Workplace Positivity? What’s the Right Amount? And Why?

Did you know the right amount of positive emotion can lead to more innovation, less absenteeism and better problem solving?

59585_418470736055_4235445_nEarly research regarding negative emotion has been generally agreed upon – negative emotion alerts us to danger, problems and focuses attention on self-preservation and problem solving. However, understanding the reasoning for positive emotion has been less clear, even dismissed, until recently. Martin E.P. Seligman, Barbara Fredrickson, and Christopher Peterson, for example, 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 wellbeing in the workplace.

Positive emotion affects our workforce is 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. And 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 found that high levels of positive emotion affects us at the immune cellular level, reducing inflammation and correlating with a strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes. In turn, good health means reduced absenteeism for the workforce.

Positive emotion is also linked to more innovation, better problem solving, and to a more connected workforce. According to Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory, positive emotion leads to greater creativity, openness, and better problem solving.  Our thinking becomes more holistic and we build new skills.

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.

Achieving Balance: 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***.  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.  Sometimes, more often in tight knit groups, Groupthink occurs and members “go along with the group” to avoid disrupting group harmony, leading to inferior decision making. The key is a high positivity ratio without extremes, with 11:1 being the upperbound 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 and should be examined. Considering human emotions in workplace and reflecting on the implications in policies and programs will improve well-being in the workplace.

***Most studies have shown the Positivity Ratio for flourishing to be between 3:1 to 4:1 including studies by Marcel Posada, John Gottman, and Robert Schwartz. Fredrickson has also acknowledged that the nonlinear dynamic model developed by Losada has been questioned, but evidence in recent years fortifies the Positivity Ratio Theory.


Barsade, S. G. (2001, August). Organizational Behavior, “The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion In Groups”. Yale School of Management. New Haven, CT.
Crum, A. (2014, 09 04). Mindset Matters: Toward a Positive Health Psychology. MAPP 10 Class at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.
Fredrickson, B. (2014, 09 06). Positive Emotions: Tiny Engines of Positive Psychology. (B. Fredrickson, Performer) MAPP 10 Class at University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House.
Greenberg, M., & Maymin, S. (2013). Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. E. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York, NY: Free Press, a Division of Simon and Schuster.
Seligman, M. E. (1990). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York, NY: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House.

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