Problem Management — failure
Negative Goals

The human brain is a very goal oriented mechanism. We have barely to think of picking something up from the table and our arm automatically reaches out and our fingers grasp it. If we were to consciously control all the individual muscle movements required for even such a simple act, we'd be overwhelmed by the amount of work involved. But our brain has learned how to do it effortlessly; all that it needs is to be given the goal. Simply imagine something and, assuming it is possible, our brain and body will work together to make it happen.

But negative goals don't work. For instance, don't think of an elephant. You weren't thinking of one before, but now that you've been told not to, it's impossible not to. The word elephant is sitting there in your mind, perhaps even the image is too, and no conscious effort can make it go away. In fact, the more effort you make to not think of an elephant, the more the thought of an elephant becomes reinforced in your mind.

You're sliding down a hill on a toboggan and see a tree ahead. The more you look at it and the more you think don't hit the tree, the more your body will steer the toboggan toward the tree. You've given your mind the image of the toboggan hitting the tree and it sees this as a goal, the not that you actually want is totally ignored.

Similarly, if your car is heading for an obstacle (a pedestrian, another car, or even a tree) if you visualize what you don't want to happen, it will. But if you look away from the obstacle and visualize going around it, amazingly that's what will happen; your brain and body already know how to steer the car, you just have to give it a positive goal.

Goals in general work this way. You must visualize the goal and your mind will do whatever it can to achieve it.

The problem is, too often the goal is a negative one: I will quit smoking, I will not eat as much, I won't spend so much money, etc. These goals of course are almost never attained, your mind visualizes yourself smoking, eating, and spending, and that's what you end up doing.

Instead you need positive goals, goals where the image is of what you do want to achieve: I enjoy breathing fresh air, I will eat small healthy meals, I will save my money for …, etc.

Management often suffers from this same problem. They set negative goals for themselves and for their workers: don't mess up the sales talk, don't be late, don't waste so much material, don't discuss irrelevant things, etc., and of course the results usually end up satisfying these images.

But a much more insidious cause of failure is when a goal only appears to be positive. Consider the example of world peace.

Some people really do have this as a positive goal. They see a world in which problems are resolved by means of rational discussion and fair judgements. Unfortunately, as wonderful as this goal might sound, it would require a complete change of human nature in everyone on the planet, and that's something that's humanly impossible.

But most people are more realistic; they have a much better idea of what is possible. Unfortunately, their image of peace is a negative one: no war, no fighting, no …. Peace seems like a positive goal, but for most people it is really a set of negative goals, and as such it is unlikely to be achieved.

Know what your goals are, whether large or small, immediate or long term, and review them frequently. Visualize what the goal looks and feels like and continually verify that it is a positive goal, not a negative one (hint: it's not possible to paint a picture of a negative goal). Get a feel for what is possible, review what you are doing to approach that goal, and consider what you can do next. But always, always, think positively.