Optimism's Downside

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KNOW THE TYPE? The growing dotcom, where everyone from the CEO down is positively bubbly about the company's prospects. The idea, of course, is to convince in-house talent and outside investors that the company is a winner.

But what may make business sense for a startup in the short run is not a wise strategy over the long haul, according to new research. In fact, what psychologist Barbara Held of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, labels "the tyranny of the positive attitude" in our culture may backfire in the workplace, if there is too much pressure to be positive and if there are insufficient outlets for occasional targeted negativity. "Being [constantly] upbeat can lead to a tendency to think in a quick fix kind of way," adds Julie Norem, a social psychologist at Wellesley College who was part of a panel with Held on "The Overlooked Virtues of Negativity" at the American Psychological Association (APA) meeting in August. "Careful analysis might make us think about more negative [factors], which we don't want to do."

Norem and others say the pressure to be blindly optimistic has increased recently, aided by a flood of self-help books exhorting the power of positive thinking. Yet being too positive can impede good decision making in and out of the workplace, or lead to venting through bizarre manifestations Norem notes, "People tend to be radically optimistic about when they can get things done and that often leads to sloppy work or missed deadlines."

Likewise, says Robin Kowalski, professor of psychology at Western Carolina University and an APA panelist,"The long bull market has fostered a sense of false optimism. And when the false front falls, as it has to, you're going to have some extremely disgruntled people."

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