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Now is a critical time to create an upward spiral of positivity

How can leaders cultivate a culture that produces a steady flow of positive emotions? And why does it matter?

6 min read


Illustration of positive emotions

SmartBrief illustration

This post is by Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard.

Negative emotions in the workplace — particularly worry, stress, sadness and anger — have been rising for years, peaking in 2020, according to recent research by the Gallup Organization. Negativity in a work culture is a primary driver 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? And besides making the relational culture more enjoyable and less stressful, why is this important?

Positive emotions “broaden and build”

Professor Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, one of the most highly-cited contributors to psychological science, has been conducting research related to positive emotions for several decades. 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 has found that experiencing positive emotions make us more resilient, more trusting, more creative, more likely to come to win-win solutions in negotiations and to “look past racial and cultural differences and see the unique individual … to see past differences and to see toward oneness.”

Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions holds that everyday experiences of positive emotions lead to a broadening of the mind and “novel thoughts, activities, relationships” which leads to “building enduring resources (e.g., social support, resilience, skills, and knowledge)” which leads to “enhanced health, survival, fulfillment” which then produces more experiences of positive emotions (see diagram below).

Positive emotions expand our vision

What really captured our attention in Fredrickson’s research are the findings that positive emotions open our awareness and increase our peripheral vision so that we literally see more. Fredrickson observes:

“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

Unfortunately, our human tendency is to pay more attention to the negative. This is known as negativity bias. Research suggests that negative emotions persist longer than positive ones and that we ruminate about them. Left unchecked, negativity can impair our performance.

Fredrickson counsels that multiple experiences of positive emotions are needed for each negative emotion we experience.

Positive emotions arising between people have the greatest impact

Fredrickson’s research has found that positive emotions arising from connection between people have the greatest positive impact. She refers to it as “positivity resonance.” When people experience positivity resonance, including a feeling of oneness with the other person and a concern for their welfare, those moments of human 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.

Positive emotions increase in cultures of connection

Fredrickson’s work aligns with our work on the importance of positive human connections in a work culture.

Cultures that are overcontrolling or indifferent to human needs impede the flow of positive emotions and are a breeding ground for disconnection between people thus sabotaging individual and organizational performance. Cultures of connection, by contrast, foster positive emotions and opportunities for positivity resonance, thus supporting individual and organizational performance.

Cultures of connection are created and sustained when leaders:

  • Communicate a vision that unites people
  • Value people as individuals and don’t think of or treat them as mere means to an end
  • Give people a voice to share their ideas and opinions on matters that are important to them, then consider their feedback before making decisions

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.

For specific practices that will boost connection, see the 2nd edition of our book “Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.”

Michael Lee Stallard, president and co-founder of Connection Culture Group, is a thought leader and speaker on how effective leaders boost human connection in team and organizational cultures to improve the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He is the author of “Connection Culture” and “Fired Up or Burned Out.”

Katharine P. Stallard is a partner of Connection Culture Group and a contributing author to “Connection Culture.” To receive a 28-page “100 Ways to Connect” e-book, sample chapters of “Connection Culture” and Stallard’s  monthly Connection Culture email newsletter at no cost, sign up here

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