Now Is a Critical Time to Create an Upward Spiral of Positivity

May 22, 2022
Mike Stallard

By Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard

Emotions are contagious. For that reason, you need to pay attention to your own emotions and those of the people around you.

At work, how would you characterize the emotional state of your team? If you were to think of it as a river, is the quality of the water life-giving and invigorating, or some level of toxic? Is the water current robust or more of a trickle?

A strong current of positive emotions can create an increasing sense of enthusiasm, energy, and momentum, propelling you forward and fueling positive results. Hopefully, you’ve observed or experienced that at some point in your work life. Chances are good you’ve seen the impact of being in an environment contaminated by negative emotions and how it taints the level of trust, cooperation, and productivity. A strong current of negative emotions may threaten to steer you off course or even sink you.

Now, it would be unrealistic to think that a work environment could be free of any and all negative emotions. When faced with challenges and setbacks, it is normal to feel and express disappointment or confusion or frustration. An environment steeped in negativity, however, is bad for your emotional (and physical) health and it will undermine your performance. It may be exhausting to have to tread water or swim against that kind of current day after day.

The third consecutive year of the global pandemic is making positivity more challenging to achieve. But the emotional waters were choppy even before then. Negative emotions in the workplace — particularly worry, stress, sadness, and anger — have been rising for years, peaking in 2020, according to the most recent research by the Gallup Organization. We believe negativity in the workplace is one of the primary drivers of the “Great Resignation.”

Today’s prevalence of negative emotions begs the question: How can leaders cultivate a culture that produces a steady flow of positive emotions?

Positive emotions “broaden and build”

Besides being more enjoyable and less stressful, why is it important to be in an environment of predominantly positive emotions? Is assessing and addressing the emotional state of a team really worth a leader’s time and attention?

To answer these questions, we’ve turned to the research of Professor Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, one of the most highly-cited contributors to psychological science. Fredrickson has said, “There are two core truths about positive emotions. One is that they open us. They literally change the boundaries of our minds and our hearts, and change our outlook on our environment. … The second core truth about positive emotions is that they transform us for the better. They bring out the best in us.”

Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions holds that everyday experiences of positive emotions both open the mind and nourish the growth of resources that have a positive impact on future emotional well-being. A diagram of the theory presents it this way: Experiencing positive emotions leads to a broadening of the mind and “novel thoughts, activities, relationships” which lead to “building enduring resources (e.g., social support, resilience, skills, and knowledge)” which leads to “enhanced health, survival, fulfillment” which produces more experiences of positive emotions (see diagram below).

Broaden and build theory of positive emotions illustrated in a graphic

Fredrickson has been conducting research related to positive emotions for several decades and she reports these varied benefits:

  • “People are more likely to be resilient. People are able to bounce back better from adversity when they’re experiencing positive emotions.”
  • “People are more trusting.”
  • “People are more creative.”
  • “People come to better win-win solutions in negotiations.“
  • “[One study] looked at how positive emotions allow us to look past racial and cultural differences and see the unique individual … to see past difference and to see toward oneness.”

Positive emotions expand our vision

What really captured our attention in Dr. Fredrickson’s research are the findings related to a person’s vision and awareness. She has described it this way: “...positive emotions open our awareness. They increase the expanse of our peripheral vision. We see more.” Studies conducted using behavioral tests, eye-tracking, and brain-imaging show positive emotions broaden the scope of a person’s visual attention. In other words, we literally notice more around us.

That makes sense. If you are working on a team in which negative emotions are prevalent, you might choose to keep your head down, not just figuratively speaking but literally. Focusing on the task in front of you and trying to stay out of the line of fire, chances are you will miss things and have a more limited view.

Fredrickson goes on to highlight the benefits of having a broadened view: “Because we see more, we see more possibilities. People come up with more ideas about what they might do next when they’re experiencing a positive emotion relative to when they’re experiencing neutral states or negative emotions. … In addition, we’re also seeing the big picture. At a very fundamental level, we’re able to see larger systems, see larger forms of interconnection, when we’re experiencing positive emotions.”

Positive emotions need to outnumber negative emotions

The positive emotions that get the most attention from researchers include amusement (humor), awe, gratitude, hope, inspiration, interest (curiosity), joy, love, pride, and serenity (contentment). How much of them do you need in order to have an environment in which you can thrive? That is not a settled matter among scholars, though there is agreement that you need a higher level of positive emotions to counter the impact of a negative emotion. It’s not an even swap. Fredrickson counsels that multiple positive emotions are needed for each negative emotion we experience.

