Ah, if only. These days we are barraged with negative messages: endless wars and killing in the Middle East, the Ebola nightmare in Africa and domestically, the numerous peccadillos of our elected officials. I find it a real challenge to keep positive and upbeat.
But I am trying. Lately I’ve been reading about positivity or the state of being positive. Current neuroscience research shows us that being in a positive emotional state allows us to be creative and inventive; negative states trigger us to pull in, get defensive and withdraw. I find this research has huge implications for workplace productivity as well as for personal happiness and fulfillment.
So let’s take a closer look at positivity and why it is a critical issue for organizational leaders.
— AliceAlice Waagen, PhD Founder, www.workforcelearning.com Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
THE POWER OF POSITIVITY
By Dr. Alice Waagen
One of the biggest fallacies in business today is that emotions don’t matter at work. Our workplaces hum with balanced scorecards, business strategies, and performance measures. Emotions have no place in this climate of tasks and activities. Not only do emotions matter, they are the sea in which all this productivity swims. When the emotional climate is positive, work flourishes with engaged and motivated employees. When negativity is the predominant tone, staff become risk adverse mistake avoiders, doing the minimum to get by.
Thanks to the work of neuroscientists and psychologists, we have hard research data to back up the importance of emotional climate. Back in the early 1990’s Martin Seligman, psychology professor at University of Pennsylvania, coined the term learned optimism and is considered the founding father of the field of positive psychology. Daniel Goleman, Harvard professor of psychology, broke ground with his work on emotional intelligence and its impact on leadership. Both of these men, and others, use the term emotional contagion, to describe why emotions are so important for leaders.
Emotional contagion is the human tendency for two people to emotionally converge. Emotional contagion is an automatic, non-conscious response from our brains when we are with another person displaying emotions. It starts by us synchronizing the other person’s expression, vocalization, posture and movement. Once we unconsciously mimic the physical manifestation, our actual emotions are triggered into match the other person. For me, the fascinating part of emotional contagion is that our brains are driving our emotions without our conscious thought.
Emotional contagion is not only between individuals but can also affect organizational climate. Strong emotions conveyed by senior leaders cascade throughout the organization and set the tone for everyone. I have witnessed this numerous times with both positive and negative results. The most memorable positive organization climate experience I had was in visiting two different Children’s Hospitals. I dreaded these visits, assuming that a workplace that focused on sick children had to be a depressing place. To my surprise, both hospital settings were filled with happiness and optimism. Speaking later with staff, I was told how relentlessly they kept their emotions positive and brought joy and play into every contact they had with the patients. The results were palpable, and contagious.
I have also witnessed the opposite. I have worked with executive teams that are highly dysfunctional, with the team members in constant conflict and disagreement with each other. What I see in these situations is often a senior leader who governs with fear and repression. The emotional tone of anger and frustration permeates, and the resulting tension and negativity is felt throughout the organization.
Emotions do matter and the most successful leaders I encounter are constantly monitoring the emotional tone of themselves and others. These leaders have high levels of emotional intelligence. They are adept at reading the emotional cues of themselves and others and assess whether the emotions are helping or hindering their organizations. Most importantly, they will monitor the emotional tone of the top executives and make changes when needed. One CEO I know terminated a senior staff person because his toxic behavior was damaging the entire team. As she told me: “I had to let him go. His behavior did not reflect how we want to treat each other in my company.”
Emotions do matter at work and are an intrinsic ingredient for business success. Successful leaders hone their skills in recognizing emotions in themselves and others and take action to promote a positive emotional climate with as much vigor as they use to achieve business metrics and targets.