This blog explores and critiques the impact of positive thinking and its many derivatives on leaders and managers in India. I believe that the ideological stances and axioms behind positive thinking, positivist psychology, and its cruder interpretations by consultants, management gurus and coaches, create a set of complex defense process that not just isolate and alienate the human being, but obfuscate various ways in which corporate capitalism manipulates, and oppresses all its stakeholders.
Compulsivity towards Positive Thinking…
A few days ago, I was struggling to facilitate a dialogue within a team of HR managers in an offsite.
My struggle was quite acute – as on one hand I experienced my clients as resourceful – there was an ease with language and communicating, a facility with management constructs and analytical frames of looking within – and yet on the other hand, there was a deep reluctance, fearfulness, and a stubborn resistance to engage with any hurts, conflicts – all shadowy processes of competition, envy, terror, manipulation etc.
The group seemed to be terrified to engage with these very shadowy processes and would quickly take refuge beneath the banner of ‘Positive Thinking’. I would hear several members harping on the ‘virtues of positive thinking’ and how this would dissolve old hurts and wounds, resolve conflicts, and even energize the system towards embrace growth.
There were quick rejoinders too – on how working with not-so-positive aspects would only make the group dysfunctional, would open and violate old wounds, and create bad blood, conflict, and strife.
It seemed that the group was unconsciously infantilizing itself, and then compulsively holding on to the good breast of positive thinking. Needless to state the entire day left me feeling quite impotent and helpless – feelings that I may have unconsciously introjected from the group.
At first, I thought that some of my clients in the workshop were fans of Norman Vincent Peale and his self-help book titled ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’. If you have not read it, the opening lines summarize the entire book, and I quote – “This book is written to suggest techniques and to give examples which demonstrate that you do not need to be defeated by anything, that you can have peace of mind, improved health, and a never ceasing flow of energy. In short, that your life can be full of joy and satisfaction … many people are defeated by the everyday problems of life. They go struggling, perhaps even whining, through their days with a sense of dull resentment …”
However, I have been witnessing an increasing trend in leaders, including CEOs to not just endorse positive thinking but to eulogize the virtues of positive thinking in strategic meets and townhalls – positioning it as a ‘competency of leadership’. With this increased frequency of the claims of positive thinking, I became very intrigued and wanted to dig deeper and understand where all of this was coming from… and to what purpose and unstated ends.
The BIRTH of POSITIVE THINKING in a land far far away …
It was Dale Carnegie who wrote ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ in the year 1936. I saw that volume gathering dust on my mother’s book shelf for several decades in the 1970s and 1980s – never saw either of my parents ever open this particular volume or talk about it. I guess it was one of those books that were gifted on birthdays and anniversaries from well-meaning colleagues or relatives. I later discovered that Dale Carnegie was originally a Carnagey but changed his name to match that of the famed industrialist Andrew Carnegie for more popularity and credibility – but hell, if Indira Gandhy could become Indira Gandhi – who am I to judge people searching for fame by manipulating their surname.
If you were to ever pick this book up and read it – you would discover that the author emphasizes on how important it is to force and to manipulate your body, your mind, and worse still deny your real feelings, to win friends – essentially the book reveals practices of putting on a show or ‘fake sincerity’ so much so that you start believing in your own act.
But Dale Carnegie’s book sales only burgeoned as the twentieth century, post the gloom of world war II wore on – celebrating the rise of a new and prosperous middle class on either side of the Atlantic. The new class had to be seen as joyful, happy, and smiling to justify the growth of capitalistic society not just for the communist regimes but for self, though research states that it wasn’t really the case.
The new society wanted the protagonist – man, woman and child, to be embellishing the ideology of positive thinking. The protagonist of this narrative was also fighting the villainy of negative thinkers.
In her book, Smile or Die, How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich, traces and maps the growth of a new ecology to aid the protagonist – of Self-help Gurus, of management consultants and coaches, that leveraged a simplistic argument – “Negative People SUCK!”.
These gurus and coaches then provide a series of solutions, each more ingenious and manipulative to prevent these villains – these new age vampires (the not so positive thinkers) who lurk in the dark shadows of negativity, and who can be discerned through their relentless whining, but to be killed before they suck away your lifeblood of positivity.
