Cultivating Negative CapabilityIn a famous passage in an 1817 letter to his brothers, the 22-year-old John Keats wrote of the importance for creativity of having negative capability, meaning that one is
capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.In Paris in 2001, Robert French, Peter Simpson and Charles Harvey (FSH) took up this thought in a paper, "Negative Capability: The Key to Creative Leadership" and then provided a follow-on account of their thinking in "Leadership and Negative Capability," which included a richly illuminating case example.1
In "Leadership and Negative Capability" FSH introduce their thinking by noting:
Leadership tends to be thought of in terms of positive capabilities, those attributes and abilities that allow the individual to promote decisive action even in the face of uncertainty. In this article, we argue that alongside such positive capabilities there is a need to consider the contribution of negative capability, that is, the capacity to sustain reflective inaction. This is described as ‘negative’ because it involves the ability not to do something, to resist the tendency to disperse [energy] into actions that are defensive rather than relevant for the task.There may be a "need to wait until the insights [concerning reasonable courses of action] come, resources become available, or relationships develop." In other words, "containing the pressures evoked by uncertainty can help to create a mental and emotional space, in which a new thought may emerge that can itself become the basis for decisive action."
FSH argue that awareness of the roles of both positive and negative capability is essential for drawing reliable lessons from experience. In the case example they present, "Nicholas," the leader of the negotiating team for "Megacom," a global corporation working on setting up a joint venture involving Chinese, Russian, and Korean partners, learned a number of powerful lessons that enabled an eventually successful outcome to what proved to be a prolonged (three-year) negotiation.
For instance, Nicholas came to realize that he simply did not understand "the dynamic between the Russians and the Chinese." He decided that his best bet was "to listen carefully, to wait for the pattern [of an effective negotiation process] to evolve, and so to learn." As Nicholas put it, "The ability to say nothing is very non-western, but very powerful."
FSH build on this thought, by arguing
More than a technique, ... this practice of waiting, of attending to the deeper patterns of relationship and meaning seemed to make an essential contribution to the development of an effective personal and working relationship with both the Chinese and the Russians. A precise understanding of the nature of this development is elusive. With the Chinese, Nicholas merely noticed that in the third year of negotiations they began to tell him information that had previously been withheld.Another key lesson for Nicholas was coming "to really understand that these guys weren't trying to hoodwink each other." Rather, they were having trouble getting their ideas translated into words whose intended meaning everyone understood. As FSH put it, "Negative capability can be thought of as underlying this capacity to hear the meanings that are often obscured as much as revealed by words, and then to convey them to others."
By adjusting their approach to negotiating adopting an approach "very different to what we've all been taught to do" Nicholas' team (which required some revamping in order to make sure it included only individuals with the requisite flexibility) were able to exercise influence. Nicholas explains:
We realized that the project just wasn’t going to succeed if we didn’t help everyone in the room. Without a conscious decision on our part, our role changed from negotiators, an equal party, to become an honest broker attempting to help reach an agreement between the other parties.At the end of their article, FSH offer ideas for how to cultivate negative capability. The approaches they suggest include:
- Individual and group psychotherapy to help individuals understand their habitual ways of dispersing their energies when dealing with ambiguous situations.
- Experiential learning geared to increasing understanding of group dynamics, including, as relevant, multicultural aspects of interactions among members of a group.
- Talking to friends.
- Engaging in art, music, and hobbies and other recreational activities.
- Counting to ten before speaking.
FSH also emphasize the importance of being willing to use "the low status behaviours of waiting, observing, withdrawing, listening, adapting, patience and passivity. Although these behaviours may seem to have less intrinsic value than intervening or decision-making, for example, they can make a real and valuable contribution to the leadership of the task at hand."
1 "Negative Capability: The Key to Creative Leadership" was presented at the 2001 annual meeting of the International Society
for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations in Paris. "Leadership and Negative Capability" was published in Vol. 55 (2002) of Human Relations, pp. 1209-1226. Robert French is a Lecturer in Organisation Studies in the School of Organisation Studies of the University of the West of England (UWE). Peter Simpson is Director of Business Development at the UWE School of Organisation Studies. Charles Harvey is Dean and Professor of Business History and Management at Strathclyde Business School, University of Strathclyde.