The Power of Positivity in Leadership
How to Train Your Brain to Look for the Good
by Chrissy Heyne | September 2023
The average person spends 90,000 hours of their life at work. In contrast, we spend about 8,000 socializing with friends. That’s… really something to consider. I happen to be someone who is obsessed with how to make those 90,000 hours really meaningful, connected, engaging…and dare I say FUN? And look, I don’t expect all of us to skip off to work, coffee in hand, every day. But, is it too much to ask to look forward to going to work most days?
That data on how people feel at and about work is depressing. According to Gallup, only 30% of employees report feeling “engaged” at their job. Put another way, 7 out of 10 of your friends are not excited or enthusiastic about how they spend 90,000 hours of their life. We’re essentially gritting and grinding our way through roughly 40 years of working with the hope that when we retire we can really start to enjoy our lives. That bums me out, in large part because we know that this is a solvable problem and we have plenty of information on where to start.
All signs about how to “fix” this problem, or at least move the needle, point to managers and leaders at every level.
When we can influence this group of people, we can influence the collective culture and outcomes of any team or organization.
The Happiness Advantage
I spend a lot of time learning about how the best leaders operate and interact with their teams, and earlier this summer I read The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life by Shawn Achor. He’s a positive psychologist and Harvard professor who studies happiness and works with organizations all around the world to help leaders think differently about how to influence team success, wellbeing and engagement. He offers a lot to consider about recognizing the power of your mind and training your brain to capitalize on positivity in order to improve performance.
A few key ideas stuck out and have influenced the way I work with teams and organizations:
Change The Formula
Most of us have a fairly ingrained culture of productivity (doing) over happiness or positivity (being). We follow a formula that says, “When I work hard I’ll become successful and when I become successful then I’ll be happy.” In his book, Achor provides compelling research that shows this formula is completely backwards. “Waiting to be happy limits your brain’s potential for success – whereas cultivating a positive brain is likely to make you more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative and productive, which drives your performance upwards”.
The reality is, positive emotions make us more productive, healthier, more creative and better able to process information. From children performing better on tasks, to doctors making better, quicker diagnosis, to lower absenteeism in the workplace, he backs up his claim with multiple positive psychology studies. Happier workers = more successful workers. Period.
Even more powerful than that is that positivity is literally contagious. Researchers found that when a positive team member enters a meeting, their mood can be instantly infectious and help to improve the performance of each team member, as well as their ability to accomplish a task as a group. How amazing is that?
The great news is that this can be taught and cultivated – we can actually learn to behave in ways that increase our happiness and positivity, as well as the happiness and positivity of those around us. As a leader, it’s imperative that you buy into the belief that this type of “happiness advantage” can impact the way you work as an individual and as a team, and then work hard to create the conditions where it comes to life.
Consider the following: How much do you genuinely believe happy workers create success, not the other way around? What steps do you take to live into that foundational belief as a leader? To what extent do you know how happy your employees are at work?
Now, if I’ve at least piqued your interest on how to cultivate this “happiness advantage” within yourself or your team, let me be clear on something very important. This book doesn’t advise you to put on a happy face or use “positive thinking” to wish away problems or ignore them and hope they go away. As Achor describes, “Happiness is not just about lying to ourselves or turning a blind eye to the negative, but about adjusting our brains to see the ways to rise above our circumstances.”
That said, as humans we are hardwired to notice what’s not going well, what’s not been accomplished, or what we dislike. That’s a sneaky little way that our brain interjects itself to try and protect us. It has to become a practice and a commitment to cultivate a positive outlook. A few, simple strategies the book offers include:
What we say:
For some of you, you may be naturally inclined to notice what’s going well. But the research shows that most of us could move the needle here. To get concrete – keep this number in mind: 2.9013. A decade of research on high and low performing teams by Marcial Losada shows that 2.9013 is the ratio of positive to negative interactions necessary to make a team successful.
In other words it takes about 3 positive experiences, comments or expressions to fend off the effects of 1 negative. This is now known as the “Losada Line”. Dipping below the Losada Line means performance, productivity, and relationships suffer. Rise above that line, and teams do their best work. If you want to really push yourself here, research showed that a ratio of 6-1 yielded the highest performing teams.
This is so crucial for fostering an engaged and high performing team and it’s such an easy win! Honestly, by looking for what’s working, you’re impacting your own overall positivity and mindset. We find what we’re looking for.
Consider the following: How many positive interactions do you have with your direct reports? How regularly do you provide positive feedback and recognition on effort or achievement? Have you expressed gratitude and appreciation for their contributions?
How we say it:
A study by the Yale School of Management proved that what you say to employees is just as important as how you say it to them. Participants were put into teams to complete a business task together. Each team was given a “manager” that spoke in one of four ways: with “cheerful enthusiasm”, “serene warmth”, “depressed sluggishness” or “hostile irritability”. Any guesses on which of the groups not only became more positive themselves but also proved far more effective than the other groups?
Our tone, facial expression and body language communicate a great deal. This doesn’t mean you have to be inauthentic or hide your true feelings. But it does suggest a level of reflection and intention about the type of energy you bring each day.
Consider the following: Think about which of these tones you use most frequently? How do you start team meetings? Check-ins? Phone calls? How do you think each team member feels when they talk to you? How can you be more deliberate about the type of energy you bring to a space?
The Power of Our Mind
One of my very first managers always said, “You can’t coach someone you’re judging.” It has stuck with me for 20 years and turns out it was more than just a sticky phrase.
What we think and believe about others has a profound influence on their performance. This well known phenomenon is called The Pygmalion Effect: Our beliefs and expectations about others can greatly influence their performance. In other words, if a boss believes we will succeed and are up to the challenge, we are more likely to push ourselves harder and achieve that success.
Inversely, if someone expects us to perform poorly, or questions our motivations and effort, we are likely to do worse. The Pygmalion effect acts like a self-fulfilling prophecy because someone’s expectations not only impacts how we act, but they also impact how they act. For example, a manager who believes deeply in our potential may give us more attention, more regular feedback and coaching, and challenge us to reach higher standards.
How incredibly powerful is that? And it’s something we should take seriously given our role as managers and leaders. For that reason, you’ve got to have an honest heart-to-heart with yourself here – how deeply do you believe in the growth and development of others. Your answer to that question directly impacts nearly every interaction you have with your direct reports: the questions you do or don’t ask, the time you do or don’t take, the things you do or don’t notice about their performance, the coaching you do or don’t do. The Pygmalion Effect can be a very powerful tool in thinking about your leadership.
Consider the following: Do you believe each of your direct reports’ skills and abilities can be improved with effort? Do you believe your employees want to make the effort and be great at their job? How often do you convey those beliefs in words and actions?
90,000 Hour Power
As a people leader you have the power and influence to shape the culture of 90,000 hours, which isn’t something to take lightly! The power of positivity can be one of the best tools in your leadership toolkit.
Some of you may come by these skills really naturally, and for others of you it’s a bit more work. If this feels hard, I strongly suggest picking up The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor as a great first step.
This has the power to transform not only your workplace, but the ways in which you experience the world around you more broadly.
Meet Chrissy Heyne
We are very excited to announce that Chrissy Heyne has joined our team as the Head of Experience Design and Facilitation. She will be joining both our facilitation and coaching teams as well.
If you have yet to encounter Chrissy, she is sunshine embodied. She comes to us with 15+ years of facilitating leadership development experiences. But more than her experience, we couldn’t have asked for a better culture and values fit for AGC. We know that she will both lift our team up, encouraging us to dream bigger and challenge us to be the best version of ourselves.