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Positivity (Happiness) in the Workplace and Organizational Change

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I am experiencing this very phenomenon in my current project in Vancouver Canada. The pressures in this $1 billion project are mounting, and numerous leaders are increasingly feeling this pressure. One in particular is responding by becoming punitive and harsh, while another maintains an energetic and positive demeanor, providing encouraging support, regularly smiling and providing positive feedback – her common phrase of encouragement is “we can do this together”. Where performance is low, the former applies harsh words and frustration, the latter provides support and encouragement. Team members avoid the former, while team members have rallied with the latter and are beginning to show progress. The former team has become fearful and resistant and continues to struggle, while the other is flourishing. This is a practical example of how positivity broadens the mind and cultivates a “can do” attitude, while negativity fosters angst, fear and resistance, and narrows the mind to collaborating as a team to develop creative solutions.

Organizational change projects are almost always urgent and time constrained. Costs limitations, competiveness (for example, getting new products to market) and the need for positive results for share price purposes all contribute to this pressure. Fredrickson (2009) notes that positivity is especially important when the work environment requires creative solutions fast – indeed, this is precisely what is needed in the real world example I described above. Fredrickson describes studies conducted with students who are taught simple positivity techniques (simply having self generated a positive mental image) prior to taking standardized tests, while a control group is not. The positive students perform better than the control group. A further remarkable study conducted with medical doctors showed that simply providing the research group of physicians with a small gift (a small bag of candy) prior to making a diagnosis improved their performance beyond a control group that did not receive the gift. Interestingly, my wife as a senior nurse manager in a large county hospital uses this simple technique often – she frequently provides small gifts of chocolate or other small items to people she manages or with whom she collaborates. It is a simple gesture that says “I am aware of you as an individual, and I care”. It is remarkable how positively people respond to such seemingly minor positive gestures of kindness and perform better.

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