Coach’s Challenge for 6/22/09

Good day, team,

Last week I read a great article, “The Science of Happiness,” by Barbara Fredrickson in the Sun magazine. Fredrickson is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has spent more than 20 years investigating the relatively uncharted terrain of positive emotions, which she says can make us healthier and happier if we take time to cultivate them. She has recently published a book about many of her findings, “Positivity.”

I have long been interested in understanding group dynamics in business teams.  I’ve spent many years observing the behavior that occurs when teams work together and often wondered why some teams are successful while others are not. What factors create high-performing teams? What factors create teams that spiral down to a dead end?

In her work, Fredrickson was introduced to Marcial Losada, a well-known business consultant who has developed mathematical models of people’s ability to broaden and build their capacities, resources and resilience. In many years of studying 60 business teams during their annual strategic planning sessions, Losada ranked their success based on the number of positive and negative statements made during the meetings.

People on high-performing teams had a 6-1 ratio of positive to negative statements, whereas the low-performing teams had ratios of less than 1-to-1, meaning that more than half of what was said was negative. The high-performing teams had an even balance between asking questions and advocating for their own points of view, and also an equal measure of focusing outward (for example, on customers) and focusing within the group. The low-performing groups had asked almost no questions and almost never focused outside the group. They exhibited a self-absorbed advocacy: Nobody was listening to anyone else, they were all just waiting to talk.

Ultimately, Losada took his behavioral data and wrote algebraic equations that reflected how each stream – the questioning, the positivity, and the outward-inward focus – related to each other. He learned that his equations matched a set of existing equations called the Lorenz System, which is famous in nonlinear dynamics because it in turn led to the discovery of chaos theory, sometimes called “the butterfly effect”—the idea that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in one location can set in motion a series of events that causes a hurricane on the other side of the globe.

Underneath the dynamics of the high-performing team was what physicists call a “complex chaotic attractor,” which produces unpredictable or novel outcomes. So high-performing teams produced novel creative results. Underneath the structure of low-performing teams was a “fixed-point attractor” that caused the teams to nosedive. What’s interesting is that the negativity always arose within the realm of self-absorbed advocacy and not asking any questions. That’s where the fixed point attractor lies.

Ultimately, using the Lorenz equations, Fredrickson was able to predict that a ratio of three positive events to one negative event is the tipping point where things become chaotic, which is a good thing, since it’s only in this environment that people can be truly interactive and creative. And as a team interacted more and experienced more creativity, positivity spiraled upward.

Fredrickson tested this 3-1 ratio over the next few years to see if it was actually true. In each case, the theory held. She also applied it to her own life in raising her second child and found it to be a much better method of child-rearing. If she could balance the number of times she said, “No” to her son with three times as much positivity, his ability to express himself and pursue his creative interests was much higher and he was happier. She found this to be true in marriages as well.  Research suggests that married couples who express about a 5-1 ratio of positive to negative emotions have much more solid marriages than couples who exchange greater amounts of negativity.

So what’s the challenge here? This week, try seeing how much negativity grabs your attention and how often you express it. Then take a look at how often you express positivity and what tends to draw you in more. Fredrickson’s research shows that negative experiences tend to demand our attention more, and it takes self-discipline, will power and practice not to focus solely on them and to choose a positive outlook instead. So negativity tends to happen to us, whereas we need to intentionally choose positivity.

Observe what’s happening in your team meetings. Do the negative comments far outweigh the positive? Do people seem disengaged? Do they ask questions and share new ideas, or do they just sit there and choose not to participate? When they do speak, is it to protect their territory or is it because they want to share an insight or encourage creativity within the group?

If you see a lot of negativity in your life, here are some simple suggestions from the article for experiencing more positivity:

1.    Be aware of the present moment, because most moments are positive. We miss many opportunities to be positive because we’re thinking about the past and worrying about the future rather than being open to what is.

2.    Pay attention to human kindness—not just what others do for you but what you can do for other people.

3.    Go outside in good weather.

4.    Practice mindfulness or loving kindness meditation.

5.    Arrange your life around your strengths. Ask yourself: Am I really doing what I do best? Being employed in a job that suits your strengths is a great source of enduring positive emotions.

Check out the amount of positivity you experience in your life, both personally and at work. Try injecting more of it into your life this week and see if it makes you happier. As Robert Ingersoll wrote, “My creed is this: Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.”

Have a good week!

Kathleen

Kathleen Doyle-White
Pathfinders Coaching
(503) 296-9249

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