The Power of Positive Thinking (Or 'Why Negative Thoughts are No Good for Business')


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Shannon Brown is a Ph.D. student at Benedictine University’s Center for Values-Driven Leadership (CVDL) and has served in leadership positions with Thomson Reuters and Tata Consultancy Services.  In addition, she is an adjunct faculty member at Dominican University where she teaches courses in leadership studies.
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Early in my career I worked for a start-up organization. I recall that experience as the most creative, purposeful, engaging and enjoyable work in my life, although I never really knew why.  Until now.

Scientists and mathematicians have proven that the more positive we are, the more successful we are.  They’ve proven it works for teams in an organizational context, as well as for individuals and married couples.  In fact, there are mathematical equations that predict how mentally healthy an individual is, how likely a married couple is to last, or how “high performing” a work group will be, all based upon the individual, couple, or group’s level of positivity


Researchers define positivity as encouragement, support and appreciation, as well as the tendency to focus more on others rather than ourselves and to focus on “inquiry” (i.e. asking questions to understand the other person) rather than “advocacy” (i.e. pursuing our own position).  Negativity, on the other hand, is defined as cynicism, sarcasm and disapproval, as well as the tendency to focus on the opposite – self and advocacy of our own position. 

Positivity Ratios
For high performing teams in an organization, the “positivity ratio” needs to be at about 5:1.  For those of us who’ve forgotten most of what we learned about ratios, that means 5 positive experiences, or moods or feelings (together referred to as affect) to 1 negative one.  

Why so many more positives than negatives?  Because negativity is stronger than positivity. Haven’t we all seen that?  One negative attitude in the room can bring the whole room down, and once it’s down, it is really challenging to turn it around. 

The good news, however, is that positivity lasts longer than negativity, and it creates more positivity, which has a rippling effect out into the world.  It actually broadens our skills and abilities and allows for greater creativity as well as the ability to correct incorrect assumptions.  In addition, frequent positive affect predicts resilience to adversity, resistance and reduction in a variety of health related issues, and it has a clear link to predicting how long people live.

What’s In It for Me?
Why should organizations care?  For several reasons. When we’re negative, it literally limits the number of options and problem solving skills available to us.  This is part of the reason why negativity is so strong.  Because of the limits it puts on us, we can’t come up with creative ways to get ourselves out of it.  This makes negativity a relatively stable and long lasting affect in some organizations.  Does this sound like an organization with which you’re familiar?

In business specifically, we care because high performing teams are more profitable, have higher customer satisfaction and higher evaluations by superiors, peers and subordinates. 

You might think that the medium performing teams are acceptable, or at least average, but unfortunately, that’s not the case.  Although they start off stronger than the low performing teams, they essentially end up in the same place – stuck and unable to tap into their creativity to solve problems. 

When considering the “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profitability, we care as well, because a more positive environment means more positive people, and more positive people mean greater profitability and a more positive planet.  In addition, healthier employees cost the organization less. 

As I reflect back on that early work experience, I understand that positivity permeated the culture of that corporation, with support, encouragement, appreciation and inquiry being the foundational mode of communication.   It is no great surprise that I regularly went above and beyond the job requirements, and did so with such enthusiasm and willingness, expecting nothing in return save appreciation for a job well done, which I knew would come.

Supporting Sources:

Frederickson, B.L. & Losada, M. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing, American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686.

Gottman, J.M. (1994).  What Predicts Divorce?  The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes.  Hillsdale, NJ:  Erlbaum.

Losada , M. & Heaphy, E. (2004).  The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams:  A nonlinear dynamics model, American Behavioral Scientist, 47(6), 740-765.

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