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Positivity (Happiness) in the Workplace and Organizational Change

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Technique 1: Decrease negativity

Negativity is more powerful than positivity – it has greater impact. Frederickson (2009) describes the scientifically confirmed “negativity bias” as “bad is stronger than good” – the effects of positivity are more subtle (and therefore have to be more frequent) in comparison to negativity. When employees are faced with a negative experience alongside something positive, they will tend to focus more attention on the negative – much like the reaction most of us have when danger is present – our “fright, flight or freeze” response is activated. Frederickson describes the “positivity/negativity ratio” that has been independently demonstrated by numerous scientific research studies – a required minimum of at least three positive experiences to 1 negative. The “positivity offset” principle suggests that while most people experience more positive emotions on average than negative, unless the positive outweigh the negative by a 3:1 ratio, there is little or no difference in their levels of happiness or success (or, as Fredrickson calls it, “flourishing”). The negative denominator is more powerful, so companies need to focus here to begin.

Technique 2: Eliminate “Toxic” Leadership

In a recent research study that the Merit Resource Group and I launched in the San Francisco Bay area, a staggering 37% of respondents indicated that they were personally bullied or intimidated—or they had witnessed others being exposed to this kind of behavior at least monthly, weekly or daily.  It is even more remarkable given that a high percentage of respondents were management and executive level leaders (Merit’s Engage-to-ChangeSM Research).

While it would be important to understand how these respondents interpreted “bullying or intimidation”, it is apparent from numerous other research studies, as well as anecdotal and personal experience, that management and leadership in many companies do not stimulate positivity in the workplace. It is essential that leaders and managers have a “positivity bias,” understand the techniques, and have the necessary skills for reducing negativity and increasingly positivity. At its essence, I believe this is at the core of the ability to lead organizational change. While discussing how to achieve this goal is beyond the scope of this paper, recognizing the existence of this cornerstone is important as a basis for discussing the tools and techniques for improving adaptability for change.

The following are a select number of techniques that various researchers and practitioner propose for reducing negativity in one’s life. What I have done with certain of these in this paper is to interpret them in a work setting.

Technique 3: Modify the situation

Fredrickson (2009) describes a technique of changing interpretations of events that may cause negativity in ones life. An example in the workplace could be an extremely negative work colleague. Hearing constantly negative dialogue is not only exhausting—it also can be contagious to others. A powerful technique is to view these situations as a challenge – appreciate the opportunity to test your capabilities to modify the situation with subtle modification techniques. People often use negative comments to get attention (even adults). In other cases negativity can be a call for help. Being mindful of these drivers, the use of listening and reframing techniques (such as simply paying attention and listening) may be all that is needed. If this does not alter the negativity, asking questions about the logic behind their negative views can begin to alter the context of negative dialogue. Pointing out alternatives to their negative viewpoints can move the conversation in a positive direction.  I personally use this technique with my brother who lives in Malta. He is an accomplished artist and is constantly challenged by the sight of trash, discarded cars, appliances and other garbage as he is painting landscapes on the magnificent coastlines of Malta. His eyes tend to scout out the ugliness rather the beauty. When visiting him I will simply listen and most often he will eventually comment that Malta is generally a beautiful place to live despite the dumping of garbage.

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