There are some people who believe the way we approach change by looking at problems instead of opportunities is broken, and we can get to better change by focusing on opportunities rather than threats and strengths rather than weaknesses. The idea has some merit – but it can also be taken too far.
To provide some context for the conversation, it’s helpful to think about the classic SWOT analysis that breaks the process of analyzing the current situation into Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Strengths and weaknesses are internally focused positive and negative factors. Opportunities and threats exist in the environment outside of the person or organization. The key question here is whether focusing on the strengths is more important, or should we focus our energies on addressing the weaknesses?
Martin Seligman is known as the father of positive psychology for his work, while APA president, to change the focus of mental health from restoring the broken to helping folks live more full and complete lives – to flourish (see Flourish, and The Hope Circuit for more on Seligman’s push for positive psychology). His colleague, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, also contributed greatly to finding the best in people, rather than focusing on their worst. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and Creativity for Csikszentmihalyi’s work.) The positive psychology movement has been gaining support slowly but steadily in the decades since their initial work.
Our neural wiring supports a focus on the negative events in our life – but this works against our happiness. By focusing on positive aspects, we can find greater happiness, and in doing so, we can become more successful. What we’ve learned about the neurology of our brains is that the more we focus on something, the more anchored it becomes in our neural networks – and the more difficult it becomes to dislodge.
Many popular psychology approaches have taught us to visualize what we want so that we can achieve it. Built on solid science with a very long and precarious extension ladder, this approach can leave us well short of the goal if we visualize something that we don’t ourselves do – like winning the lottery. The solid science that it’s based on notices that the same neurons are firing when we think about throwing a ball as when we finally throw a ball. From this, we can easily take that mental rehearsal of an action can improve our performance – and studies have been done that bear this out. The problem is that there’s no research supporting this in non-kinesthetic scenarios. We just don’t know.
The biggest challenge to the exclusive focus on the strengths and opportunities comes from the work of Kurt Lewin’s work on force fields. He proposed that people are motivated to and away from behaviors based on a set of forces operating on them. Some of those forces propel us forward, and some of them hold us back. The problem is that when we neglect the forces that hold us back, they can get bigger.
There are plenty of leadership books that extols the benefits of having open dialogue and how being able to discuss difficult situations can improve teamwork and the perception of leadership. The same applies to weaknesses and threats. The more openly we can look at them – without dwelling on them – the more quickly we can neutralize their impact.
Key to avoiding the tendency to dwell on the negative is to put the weakness or threat in its proper context. Few humans have perfect eyesight. We walk around with glasses or contacts. We have surgeries to reshape and repair our eyes. A lack of visual acuity is something that most of us face but that we don’t dwell on – because we’ve got the tools to address the weakness. If you wear glasses or contacts, your weakness is irrelevant. You’ll see as well as any human can.
So, while it’s important to focus on the positive to reap the benefits of new positive wiring, be cautious not to neglect the negative to the point that it becomes a big threat or hinderance.
If you want a refresher on what your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats are to make it easier to practice positive psychology for your change, you can get our SWOT & PESTLE Resource Book now. It will walk you through the process of figuring out those four aspects of your organization. Just go to https://confidentchangemanagement.com/SWOTPESTLE-P.