Why We Need to Manage with a 3:1 Positivity Ratio

I’m convinced that most leaders could improve their ability to inspire great work by communicating more positive emotions.

When managers communicate appreciation for what’s working instead of focusing so much on what’s wrong, they get better results. There’s plenty of research to back this up (Fredrickson, Losada), but it’s also something smart parents use with their children.

Of course, these ideas are easy to understand but hard to implement in work situations. When I’m working in coaching sessions, the first thing people want to address are problems. It’s human nature. Part of the problem lies in the negativity bias, where people pay more attention to bad news: bad is stronger than good.

Negativity bias is the name for a psychological phenomenon by which humans pay more attention to and give more weight to negative rather than positive experiences or other kinds of information. This shows up in a number of domains, including:

  • When given a piece of positive information and a piece of negative information about a stranger, people’s judgment of the stranger will be negative, rather than neutral.
  • If a person has a good experience and a bad experience close together, they will feel worse than neutral.
  • Negative information in the simple form of negation has greater impact and creates more attention than similar positive information in the form of affirmation. For example, describing a behavior in an affirmation elicits less attention and cognitive processing than describing the same behavior using a negation.
  • When put in an environment with a variety of information to pay attention to, people will immediately notice the threats instead of the opportunities or the signals of safety.

For those of you interested in learning more about this, the definitive publication on negativity bias in the field of psychology is by Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, and Kathleen Vohs and the phenomenon is often referred to by the paper’s title: Bad is Stronger than Good.

On the other hand, there exists the positivity offset:

Positivity offset is a psychological term referring to two phenomena: People tend to interpret neutral situations as mildly positive, and most people rate their lives as good, most of the time.

Social neuroscience researcher John Cacioppo has assembled evidence that people typically see their surroundings as positive, whenever a clear threat is not present. Because of the positivity offset, we are motivated to explore and engage with our surroundings, instead of being balanced inactive between approach and avoidance.

Across most cultures, nations, and groups of people, the average and median ratings of life satisfaction are not neutral, as one might expect, but mildly positive.

Therefore, because of the pull of negativity, good leaders need to focus three times as much energy into positive emotions. The trick is to uncover the positivity within you and give expression to it rather than giving into the negativity bias.

It takes some conscious effort to override negativity, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not that hard. For example, as a manager, you can take a positive stance simply by asking more questions. When you are curious and open to learning what others are thinking and feeling, you open the door to positive emotions.

What are your thoughts about this?

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