to pick up her kids and make them dinner too?”
Others who were more on the optimistic plane than me, would try to end the hypothetical negative scenario by applying a virtual whitewash as in “let’s not fret about things that haven’t yet happened. There’s no point in that. It’s just bringing us down and we have enough in front of us”. This only infuriated the “negative preparers” (myself included) even more. It was if our entire way of thinking was being discredited with a smiley face. Leaving our group more vulnerable and unprepared for mishap. The researcher Julie Norem in her seminal 2008 book “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking” was our goddess. She got us. “Defensive Pessimism” as Boston Globe journalist Jennifer Graham writing of Norem’s work, is a state “where people envision the worst outcomes and prepare accordingly. Negative thinking helps you be prepared for things”.
See…I liked that kind of thinking. What’s wrong with being prepared? It isn’t the Boy Scouts motto for nothing. And even the US Army always says “hope is not a plan”. So why not use this power of negative story to do good? Why not let it flow into us and pave the way for an brighter future? By worrying about things just inside of our sphere of control?
I know what you’re thinking…”what ever happened to James?” Truth be told, he turned out just fine. Go figure.
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