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How the Secret Power of Negativity Can Help You

Positive thinking can only take you so far. To really succeed, you need to embrace some negative thinking as well.

Positive thinking has become an industry unto itself. From the Norman Vincent Peale book to all the "gratitude days" recitations you see on social media, American culture has become a relentless purveyor of being upbeat and chipper.

It's become so pervasive that if you're in a business meeting and bring up something counter to the feel-good tenor of a conversation, you might be admonished to stop being so negative. But doing so would deprive you of an important tool that can help how you run your company and even your life.

Here are some of the ways you can put negativity to use.

Improve your planning

Whether you're planning the strategy of a business or a round of errands, telling yourself that everything will go well is foolish. You want to anticipate what might realistically go wrong so you can make plans to avoid it or, if that is impossible, ameliorate the effects. Otherwise, you become the type of person who drives to the airport during rush hour pretending that the traffic will be no heavier than usual. If you haven't allowed for the extra time you should know will be necessary, you'll miss the flight. A similar fate will be true if you launch a new product or location and don't consider what might interrupt your actions.

Jump-start your negotiation skills

Too many people have endorsed the win-win mantra in negotiations. Although the idea of looking for benefit for both sides can play a useful role in a negotiation, far more important is the ability to say no. The only reason you have a negotiation is that two sides don't agree on all aspects of a contract or arrangement. Until you see what is negative for your company and push back, you'll be stuck caving in to whatever the other side wants. Be ready to say no and to push for what you need.

Increase your thinking clarity

Thinking only positive thoughts when you need to be insightful and decisive is like taking only right turns when you drive: It's a good way to get lost. Positive and negative thinking create a way of better understanding a situation so you can react more effectively. The moment you insist on a specific type of outcome, you've given up and are taking up propaganda.

Sharpen your competitiveness

You can't be competitive if you are only positive. There will be rivals who are outpacing you, creating better products and services, or developing stronger relationships with customers. Don't tell yourself that everything will be fine. Recognize where you are behind and use it as a goad to push yourself forward. In its glory days, Intel grew from a producer of memory chips to the dominant force in microprocessors, all by taking a paranoid view of the world that someone would be trying to topple it. It was hardly positive, but greatly effective.

Manage people better

No matter how good a game someone talks, no one in his or her right mind is actually positive all the time. If you accept negativity, you'll get more honesty from your employees that will lead to better work and a stronger handle on what is really happening in your business.

None of this means that you should walk around in complete disagreement with everything, insisting that nothing can go right. That is as self-destructive as saying nothing can go wrong. But acknowledging reality is the first step in learning how to overcome it.

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Last updated: Aug 19, 2014

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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