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 / Summer 2014 / Issue 75(originally published by Booz & Company)


Making Better Decisions over Time

The Power—and Constraints—of Positive Thinking

In many situations, positive thinking has been demonstrated to boost performance. The concept of deliberate practice lets us refine that notion. Positive thinking is most effective when it’s bracketed by objective feedback and adjustment.

The result is not simply optimism, but what psychologist Martin Seligman calls learned optimism. The key is to replace a static view, which assumes a single mind-set at all times, with a dynamic view, which allows for the ability to shift between mind-sets. Before an activity, it’s important to be objective about our abilities and about the task at hand. After the activity, whether we have been successful or not, it’s once again important to be objective about our performance and to learn from feedback. Yet in the moment of action, a high degree of optimism is essential.

A related idea comes from Peter Gollwitzer, a psychologist at New York University, who distinguishes between a deliberative mind-set and an implemental mind-set. The deliberative version suggests a detached and impartial attitude. We set aside emotions and focus on the facts. A deliberative attitude is appropriate when we assess the feasibility of a project, plan a strategic initiative, or decide on an appropriate course of action. By contrast, an implemental mind-set concerns getting results. When we’re in an implemental mode, we look for ways to be successful. We set aside doubts and focus on achieving the desired performance. Here, positive thinking is essential. The deliberative mind-set emphasizes open-mindedness and deciding what should be done; the implemental mind-set emphasizes closed-mindedness and achieving our aims. Most crucial is the ability to shift between them.

To test the impact of mind-sets, Gollwitzer and his colleague Ronald Kinney conducted an experiment. People in one group were asked to list all the reasons they could think of, pro and con, for following a particular course of action. The intention was to instill a deliberative mind-set. People in a second group were asked to list the specific steps they would take to successfully carry out a given course of action. The goal here was to instill an implemental mind-set. Next, all subjects took part in a routine laboratory task. Gollwitzer and Kinney found that subjects with an implemental mind-set showed significantly higher belief in their ability to control the outcome. They concluded, “After the decision to pursue a certain goal has been made, successful goal attainment requires that one focus on implemental issues. Accordingly, negative thoughts concerning the desirability and attainability of the chosen goal should be avoided, because they would only undermine the level of determination and obligation needed to adhere to goal pursuit.” An implemental mind-set, focusing on what it takes to get the job done and banishing doubts, improves the likelihood of success.

The question of how much optimism or confidence is good, and how much is too much, turns out to be incomplete. There’s no reason to imagine that optimism or confidence must remain steady over time. It’s better to ramp it up and down, emphasizing a high level of confidence during moments of implementation, but setting it aside to learn from feedback and find ways to do better.

Shifting Mind-Sets on the Flight Deck

Apart from basketball and golf, many other recurring actions, including very consequential ones such as landing an airplane, lend themselves to deliberate practice. In addition, they call for the ability to shift mind-set from deliberation to implementation. A memorable example comes from US Airways Flight 1549, which landed safely on the Hudson River in January 2009, sparing the lives of all 155 people aboard.

In the moments after the Airbus A320 took off from LaGuardia Airport and struck a flock of geese, causing both engines to fail, Captain Chesley Sullenberger kept a deliberative mind-set. He coolly and systematically considered his options, including a return to LaGuardia and an emergency landing at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. Neither was possible. The aircraft had lost all power and wouldn’t be able to reach either destination. At this time, sober deliberation was required.

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  1. K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, “The Making of an Expert,” Harvard Business Review, July 2007: The authors argue that ordinary practice is not enough. To reach elite levels of performance, you need to push yourself beyond your abilities and comfort level.
  2. Phil Rosenzweig, The Halo Effect...and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers (Free Press, 2007): The book exposes many of the errors and mistaken ideas that pervade the business world and suggests a more accurate way to think about company performance.
  3. Phil Rosenzweig, “What Makes Strategic Decisions Different,”Harvard Business Review, Nov. 2013: The bulk of decision-making research applies to one type of decision, and it’s not the type that’s most challenging for managers.
  4. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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