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Positivity (Happiness) in the Workplace and Organizational Change

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Positivity and Organizational Change

It has become almost trite to note that “organizational change is the only constant.” Many of us re-live this experience every working day. Organizations are undergoing disruptive change on a constant basis (Weitz, 2011). Most often these changes are driven through large-scale projects that are time and resource pressured and place great stress on those driving the projects, and more so on those groups undergoing the change. In my twenty years of organizational change consulting I have seldom been exposed to a large-scale change initiative in which employee emotions and positivity are considered a key success factors for the change – the Denzil Busse, Standard Bank example being an exception.

By default, negative emotions of fear and anxiety are far more common in intense, costly and time pressured change initiatives, particularly where there are implications of job redundancies. These are natural emotional outcomes emerging from uncertainty and excessive urgency focused on cost cutting and profits, rather than keeping people energized and positive so that they are able to perform at their best under pressure. What I have personally observed in these situations of intensive change is that people are more likely to fear change, hide from it, sabotage it and generally resist it with negative talk and destructive collaboration. Little or no consideration in these projects is given to emotions that elicit behaviors of receptivity, open mindedness, appreciation and a positive, high performance work environment.

Hammond (1998, p. 6) comments that “The traditional approach to change is to look for the problem, do a diagnosis and find a solution. The primary focus is on what is wrong or broken; since we look for the problems, we find them. By paying attention to problems, we emphasize and amplify them”.  The focus on what is positive or effective is less common.

Klimosky and Kanfer (2002, p. 10) comment:

The important point … is that many work behaviors may have strong and consistent linkages to negative emotions. In such cases, attempts to change behavioral patterns without first changing associated emotions are likely to be unsuccessful. Positive emotions have garnered less attention than negative emotions for several reasons: they are less differentiated, they are not associated with specific problems needing solutions, and they are not associated with specific action tendencies thought to be necessary for survival.

Klimosky and Kanfer continue in their description that negative emotions have received far greater attention because they have typically been associated with “problems needing solutions” which tends to be a dominant focus in many, if not most businesses.

In my experience, the challenges of organizational change in a modern economy require more expansive and innovative thinking from employees than was required a century ago. Change in a modern economy required the support and involvement of all impacted employees versus a few executives at the top of the hierarchy. More recent research demonstrates that positive emotions broaden people’s minds and awareness to new opportunities that change brings and thus stimulates a positive response and adaptability to change. Fredrickson (2009, p. 55), describes the notion of the “heliotropic” effect in the plant world (where plants stretch and turn towards the light) similarly happens in humans in the “light” of positivity – People turn towards positivity and turn away from the “darkness” of negativity. Positivity expands people’s interest in new opportunities and change and the notion of what is possible, whereas negativity narrows a person’s outlook.

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