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TECHNOLOGY

Why Positive Thinking Is a Trap

Here's why being too positive-- and ignoring constructive negative criticism from employees-- can be bad for business.

In 2010, Hewlett-Packard acquired struggling software-maker Palm for a reported $1.2 billion, and then built their highly-anticipated TouchPad using Palm's webOS software. The TouchPad turned into one of last year's most expensive flops-- yanked off the market in just seven weeks. 

What do these two disastrous moves have in common? The webOS mobile operating system, designed by Palm and bought by HP.

Former insiders now say that webOS never had a chance, according to a New York Times report. People involved with creating and implementing products based on webOS say the operating system was deeply flawed, the technology on which it was based wasn’t mature enough, and the company had “neither the right leaders nor the right engineers to do the job.”

But even though some people at Palm and HP clearly saw the problems, there was never a chance of them coming forward because of a flaw that affects executives: The power of overly positive thinking and the resistance to constructive negativity.

Almost as soon as you start working in business, you hear the chants that take the form of an old song lyric: Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. And it’s true that unrestrained negative thinking in its various forms can kill a new idea or initiative faster than kryptonite can do in Superman.

But what many executives never learn is that relentless happy thoughts are as destructive as unbridled negativity.

Sometimes employees who grouse, “We’ve tried it before,” really do want to shut down anything new. Other times, they’re right and see a fatal flaw because they’ve run into in the past. Or perhaps they simply see a problem that may be barely discernible now, but that will grow to overwhelming proportions.

There’s a major difference between being negative and recognizing the negative.

Smart strategy should take into account things that can go wrong — so you can create alternative plans and design around the limitations. You want to anticipate as many of the stumbling points as you can so you’re not taken by surprise and derailed.

But business is often unrealistic and unproductive. In fact, the relentless demand for happy news and smiling faces is itself a deeply ingrained form of negativity, if you consider that anything which can keep you from reaching your goals is a negative factor.

It’s time to give up the limitation of relentless optimism.

Want to change the world? That’s great. Go ahead and do it. But when you’re driving along, don’t ignore the sign that says the bridge ahead is out. Instead, welcome information that can keep you from a disaster and intelligently plan your detour. It may take a little longer, but at least you won’t end up at the bottom of a ravine.

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Last updated: Jan 4, 2012

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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