Positive Emotion

Happiness at work – a bit squishy?


Happiness remains a somewhat controversial word when applied to the workplace.  I don’t think it should be, but there is this sense that being happy is something you do after work.  Then, there’s the problem that describing happiness often involves words like emotion, and feeling – surely all a bit squishy for the workplace?

We don’t usually mind talking about performance, mental toughness, drive, achievement and a slew of other words that convey resilience and action.

The problem is that as human beings, our most influential driving force comes from a well developed part of the brain called the Limbic system – a combination of interlinked structures responsible for emotion, behaviour, motivation and long term memory, among others.  The way we behave, make decisions, take action, respond to challenges, and much more is highly influenced by our Limbic system….

Or should I say, our performance, mental toughness, drive, achievement and resilience are highly influenced by the part of the brain that appears to have primary responsibility for our emotional life.

But let’s not forget the brains executive function (there, back with more comfortable words), in the pre-frontal cortex (pfc).  This comparatively modern part of our brain is associated with consciousness, self-control, language, and many other things making it the ultimate seat of the rational human.  This then, surely, is the part of the brain we take to work, the all powerful.

Hmm, just like the Wizard, Oz, it’s mostly a deception.  In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt evolves a number of existing analogies of the relationship between the limbic system and the pfc, culminating in something along these lines… imagine yourself as the rider of a large elephant.  With some work and training you can sometimes get the elephant to go where you’d like it go.  But, if the elephant decides it really wants to go left when you want to go right, left it is.  In this analogy, you are the rational pfc, the human rider, and the powerful elephant is your limbic system.

The psychiatrist advising the incredibly successful British cycling team, Dr Steve Peters, uses the analogy of a chimp, a human and a computer to describe the limbic system, pfc and the supporting memory; described in his book The Chimp Paradox.  Where the mental skill in performance is managing the chimp, which he says “[is] an emotional skill – it’s no different to a bike skill.”  So, if you’re an elite athlete, clearly your physical state is critical, but to win also requires emotional skill.

Happiness comes when the chimp is happy, or when the elephant is happy to go with your flow.  When you understand how to manage your emotions, you’ll find yourself spending more time in a constructive positive mood, which is conducive to higher creativity, improved relationships, less negative stress and ultimately higher performance.

So, perhaps we’re unaccustomed to thinking of happiness, emotion and feeling in the workplace, but there’s nothing squishy about them – well not if you like the idea of high performance anyway.  I’m reminded of one of Tom Peters sayings “hard is soft, and soft is hard,” referring to soft things like the customer experience being the real hard data of a business.  Much the same is true with emotion, the real hard data of employee performance, may well be happiness.

Be remarkable,

Christmas Presence

Christmas background

There are many mediation techniques, lots of approaches to fit different preferences.  And all of them have one thing in common – retraining your attention.

Try concentrating on one thing for 30 seconds… look at something in front of you and simply keep your attention on that one thing.  How long does it take before some other thought pops into your head and steals away your attention?  For me it’s seconds.

In life the things that get our attention are the things that most affect us.  If it’s a task, the task that gets our attention is the task that gets done.  The feedback we pay attention to leaves the lasting impression, and the mood we dwell in affects how we feel and react to others (if you’re a parent or carer, you’ll have regular reminders of how easy going you can be when in a good mood, and how short you can be when in a bad one).

Like any ‘downtime’ at Christmas it’s easy to be thinking about what’s next, whether that’s the challenges facing you when you get back to work, your impending diet, or your new year’s resolution.  Wouldn’t it be nice to just enjoy the break and let our attention dwell on the pleasant things in life and the people we care about, at least for a day or two.

I wish you, very Merry Christmas Presence.

Be remarkable,

Is Positive Emotion relevant to Business?

bussines eggs

We all like to feel good, don’t we?  I recall many years ago the BBC Radio breakfast DJ Chris Evans said something like ‘in order to appreciate feeling good you have to feel bad’, or some variation on that duality. But, does feeling good have any benefits in the workplace beyond, well, feeling good?

One of the worlds leading researchers in positive emotions is Barbara Frederickson.  With her colleagues Dr. Frederickson formed the Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions which you’ll find summarized at her PEPLab site, and in her book Positivity. Positivity-Book-Barbara-Frederickson

Among the things we can learn from the research is the effect positive and negative emotion have on our ability to creatively engage in a task or activity.  From my own experience, approaching a problem in a good mood certainly helps with engagement, leading to a frame of mind open to opportunities and possibilities.  When I compare it to approaching a task or problem in a negative mood, I’m much more likely to create a ‘why this is doomed’ approach, or at least find it harder to engage.

Although rarely black and white, it does seem like common sense that approaching an activity with positivity increases your chances of a great outcome.  What isn’t common sense and why I think Frederickson’s research is so interesting, is that it’s unusual for us to take advantage of this, that is, to actively try and engage positive emotion at work.

The quick version of the broaden and build theory is that positive emotions make us more open, they broaden our mind so we are better able to make connections and discover new information.  It’s perfect for problem solving, enabling a more creative state of mind.  This in turn means you’re more likely to learn new things and have a wider range of approaches and experience, which buildsyour resources over time.  So, not only are we more successful in the moment, but over time we grow our talent as well.

This is very relevant for business.  If individuals whether solo or part of team are more engaged, it can positively impact the business.  So, how do you help foster positive emotion in the workplace?  There are lots of ways, here’s a few:

  • Consistency between your internal and external view and approach to customers
  • Opportunity to work in and on your strengths
  • Having a better appreciation for the different kinds of personality among your team (putting some effort into understanding your colleagues)
  • Positive leadership and role models
  • A moral purpose
  • Fairness & openness
  • An unbalanced approach to criticism

Just taking this last example ‘an unbalance approach to criticism’ – Frederickson put a number on the amount of positive to negative emotion shown in successful and unsuccessful business teams.  The magic number is a ratio of 3:1… 3 times more positive emotion than negative.

A practical example, and a setting used in the research, is the interaction between people in the same meeting.  For example, if an idea is raised, a positive interaction might entail people asking about and exploring the idea – ‘that sounds interesting, though I’m not sure I understand, tell us more’, whereas ‘no, that doesn’t sound like it will work’ is a negative one.  Of course, some ideas raised may well be untenable and exploring them a waste of time.  The point is that successful, high performance business teams showed a positivity to negativity ratio above 3:1, and unsuccessful business teams showed a ratio of less than 1:1.

Incidentally, there’s also also a threshold for being too positive, it’s 11:1.  Here there’s so much positivity as to be blind to the challenges or pitfalls of an approach, and the downsides aren’t considered.  Which makes it worth pointing out that some negativity is beneficial and realistic, specifically as we’ve just learned, a positive to negative ratio between 3:1 and 11:1.

So there we have it, well a bit of it anyway… positive emotion can make you and your organisation more successful.

Be remarkable,