Project Management

Why Negative Thinking Is Necessary

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It is natural to be surrounded by optimistic voices – from ourselves and others – advising that “negativity kills ideas and productivity”, we need to “stay positive”, and “look on the brighter side”. Often when we want to be positive, our negativity brings us down. However, our minds are capable to handle the complexity of this cognitive dissonance. Being positive is what we always hear and is an old adage to individual and team success. But being positive is not enough, we need to weigh in the negative aspects as well. In my experiences of working independently and in teams, positivity would backfire on us when it tricked our mind to become satisfied with current progress, as it often subconsciously clouded our cognitive ability to sense risks, make a sound judgment, and provide viable solutions or alternatives. We need to keep in check of the drive that entails from being optimistic as well as the cautiousness that brings us out from being pessimistic.

Here are 3 positive traits of being optimally negative. 

1) Negative thinkers have the conservatism trait which prevents complacency. Generally, we are spurred on by words of encouragement and will fare better when being encouraged, but reassurance is a double-edged sword. While reassuring words quell anxiety and boost confidence in one’s ability to manage complex tasks and relationships, on the other hand, it can make us feel complacent when we are doing well using standard and results-proven procedures. This deters us from searching for new knowledge and experiences to learn, leading to organization inertia.

Being negative in a conservative manner can prevent us from being clouded by over-positivism into believing that we have the full capability to manage complexity and overcome any obstacles or uncertainty. We will be more humble, constantly seeking knowledge, and strive for personal and professional improvement. This drive for knowledge will spur us on to learn from the internal environment as well as the external environment of the organization.

2) Instead of being content with current progress, anticipating possible obstacles lying ahead helps one to begin planning approaches to overcome them. I realized that when telling myself not to worry too much, I am not planning for contingencies. Instead of expecting tasks will go as planned, negative thinkers are brainstorming the things that can fail. People who are a couple of steps ahead have the knack of foreseeing possible obstacles, thus they are rarely caught off guard with contingency plans being well planned out.

A practical technique is Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) whereby it studies problems that might arise from malfunctions in organizational processes, products or services. For each possible risk, the risk priority is worked out according to its severity, occurrence, and detection. Root causes are mapped out and viable steps are taken to eliminate or minimize them.

Hence, being negative in an anticipating mode will make us good analysts in both project and functional environments, because besides being able to envisage possible bottlenecks before they appear and seek viable solutions or alternatives, we are able to continuously improve on current progress.

3) Negativity builds resiliency. When an over-positive individual realizes problems, he or she may not have the adaptability to overcome the setback and changed the imminent failure, the team will need a negative thinker who envisages not only possible threats but also opportunities. They have a natural flair of turning possible failures into positive outcomes, as their negativity lead them to learn from past lessons and thus able to deal with difficult situations. Thus, they are well drilled to turn the tide when the waves arise or even prevent the waves from forming. 

Past stressful situations create negative emotions such as frustration, fear, anxiety, etc. When reliving these stressful situations with introspective thoughts, we will be able to reframe the negative emotions into possible resolutions with viable actions plans.

When I met with a seemingly impossible deadline to meet for a project deliverable, self-blaming thoughts become whirling non-stop in my head and I am not able to stop the negative beliefs that ensue. I jot down these negative thoughts and beliefs in my mind and on a notebook. By being mindful of the thoughts and ensuing triggers, self-awareness is developed. Next, acknowledge being negativity is a natural human disposition and thus does not need to fight it, but the thoughts can be shifted. Instead of just saying “I am not good enough” and stop there, I tried saying “this is difficult situation and I accept not having the immediate ability to overcome, but I have gone through this before and can draw experiences from the lessons learned”. I scrutinized the individual tasks of a project deliverable to diagnose where went wrong and find the root causes, and then able to engineer prospective solutions to meet the project deliverable.

Do seek support from colleagues and superiors, they will understand where you are coming from and can see that you have worked out some prospective solutions for further discussions. Hence, negative emotions should be embraced as an integrated part of the process of developing and sustaining high-performance mindset with resiliency. 


Therefore, being consciously aware of negative thoughts and emotions and accepting them will keep us on our toes. This will help us to eliminate complacency, anticipate possible obstacles, and build resiliency. A project team needs to develop positive-thinking and negative-thinking, but cannot be overly optimistic and extreme pessimistic. 

Posted on: December 15, 2018 12:48 PM | Permalink

Comments (10)

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We should try not to surround ourselves with negativity, but if it can't be avoided, find ways to reduce its toxicity. Thanks Pang.

True! Thanks Pang.

In project teams, we often find a positive minded team member thinking negatively. If the negative thinking act as FAILURE MODE & EFFECTS ANALYSIS, then this is certainly effective for a project success.

Thanks Pang, very interesting.
In your statement" I realized that when telling myself not to worry too much, I am not planning for contingencies". Wouldn't it be the other way round - actually planing more for contingencies - just a thought.

Supressing negative thinking is fruitless. Negative thinking needs attention and it's the key to unlock hidden issues in a working environment.

Good insights Pang. I never thought about it this way but you make some very good points.

Pang, thanks for sharing an article with insights into the area

Good sharing!!!

Thanks, Pang!
I believe the trick in learning how to swim among the negativity without being drawn into it and drown in it. Very good points.

Dear fellow members,
Nice to hear and learn from your thoughts too. Thanks.

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