When the Negative is Actually Positive

The Positive Case for Negative Capability

Connotation. The term used to explain the association one holds with a word or concept. The word ‘negative’ is typically connotated with adverse or unwanted outcomes. However, in this instance, the term need not yield such unwanted outcomes.

When it comes to the world of modern business, the degree to which a leader is able to quickly respond, find a solution, or provide immediate stability during times of turbulence is perhaps most coveted. This type of ‘reflexive-and-decisive action’ is often seen as a sign of capability, security and control by stakeholders and subordinates. However, the question begs, when there is so much to consider, so many options, and so much on the line, is a ‘knee jerk reaction’ truly the best methodology for leadership practice?

Please do not get me wrong, I am not attempting to say that experience cannot be distilled into meaningful reflexive action, rather, I am simply asking; when so much is on the line, is immediate reflexive action always the best remedy in times of stress?

This article is an attempt at unpacking the concept of ‘Negative Capability’ – which, at its core, speaks to an intermediate space from which a leader is able to continue to think during difficult situations. The reflexive-and-decisive action spoken of above, is generally referred to as ‘Positive Capability’, where Negative Capability speaks rather to the creation of ‘reflexive inaction’.

At this point, you may well be thinking, why would a leader want to engage with this reflexive inaction? Well, at its core, reflexive inaction speaks to a leader’s ability to take a step back, resist knee-jerk reactions and take the time to meaningfully engage with the situational variables, particularly, when the he or she is operating at the edge of their leadership capacity. When considering the instability faced by many leaders today, the concept of negative capability starts to hold greater salience.

To engage with negative capability requires practice, and most importantly, the capacity to contain the anxiety that is caused by actively trying not to do something when the proverbial heat is on. One of the major tasks faced by leaders is the management of both their own anxiety, and the anxiety of those they lead. Positive capability allows for a quick resolution of that anxiety by creating a solution, or providing direction. If the decision is incorrect however, the anxiety boomerangs, and the leader finds themselves in what is perhaps a deeper level of anxiety than at the onset of the process.

Another important aspect leaders need to consider in the practice of negative capacity, is their own ability, within that moment, to realise, and accept their own limitations, and the limitations of the situation, resources, people, and so on. In other words, actively getting to grips with what is negative, missing or unavailable in that moment. Sometimes such limitation comes in the form of actually not knowing what to do, not having the appropriate resources, or perhaps not having the buy-in from those the leader needs it most from. Such situations effectively call for the unwavering ability of a leader to remain steadfast, have the capacity to contain their anxiety, and that of others, and be able to wait for insight, resources or trust.

From a practical viewpoint then, negative capability often comes in the form of waiting, observing and listening keenly to what is happening. When considered in this way, one can argue that negative and positive capabilities, whilst on face value appear to be opposing forces, are in fact not mutually exclusive in nature. Think of it this way; much like electrical current requires a balance of both a positive and negative charge, leadership too requires a balance of positive and negative capability.

It is worth noting that negative capability should not be viewed as a leadership panacea of sorts either, simply because it does not represent a final solution to situations in which key aspects are lacking (such as resources for instance) and does not represent the same anxiety relieving promise that positive capability would here. However; what negative capability does provide for in such situations is the creation of a mental and emotional space in which new insights, thoughts and ideas can be generated, which in turn form the basis from which decisive (read positive capability) action is possible.

In many instances, the aspect holding a leader back from meaningfully engaging with their own negative capability is their capacity for humility. Humility here is much more than taking a step back to let others ‘catch the shine’ so to say, humility here speaks to the ability to have an open mind, be open to new ideas, be able to explore irrationality, and trusting in the ability of subordinates, and the self, to adapt and be more – irrespective of how much experience the leader has amassed over time. This is particularly difficult, but equally important to get right, during times of irrationality, when commonly accepted approaches to a problem are simply not working. The basic premise here is this, emotions are the very thing designed to override logic, and when working with people, one has to accept that working with their emotions and irrationality is part of the package.

The question then begs, how does one start to develop this negative capability in the self?

In short, if you are looking for a quick-fix here, you are in for disappointment. Research indicates that in order to meaningfully develop negative capability, a leader must be willing to put in the work over a medium to longer term period. However, some of the more commonly accepted ways of developing negative capability include:

  • Individual & Group Psychotherapy: yes, you read right, by engaging with therapy, you can learn what your triggers are, how these affect your judgement, and to understand the often-unconscious processes which drive conscious behaviour. By pausing to unpack the self, you engage with negative capability;
  • Experiential learning: in a nutshell, such learning occurs when you get to engage your capabilities in a safe learning environment, which challenges your current boundaries – a good example of this would be executive coaching;
  • You can copy the great Marcus Aurelius, who used to keep personal notes on a daily basis – that is to say; he kept a journal. Journaling helps one keep track of themes in one’s life, understand the impact of daily ups and downs, and see progression of behaviours over a period of time. As with psychotherapy, by taking the time to reflect on yourself, you also engage your negative capability;
  • Hobbies: at long last, you now have reason to justify the expense of your hobby to your spouse! Hobbies force one to pause, and be fully present with something, and sometimes, allows one to face challenge in a relatively non-threatening environment;
  • Meditation: there is a reason that when done right, meditation can be difficult to sustain, and this is partly because it engages your negative capability – more practice here, leads to meaningful strides in negative capability.

So, with all that said, did you manage to exercise your negative capability whilst reading this?

If you are looking to engage more with your negative leadership capability, contact psyQ Consulting today for your first, free, 1 hour consultation and needs assessment.

References & Further Reading

Simpson, P., French, R., & Harvey, C.E. (2002). Leadership and negative capability. Human Relations, 55(10), pp. 1209-1226