There is a peculiar fact about positive thinking: it tends to evoke a “shadow” of “negative” thoughts and feelings. If I am reminiscing about a lost loved one, I may find myself bathed in feelings of warmth and affection; however, sadness over the loss and even anger at being abandoned are never far away.
What is true at an individual level is certainly true at the organisational one.Take Appreciative Inquiry, which is aimed at helping organisational leaders become what they are at their best. If I ask, “When did you feel most enlivened and enthusiastic about your work in this organisation?” While the aim might be to evoke thoughts and images of what works well, the exercise may simultaneously elicit feelings of anger and frustration that the good times have passed and things are running downhill.
The inquirer cannot ignore the “shadow” nor seek to designate it as “negative” thinking. If it is in the room, it has to be acknowledged and worked with. Trying to keep it out of the room by emphasising only the “positive” will backfire; it will not disappear. It will likely manifest itself in moody silences or stilted, restricted speech, invisibly sabotaging the aim of releasing the creative potential of the participants.
Maybe we need to drop the language of binary opposites (“good” versus “bad”; “positive” versus “negative”) and recognise that we live in a world where these apparent polarities are inextricably bound together: very few things are purely good or bad. We can also learn to reappraise experiences that we once designated as bad, in terms of valuable life lessons that have helped us grow.
One key characteristic of an effective leader or manager is the ability to receive negative feedback and do something positive with it. However, if your inner critic pounces on every criticism raised by colleagues and magnifies them into crushing personal humiliations, you are in trouble. Freud’s umbrella term for the most coruscating inner voices in the psyche was “superego” (literally “over-I”, the part of us that attempts to be in charge of our perceptions and actions).
Freud discovered that it was a far more malicious agency than a mere voice of conscience. It bombards us with impossible ideals and grows stronger every time we try to live by its impossible diktats. It revels in our inevitable failures; pouring scorn on us and making us feel terrible.
When you are governed by a harsh superego, it will drown out the kinder and more supportive voices you have also encountered during your personal development, and which may be crucial in shaping your responses to the legitimate aspects of a colleague’s criticism.
Clearly, being able to receive criticism, external and internal, can help us grow and learn. The key to facilitating that growth and learning is to cultivate multiplicity. In place of the dictatorship of the superego, it is crucial to defend your internal democracy by tuning into all the other more balanced voices you have acquired. You may have made mistakes or have some faults (who doesn’t?) but not because your superego says so. Seeing them as problems in need of practical solutions by listening to your supportive inner resources can release you from superego tyranny and help you become a creative pragmatist.