Accentuate the Positivity, Take 2

February 18, 2010 Leave a comment

|Photo by Reenie-Just Reenie||

In a previous post I referenced the work of Marcial Losada, which indicates that elevated group performance is associated in part with a high degree of “positivity.”   Specifically, groups that excel in terms of innovation and productivity tend to be those where there is at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.  The importance of this ratio has been further highlighted by some other findings and experiences I have had working with community-based activists.

I’ve been interested to learn more about what psychology has identified as “negativity bias.” According to Jonathan Haidt, human beings, along with much of life, are designed to respond more readily to what is bad than what is good.  In other words, our ingrained responses to threats are faster, harder, and stronger than our responses to opportunities/pleasures.  This certainly makes good evolutionary sense, to a point.  As Haidt says, species survival is more likely assured when we exercise precaution rather than leap optimistically at every veiled threat that comes our way.

On the other hand, this wiring can be a real pain when it comes to getting along with others.  Perhaps because we are more primed for negativity, for example, marriage research indicates that couples require an average of 5 good interactions to every negative one to keep the relationship healthy.  For some, that can be a lot of hard work (just look at the divorce rate!).  This is the case even when the backdrop to our lives is largely positive.  Now imagine if you add in constant uncertainty and challenge.

In the past few months I have consulted with activists and advocates working in economically and ecologically hard hit communities and on contentious issues.  What has become very clear very quickly is that these deeply committed individuals can also really get into it with one another – not so surprising, what with the overall tone of trauma and injustice.  And I have also heard a strong desire to rise above the tendency to constantly look over one’s shoulder.  “Just when and how do we transition from crisis mode to development mode?” asked one emerging leader.  Others recognize that their hard driving energies that have served in the past are burning people out.  What do you do when no one is standing behind you?

Part of the answer seems to be in striving to set a strong tone of positivity and possibility.  Until this happens, infighting and burnout are likely to continue.  I don’t pretend to believe this is easy, only that it is necessary for long-term effectiveness, and that it behooves leaders to pay attention to opportunities for when and how to help people make this shift.

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  • Gibran says:

    Thanks for this Curtis, connects a bit with my recent post on Happiness and how it matters. A positive environment thrives. I often encounter people who rightly fear that emphasizing positivity might be a way to deny, not look at, run away from, the terrible suffering in today’s world. Many fear that the emphasis on positivity is a product of a privileged class not wanting to cope with reality. But we know that this is not what many of us mean when we emphasize positivity – we like the clear-eyed positivity, the one that can look horror in the face and not be paralyzed by it, negativity is a way of resigning and surrendering to the horror, positivity – when clear-eyed and not neurotic! – is a way forward.

  • Curtis says:

    Gibran, it would be interesting to spend more time exploring the overlap and differences between happiness and positivity. Personally, I associate positivity with more of the “flow” mindset. You may not be happy per se, but you are engaged.

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