Ehrenreich quotes a narrative where in mid-2006, a Kansas City Pastor puts a ban on negativity and that his church would be “complaint free”. The Reverend Will Bowen became famous for this bold attack on negativity and even got invited to the Oprah Winfrey Show. Within a few months, his church had given out 4.5 million purple bracelets to people across 80 countries in his attempt to build a complaint free world.
Calvinism, the Protestant Ethic, and Positive Thinking – Has anything really changed?
Ehrenreich drew my attention to the fact that Positive Thinking is very much akin to Calvinism and the Protestant Ethic.
The early WASP community, which built modern America in the 18th and 19th century brought in a mindset of what Ehrenreich terms as ‘socially imposed depression’ for their God was cruel and hated the living. The notion of heaven was limited in terms of space and membership. The protestant ethic taught a harsh lesson – Idleness and Pleasure were contemptible sins and emphasized on the need for constant vigil on your inner feelings.
A display of any happy emotion including smiling was discouraged and relentless Work was seen as the only antidote to this melancholic existence. The Protestant Ethic – a key work of Max Weber, chronicled the growth of the new age America emphasizing empty soulless workaholism of the middle-class America with an intent to distract oneself from inner gloom and emptiness.
Weber and many others speak of how Calvinism and the Protestant ethic created a deep suspicion and perhaps misgivings for real feelings including pleasure and joy.
Ehrenreich underlies a continuity that left me quite shaken.
- She says that both the old religion and the new ideology of positive thinking insist on ‘WORK’ with self.
- Both ideologies stress on the constant need / vigil for Self-monitoring – just as the Calvinist monitors his or her inner world for thoughts and feelings for signs of sin and self indulgence, the positive thinker is ever on the lookout for ‘negative feelings’.
- Thus both ideologies deem that the Self is antagonist which one has to fight and wrestle endlessly throughout life.
(In ‘The Fall’ on Netflix, the writers take a potshot at the common practice of overcoming negative thoughts by putting a rubber-band on one’s wrist and hurting oneself with it every time one succumbs to a negative thought. In one of the episodes it is a serial killer masquerading as a counsellor, offering this antidote to a woman he had earlier violated and nearly killed)
Most people would not know that Norman Vincent Peale was a mainstream Protestant minister and yet his work in 1952 on the Power of Positive Thinking was very much influenced by his Calvinist derived Dutch reformed Church. In his tome, he offers ten simple rules to condition the mind.
The heart is, alas, never referred to!
The Seduction of Positive Thinking as a Management Tool in USA …
It was not long before the clever businessman realized the immense potential of applying Positive Thinking in the corporate world. For all its claims, capitalistic societies were giving rise to new professions and new classes that were also experiencing loneliness and angst.
It was the traveling salesman, exiled on highways, motels, and airports, alone and lonely, who had to deal with rejection each day, and yet remain enthusiastic and optimistic for the next customer, who became an the first and an easy target for positive thinking.
While playrights were exploring the deeply alienating world of the salesman, including Miller’s Death of the Salesman, Glengarry Glen Ross remains my favorite narrative describing a certain process of hardening, dehumanizing, and shriveling the humanness inside.
Norman Vincent Peale targeted the very sales professional first – who he calls as his constituency – “the lonely man in the motel room”! He tasted success immediately as many companies including pharmaceutical firms, used his book, his tapes, and other allied literature to train and to socialize their sales teams. Amway was one firm that invested into an intense indoctrination of its employees using Peale and other positive thinking books and seminars.
“AM I the CEO or the SALESMAN?”
By the 21st century, positive thinking had made further inroads as a management tool in corporate America and elsewhere. Accountants, IT employees, BPO and KPO employees, customer service providers etc. and finally the senior manager was converted to the virtues of positive thinking.
Positive thinking was a must for anyone who was alienated, isolated, anxious, self reliant and independent professional – it was not just the lonely salesman wasting away in a hotel, trying to search for his mojo and wear the smile for the next day, but even the CEO trying to grapple with a world that was uncertain, angst provoking, and terrifying.
Greater the degree of uncertainty and volatility in an environ imbued with chronic downsizing, the stronger the expressed faith in Positive Thinking to fight a rising sense of despair within.
