Friday, 19 July 2013 14:28

The Business Case for Positivity

As scientists study the brain and learn more about how we achieve optimal functioning, the term positivity has finally captured business leaders’ interests.

One study of CEOs showed that positivity training could boost their productivity by 15 percent, and managers improved customer satisfaction by 42 percent. Despite such training’s amazing results, many leaders remain completely unfamiliar with the concept.

In business, positive emotions yield:

  1.     Better decisions. Researchers at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business studied how positive moods affect managers. Managers with greater positivity were more accurate and careful in making decisions, and were more effective interpersonally.
  2.     Better team work. Managers with positive emotions infect their work groups with similar feelings and show improved team coordination, while reporting less effort to accomplish more.
  3.     Better negotiating. At Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, researchers learned that when people negotiate complex bargains, positivity again surfaces as a contributing factor for success. Negotiators who strategically display positivity are more likely to gain concessions, close deals and incorporate future business relationships into the contracts they seal.

Positive emotions directly correlate with:

  •     Increased creativity
  •     More curiosity and interest in the world
  •     Better health
  •     Better social relationships
  •     Optimism and perseverance
  •     Longevity

The business benefits of positivity include:

  •     Lower turnover
  •     Improved customer service
  •     Better supervisor evaluations
  •     Lower emotional fatigue
  •     Higher job satisfaction
  •     Better organisational citizenship (ethics)
  •     Fewer work absences
  •     Improved innovation
  •     Better safety records

Emotions’ Role in Business

For businesses and organizations, emotions are functional. Both negative and positive emotions work to drive results. Negative emotions serve to limit our thoughts and behaviours, helping us to act more decisively in times of stress or crisis.

Positivity broadens your outlook, opens you to new solutions and ideas, and brings more possibilities into view. Positivity fosters vital human moments that go beyond optimism and a smiling face. It infuses your mindset and outlook, affects your heart rhythms and body chemistry, reduces muscle tension and improves relationships.

The Broaden-and-Build Model of Positive Emotions

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, outlines her “broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions” in Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity and Thrive (Crown Archetype, 2009).

Dr. Fredrickson suggests that positive emotions (enjoyment, happiness, joy, interest and anticipation) broaden our awareness and encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions. Over time, this expanded behavioural repertoire helps us build skills and resources.

In contrast, negative emotions prompt narrow, immediate, survival-oriented behaviours.

Positivity and High Performance

For years, organisational psychologist Marcial Losada, PhD, studied the characteristics of high-performing business teams. As part of his work, he designed a meeting room to capture the real-time behaviour of business teams in action.

The room resembled any ordinary boardroom, but it was fitted with one-way mirrors and video cameras that allowed research assistants to record every statement during company teams’ hour-long meetings.

In particular, Dr. Losada tracked whether individuals’ statements were:

  1.     Positive or negative
  2.     Self- or other-focused
  3.     Based on inquiry (asking questions) or advocacy (defending a point of view)

By the mid-’90s, 60 different teams had been observed and coded. At the same time, each team’s performance level was identified based on independent data. Twenty-five percent met the criteria for high performance based on three distinct indicators:

  1.     Profitability
  2.     Customer satisfaction ratings
  3.     Evaluations by superiors, peers and subordinates

About 30 percent scored low on all three factors. The rest had mixed profiles. Dr. Losada also rated team behaviour on connectivity (how well tuned or responsive members were to one another).

When he later divided the teams into high, low and mixed performance levels, striking differences emerged. High-performance teams stood out by their unusually high positivity-to-negativity ratios: about 6:1. Mixed-performance teams scored ratios of 2:1, while low-performing teams scored 1:1.

High-performing teams also had higher connectivity ratings and an interesting balance on other dimensions. Members asked questions as much as they defended their own views, and they cast their attention outward as much as inward.

Low-performing teams, however, had far lower connectivity, asked almost no questions and showed almost no outward focus.

The Tipping Point: 3:1 Positivity Ratio

The positivity/negativity ratio has been found to be a critical parameter in ascertaining what kinds of dynamics are possible for business teams. It is measured by counting the instances of positive feedback (e.g., “that is a good idea”) vs. negative feedback (e.g., “this is not what I expected; I am disappointed”).

Dr. Losada’s findings can be summarised as follows: If a team is highly connected, its members will tend to maintain an equilibrium between internal and external focus, as well as between inquiry and advocacy. They will also maintain a positivity/negativity ratio above 3:1.

If connectivity is low, the team will be more internally focused, it will advocate strongly, and its positivity/negativity ratio will be below 3:1.

Dr. Losada’s research correlates with Dr. Fredrickson’s, in that both independently arrived at a 3:1 positivity-to-negativity ratio for optimal functioning (whether for individuals or teams).

Improve Your Ratio

You can take a self-evaluation of your positivity/negativity ratio at Dr. Fredrickson’s site, To improve your ratio, you must decrease the number and intensity of negative moments, increase the positive moments, or both.

The goal is not to eliminate bad thoughts. Negative emotions are appropriate and useful. We need to become aware, however, of gratuitous negativity. Fortunately, simple awareness of negativity has a curative effect. Once you learn to spot it, you can defuse it.

To reduce negative thinking, adopt these useful techniques from the field of cognitive behavioural psychology and Dr. Fredrickson’s book:

  1.     Dispute negative, black-and-white thinking habits (always/never, most/least, internal/external).
  2.     Break ruminative thinking (use distractions to change mood).
  3.     Become more mindful (observe without judgement).
  4.     Reduce bad news streams.
  5.     Avoid gossip and sarcasm.
  6.     Smile more often at people.

It may take a while for positive thinking to become natural and habitual. Try these frequently cited exercises to create positive thinking habits:

  1.     Practice gratitude. Keep a daily gratitude list. Ask yourself questions like “What went right?” and “What was the best part of today?”
  2.     Practice positive feedback. Catch people doing things right. As you practice this skill and express your appreciation more often, people will shine.
  3.     Envision your best possible future. When you daydream about your future, you set yourself up for goal-directed behaviours. Envisioning your best possible future helps you persevere and provides hope.

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