Purpose vs. Positive Thinking

Here are some quotes I found on LinkedIn today - they inspired this post...

 "Step out of your comfort zone and it will be bright and full of positivity"; "Positive thoughts generate positive feelings and attract positive life experiences"; "Thoughts have energy. Make sure your thoughts are positive and powerful"

"Step out of your comfort zone and it will be bright and full of positivity"; "Positive thoughts generate positive feelings and attract positive life experiences"; "Thoughts have energy. Make sure your thoughts are positive and powerful"

Because the thing is, the insights of behavioural science would suggest that unbridled positivity might not be as helpful as we'd like to think — particularly if you’re trying to get stuff done. There’s a well-respected theory of motivation and goal-setting called mental contrasting that sprung to mind amid the brightness and rainbows, and its message is pretty simple. When you want to achieve something — or want others to achieve something — there are three ways to go about motivating them for the task:

  1. Indulge – paint a picture of a Utopian future.

  2. Dwell – highlight the imperfect present. 

  3. Mentally contrast – explore the gulf between the two. 

Let’s take a branding example: Coca-Cola

Is Coca-Cola a purposeful brand? They wouldn't get my vote. But their marketing is as sickly sweet as the drink: Open a Coke, open happiness.

What's the mission? To refresh the world in mind, body and spirit. To inspire moments of optimism and happiness through our brands and actions.

Talk about indulging. But what are we being asked to do? Have they translated this into a global campaign around mental health? Or workplace disengagement? Or the inequality of well-being in society? What's the problem to solve? There doesn't seem to be much behind the curtain. Except, of course, the implicit message that if you want to be happy you need a Coke in your hand. Nothing meaningful happens. Coca-Cola seem ok with that. 

Let's move on.

What if you actually want to make a social contribution?

The tone has to change. It needs to embrace a challenge, highlight its ills and give it hope. It means when you ask people to join your mission, you don't shy away from the problem you're trying to solve. You put it front and centre like UNICEF: Right now, children are in danger 

Unicef.jpg

Over to the private sector, and purposeful brands are reflecting the same approach. IKEA's Steve Howard isn't interested in a whitewash when it comes to sustainability:

"Look, we have 3 billion people over the poverty line, coming in less than 20 years, who will have middle class living standards. We’ve got emissions that have to peak by 2020, and then we need a rapid decline in order to stabilize the climate. And we are building cities like never before. We have resource scarcity and climate change. So you have to say ‘this has to be a transformative agenda.’ Sustainability used to be a ‘nice to do,’ like planting trees, or doing incrementally less bad. It’s about a mindset. If you’re trying to reduce impacts here and there, that won’t do –it’s when you go all in that matters."

Unilever's Paul Polman talks about a 'Bright Future,' but he contrasts it with an untenable present:

"We also have to make it very clear that businesses are there to serve society and society is clearly asking for a different thing. We have created an economic system which unfortunately doesn’t work for everybody. Increasingly, it affects the poor and the poor are getting fed up. We must realise that people demand sustainable sourcing, because otherwise we don’t sell our products.”

These are powerful — behaviourally optimised — communications. They push us to action because they contrast a negative today with the possibility of a better tomorrow.

Of course, it's important not to take this too far — we won't achieve anything without optimism. But that doesn’t mean desperately avoiding the elephant in the room or putting on a front when we're feeling overwhelmed or facing multiple hurdles.

Don't listen to anyone who says you need to be positive all the time — the stronger your purpose, the more urgent the need to speak up when something's not right. That's the bravery that will make people notice. It's a platform to start turning things around.