The romanticized corporate leader in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, was soon discovering the entrenchment with the darker side of modern capitalism. The early 1990s heralded the days of BPR and restructuring, which meant many a significant layoffs. The 21st century has been no different – it has been tumultuous for all.
Managers across hierarchies are being reduced to bundles of skills and competencies. There is no other recourse but to run on a treadmill to make oneself relevant and fight obsolescence armed with ‘Positive Thinking’
Positive Thinking & Positive Psychology – a bewitching and heady cocktail of religion, ideology, and pseudo-science
In 1997, Martin Seligman became the President of American Psychological Association and brought in the theme of ‘Positive Psychology’ or the study of ‘positive emotions and mindsets’, happiness, fulfilment and ‘flow’. Seligman legitimized the new science of happiness – there was even a journal of ‘Happiness Studies’ where articles and research linked happiness and optimism.
Till Seligman’s rise, positive thinking had no purchase – it was often mocked and dismissed by most intellectuals. In the 1950s, Norman Vincent Peale was labelled as a cheap huckster.
Seligman turned out to be a godsend for all the motivational speakers, the self-help gurus, the coaches et al – for now they could use, as Ehrenreich puts it – ‘that touchstone phrase of rational discourse – “studies show…”’
Life coaching business was the new business legitimized by academia. Seligman himself wrote a book quite similar to what the self-help gurus were writing about – titled “What you can change… and what you can’t and Authentic happiness – Using the New Positive Psychology to realize your potential for Lasting Fulfillment.” Seligman was there just like the others – for example till 2005, he was providing coaching by conference call to hundred of people at a time for US$ 2000 each. He developed a cash generating website – www.reflectivehappiness.com, promoting exercises to increase your happiness.
The biggest market for positive psychologist with their books, their websites, their conferences was not your man on the street but the managers and leaders of the corporate world.
Positive psychologists were now selling happiness to large companies.
I have used the phrase – pseudo science in the section title, for it does seem that positive psychology suffers from physics envy when it chooses to offer complex equations including the one below:
H = f(S, C, V)
Where H is your enduring level of happiness, S is your set range or innate disposition, C is the circumstance of your life (such as a job loss) and V represents factors under your voluntary control etc. I would leave it you – the reader to draw your own conclusions…
Positive Thinking & the Indian Context
It is amazing and I could never have believed it a few decades ago … but positive thinking has made major inroads into how the Indian manager thinks. If you were to look at it – Positive Thinking is so alien to our culture, our notion of living, our dharma, and our socialization.
For example, every Indian would have come across the Navrasas – the nine core emotions that build our inner world. The more I read and think about Positive Thinking, the more conscious I get that none of the core emotions fit in.
I would leave it you – o reader to determine this:
- Shringaram – all forms of love and beauty – deep intense love
- Haasya – mirth and teasing, comic – some thinkers would call it a ‘coping mechanism’
- Raudram – rage on account of injustice and even nature’s wrath
- Karunayam – deep empathy and even sadness (not to be confused with sympathy)
- Bhibatsam – disgust and nausea
- Bhayanakam – anxiety and fear
- Veeryam – valor and courage
- Adbhutam – awe and wonder
- Shantam – tranquil and absolute bliss
The clue is that Positive Thinking underlies the need to think through your inner world and be vigilant of those dysfunctional feelings … and not really touch and resonate with your inner emotions.
I had some great fun putting some graphic below just to illustrate the following…
Imagine what would it be like, were it for Krishna to expound positive psychology and positive thinking to Arjuna sitting on tremendous self doubt instead of the Bhagwad Geeta.
Krisna – “O Arjuna Lets look at Positive thinking here – what does the equation – H = f(S, C,V) mean to you?”
Imagine if Buddha were to work with the phenomena of suffering / dukkha and its linkages with desire and craving / tanha… through the tenets of positive thinking. How would he have defined the practices of nirodha / cessation of desire and dhamma.
Imagine if Meera worked with her sorrow, her deep despair, and her eternal hope through positive thinking … how would her bhajanas / songs sound …
Meera – Does positive thinking rhyme with Sinking or Drinking?
