(Originally published on Positive Psychology News Daily, PPND, in February 2016)
Did you know the right amount of positive emotion can lead to more innovation, less absenteeism, and better problem solving?
What are Emotions For?
Early research regarding the purpose of negative emotion has been generally accepted. Negative emotion alerts us to danger and focuses attention on self-preservation and problem solving. However, understanding the survival benefits of positive emotion has been less clear, even dismissed, until recently. Researchers, including Martin Seligman, Barbara Fredrickson, and Christopher Peterson, have shown biological reasons for positive emotions and how they relate to human survival and well-being. In my experience as a leader, I have witnessed the results of positive emotion and its effect on well-being in the workplace.
Emotions at the Workplace
Positive emotion affects our workforce in the most basic way: our health. Research studies conducted by Ellen Langer and Alia Crum showed that simple changes in mindset can have dynamic and self-fulfilling effects on health. This can be seen even at the cellular level. Steven Cole and Barbara Fredrickson’s joint study on the effect of emotion on the human genome suggests that high levels of positive emotion affect the immune system, reducing inflammation and correlating with a strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes. In turn, good health means reduced absenteeism from the workforce.
Positive emotion is also linked to more innovation, better problem solving, and a more connected workforce. According to Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory, positive emotion is associated with more holistic thinking and skill enhancement.
I have seen broaden and build in action many times. One particular example sticks out in my mind. I was leading a marketing team of an Internet software company during the dotcom crash in March 2001. The timing of the crash, which struck fear in every tech worker I knew, was unfortunate since we were in the midst of planning an important launch. Not only was there worry about the impact on the launch itself, but people feared for their jobs. This all came at a time when we really needed to be engaged and at our most creative. Instead of members of my team bringing their best games to the table, the energy in the room was low. So, spontaneously I declared it to be the perfect opportunity for us all to go on a team outing. After several races at the local go-cart joint and some laughter and trash talk over a meal, we were all able to come back to the task with our creative juices flowing. I believed the change to be directly tied to the shift in emotion.
Negative emotion also plays an important role in well-being. Negativity constrains our experience of the world, narrowing attention and increasing analytical thinking. In emergencies, for example, we need to bring a narrower focus to the table. In fact, optimistic thinking is sometimes associated with underestimation of risks.
Fredrickson popularized the positivity ratio, the ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions as measured over time. To flourish, Fredrickson recommends a positivity ratio of about 3 to 1 (see references for more on the ratio***). The positivity ratio plots as a U curve showing that a higher positivity ratio is healthy and productive up to a certain point and then declines. In the workplace, I have witnessed this when excessive fun and games leads to decreased productivity. The key is a high positivity ratio without extremes, with 11:1 being the upper bound of the positivity ratio for flourishing.
Emotions (both positive and negative) are contagious. According to Sigal Barsade, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, we can catch moods. It only takes one of five employees to affect or “infect” the group. So, it is important to understand where excessive negative and positive emotions are originating in the company.
Ultimately, emotions have many implications for well-being in the workforce. Taking human emotions into account in workplace operation and reflecting on the implications in policies and programs could indeed improve well-being in the workplace. Interested in suggestions on just how this might be done? This topic will be discussed in the upcoming Part 2 of this article.
***Positivity Ratio: Many studies have shown the positivity ratio for flourishing to be above 3:1, including studies by John Gottman, and Robert Schwartz. Fredrickson has also acknowledged that the nonlinear dynamic model developed by Losada has been questioned, but stands by the Positivity Ratio.
Barsade, S. G. (2001, August). The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion In Groups. Working Paper Series on Organizational Behavior. Yale School of Management. New Haven, CT.
Crum, A. (2014). Change your mindset, change your game. TEDX talk.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Greenberg, M. & Maymin, S. (2013). Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business. McGraw Hill.
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013, July 15). Updated Thinking on Positivity Ratios. American Psychologist. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0033584
Gottman, J. M. (1994). What Predicts Divorce?: The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ, England: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Schwartz, R. M., Reynolds III, C. F., Thase, M. E., Frank, E., Fasiczka, A. L., & Haaga, D. A. (2002). Optimal and normal affect balance in psychotherapy of major depression: Evaluation of the balanced states of mind model. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 30(04), 439-450. Abstract.