Why is that? Unfortunately, our human tendency is to gravitate toward and give more attention to the negative. This is known as negativity bias. Which is more likely to stick with you and have you still thinking about it a few days later: the critical comment from a colleague or the compliment? Certainly there are times when a preoccupation with “what went wrong, what is going wrong, what could go wrong” is useful. Left unchecked, though, negativity bias can get us emotionally sidetracked by a negative moment in an otherwise good day. It can make us quickly forget, or discount, any affirming messages that accompanied that corrective comment when receiving constructive feedback. Research suggests that “negative emotions last longer than positive ones, that we tend to spend more time thinking about negative events, and that we often reason about them more.”

Our innate ability as humans to reactively mimic the emotions and accompanying behaviors of another person is referred to as emotional contagion. We spotted it in action when we were on a video call with one of our grown daughters, laughing together about something, and soon her two-year-old daughter started laughing right along with us, oblivious to what gave us the giggles in the first place. It’s good to be reminded that positive emotions are contagious too, not just the negative ones!

Is there a particular negative emotion that is circulating in the emotional current of your team? Have you noticed it infecting more than one person? What actions can you take to address it? What can you do to raise the level of positive emotions in the current and make those even more contagious than the negative one?

“Positivity resonance” from human connection has the greatest impact

Fredrickson’s research has also found that positive emotions arising from connection between people have the greatest positive impact. She refers to it as “positivity resonance” and it occurs when the following three events transpire:

  1. a sharing of one or more positive emotion between you and another person,
  2. a synchrony between you and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors, and
  3. a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care.

Last year, I (Michael) had the pleasure of speaking directly with Dr. Fredrickson to learn even more about her and her ongoing work. What jumped out to me from our conversation was that her research is finding that when people experience positivity resonance, including a feeling of oneness with the other person and a concern for their welfare, those moments of connection are what build up a more lasting and durable concern for the welfare of others. Her research provides empirical evidence that experiences connecting with others lead to prosocial virtues and behaviors. In other words, you can say to someone, “You should care about your colleagues” but what is more effective is for that person to have connecting experiences that produce those feelings and inclinations to care about their colleagues. Fredrickson said her research also “points to what is lost when humans don’t connect.”

To learn more about Barbara Fredrickson and her work, read her latest book, Love 2.0: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection.

Positive emotions increase in cultures of connection

Fredrickson’s work aligns with our work on the importance of a team’s and organization’s culture. Cultures of control and cultures of indifference impede the flow of positive emotions and are a breeding ground for disconnection between people thus sabotaging individual and organizational performance; cultures of connection foster positive emotions and opportunities for positivity resonance thus supporting individual and organizational performance.

Cultures of connection are created and sustained when leaders:

  1. communicate a vision that unites people,
  2. value people as individuals and don’t think of or treat them as mere means to an end, and
  3. give people a voice to share their ideas and opinions on matters that are important to them then consider their feedback before making decisions.

Vision + Value + Voice = Connection. Cultures of connection create a work environment where individuals will experience positive emotions and where friendships are made and positivity resonance develops among colleagues.

How to increase relational connections in the workplace

The impact of the pandemic as well as the move to more remote work may have weakened or frayed relational connections at work, opening up cracks for negative emotions to seep through. Perhaps there are colleagues who joined the team and have had little time around the others. Now would be an important time to boost human connection and positivity resonance.

Professor Ashley E. Hardin of Washington University has found that greater personal knowledge leads to a more human perception of a colleague, which results in increased responsiveness and decreased social undermining. With this in mind:

  1. One-on-one: Take time to personally connect with the individuals you are responsible for leading as well as with your “critical connections,” i.e., the people with whom you collaborate, coordinate, and cooperate, and any you rely on to do your work well. Get to know more about their lives outside of work. Can you identify any interests, experiences, or values you have in common? Actively look for ways to affirm them with genuine compliments that generate positive emotions.
  2. As a team: Be intentional about taking time for team building that connects and unites your team. Furthermore, help your colleagues understand the power of human connection and how it is essential along with task excellence in order to achieve sustainable superior performance.
  3. Between teams: Is there another team or department that your team interfaces with often or relies on? Coordinate with the leaders of those groups to have joint team-building and social events that strengthen connection.

Cultivating cultures of connection that produce an upward spiral of positivity and performance is especially important today when we are trying to recover from a challenging and difficult season. The leaders who connect with people they are responsible for leading and nurture cultures of connection will emerge from the pandemic well-positioned to lead their organizations to greater heights.

About the Authors

Katharine P. Stallard is a partner of Connection Culture Group and a contributing author to Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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