Imagine what would have happened to Guru Dutt’s character and the soulful narrative of the romantic idealist poet as he grapples with the world – Vijay in Pyasa, were he influenced by positive thinking and positive psychology…
Imagine what would it be like if Vijay in Deewar endorsed positive thinking and did not get envious and resentful when his brother said …
Positive Thinking and its tenets are alien to Indian thought, our films, our narratives, our mythologies, and yet these are being subscribed in the Indian corporate culture. The next section offers hypotheses and speculations on why this may be happening.
Positive Thinking & the Corporate Denizen in India
I am and need to be just an instrument to maximize value
As is happening across the globe, the Indian manager believes that being an instrument or a bundle of competencies, without accessing feelings, is the only and the right way to become a professional, who would be valued by significant stakeholders.
It does not matter what is the nature of my dream, as long as I can be a proxy of some vague and grandiose purpose such as enhancing shareholder’s wealth and be weighed in gold for my efforts.
Thus, positive thinking helps me by not having to listen to my ‘negative feelings’ including guilt, shame, and deep fears.
I am alone, (not lonely) and value self-reliance (for dependency on others is scary) in an increasingly alienating world
The other increasing trend is that professionals across any firm, and in light of increasing automation, robotics and AI, are sitting on tremendous anxiety around obsolescence and isolation.
Positive thinking, I guess offers a false promise of becoming self-reliant, without wanting to look at the consequent inner loneliness that come from this premise, and being agentic and independent, without wanting to face one’s dependency on the context.
Positive thinking becomes the blue magic pill that keeps me younger, more energized, and happier without having to confront the fact that I need others around me, or that I am vulnerable and afraid etc. etc.
It also means that I need to have my own goals, my own learning agenda, my own networks, and a deep faith in my own tenacity to survive and flourish. If in this process, I have to swim with the sharks (there is a book on this by the Positive thinking school) and still survive – I will! Except that I need to ignore feelings of guilt and shame that may get evoked in this process while I manipulate myself and manipulate others.
I need to transcend and strive … to demonstrate my masculinity!
Men and women alike are bitten more by the need to strive and to transcend the challenges posed by the context. The fight with SELF as posited in the earlier section represents this stance which is very masculine.
Positive thinking reinforces this inner striving and inner testing of self – of being vigilant of one’s own ‘weak and negative’ feelings … the inner world is seen to be warred upon, to be dominated and to be won over.
Surrender and faith in the imminent world are taboos today! These are almost confused with cowardice and impotence. Strange, that in a land like ours, where we celebrate Bhakti – which invites a certain feminine process of faith and surrender, positive thinking takes us to the other extreme.
I believe this is happening because femininity has no currency in the way Corporate Capitalism is being internalized by the Indian manager today.
Manipulating Optimism with no Hope or Faith!
Ashok Malhotra offered me the title of this blog the other day and it was a great gift in many ways Positive Thinking is all about manipulating oneself and in productionizing Optimism – and yet the inner feelings remain untouched.
Every time I look at signs of climate change, of colonization, of oppression and violence, the only resource that allows me to live through the day is ‘Hope’ and ‘Faith’.
Both these emotions are complex emotions and I have no idea how these get evoked within my consciousness. I can only feel these and cannot rationalize these – nor can I produce these.
For all its methods and practices, techniques and ideology, Positive Thinking and Positive Psychology do not allow me to get in touch with my own faith and hope. These manufacture Optimism all right, but the nature of optimism remains plasticine and unreal.
It seems that the Indian leader and manager in the corporate world seems mesmerized with manufactured optimism as opposed to dredge his or her way through an inner world that is richer as well as dangerous.
This has been a longer of my long blogs and if you have reached this section – I thankyou for your patience and your tenacity.
- This blog represents the second chapter of my book on Politics and Power in Indian organization – the earlier chapter is my blog on inter-generational conflict and the Yayati Complex. If you liked reading this – do press ‘like’ – it would energize me further to write on the next 8 chapters.
- This blog is linked to my earlier blog on the Homo Reciprocan in the modern corporation today.
- Many of my thoughts in this blog are influenced by Ashok Malhotra. As per his latest researched book on the Indian manager and Organizations – Boons and Burdens, he speaks of the Universe of Belonging and Protection or the Clan universe – and how this is being increasingly devalued in Indian organizations.
- I must thank Dan Travis who introduced me to the work of Barbara Ehrenreich – Smile or Die – A critique of Positive Thinking. If you liked this blog, please read her book!