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Using the Positivity Ratio to Improve Team Performance

By Josh Vaisman

Business leaders spend countless time, money, and energy searching for the secret ingredient of high-performing teams. Conventional wisdom suggests the best teams are those with the smartest, most talented individuals. However, that’s not the case.

Google spent two years studying high-performing teams. Project Aristotle, as it was called, produced findings that challenged the prevailing view of team performance. That begs the question, “what does make for a high performing team?”

What they found suggests a top ingredient for high-performing teams is psychological safety, an individual’s belief that taking a risk won’t lead to punishment. In teams with high psychological safety, members are comfortable trying something new, asking questions, or admitting mistakes, all without the fear of embarrassment or chastisement.

Another key component is meaning, which can be encouraged through positive feedback and public gratitude. Research by Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy supports this notion, pointing to a special mix of positive to negative emotions in the workplace called the Losada Ratio, aka the Positivity Ratio. The concept of a “Positivity Ratio” comes from the field of positive psychology, the study of human flourishing in all aspects of life. But how can a team use the Positivity Ratio to improve their performance?

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Broaden and Build

You might say Barbara Fredrickson is in love with feeling good. In fact, she is so passionate about positive emotions that she’s dedicated decades of her career to studying them. The results of her research are nothing short of life-changing. Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions do more than just feel good; they also help us broaden and build our mental and physical abilities.

Let’s begin, though, with negative emotions. It’s important to note that every human, and therefore every employee, experiences negative emotions. And the truth is, that’s not such a bad thing!

From a purely evolutionary perspective, negative emotions are incredibly important. Imagine walking across the savannah with your caveman pals when you spot a saber toothed tiger bounding toward you. You feel fear. That fear prepares your body for a full-on sprint in the other direction. In this case, your fear kicks in just a touch sooner than your least favorite fellow caveman, Odo.

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You know the saying, “you don’t have to outrun the saber-toothed tiger, you just have to outrun the slowest guy in the pack.” Sorry, Odo. Here, negative emotions produced a positive outcome in the form of survival.

The negative emotion fear saved you. Ever kick yourself into high gear as an important work deadline approached? This kind of stress can give you superhuman spreadsheet writing powers!

What Fredrickson’s research has taught us is that positive emotions also prepare the body and brain, but in different ways. When we experience positive emotions, our ability to think, create, innovate, and produce improves. This results in an enhanced capacity to build skills, promote health, and boost social connection. Feeling good makes us better at creative and prosocial behavior, activities like ideating, cooperating, and sharing.

Finding the Positivity Ratio

Now that we know positive emotion is, well, a good thing, it begs the question, “how much of a good thing is the right amount?” Thankfully, Fredrickson and Losada studied this, as well!

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As mentioned previously, negative emotion serves a purpose, so trying to rid your life of it entirely is a one-way ticket to the cortisol highway of chronic stress. That’s a fancy neuroscientific way of saying it’s impossible.

With that in mind, Fredrickson and Losada posed the question, “what ratio of positive to negative emotional experiences do the happiest people have?

Work began by observing 60 business teams over countless meetings, scientifically-coding thousands of behaviors. Researchers then divided the behaviors into three categories they called “connectivity ratios”: self vs. other focus, advocacy vs. inquiry, and negativity vs. positivity.

The results showed that the lowest-performing teams expressed positivity at a rate of 0.365 to 1. That’s right, they displayed more negativity than positivity. These teams also showed a significant imbalance toward selfishness and personal advocacy. Middle-of-the-road teams had a Positivity Ratio of 1.875 to 1.

Highest-performing teams blew the other teams out of the water with their Positivity Ratio of 5.625 to 1! That means for every, “Johnny this report is all wrong,” he’s also hearing and feeling almost six, “Good on ya’s.”

So where’s the tipping point? Those of us with the highest levels of happiness, or what researchers call “human flourishing,” report experiencing positive emotions at a ratio of at least three times that of negative emotions.

Translation? For every time you sprint past Odo to avoid a becoming saber-souffle, you’d need at least three good experiences to feel like you’re thriving and not just surviving. 

 

How to Improve your Workplace Positivity Ratio

As it turns out, we’re still human beings even after we clock in at work. Shocking, huh? So the Positivity Ratio is just as important on the job as it is outside it. Fredrickson and Losada, our researcher from earlier, proved it.

Why care? Because it’s actually a competitive advantage to have happy employees. Research shows that happiness raises business productivity by 31% and sales by 37%.

Here are three recommendations for getting started:

1. Train Your Managers

At least 75% of employees report leaving their job not because of the job itself, but because of an “unhealthy relationship” with their boss. Training managers to be positive leaders might be the single most effective way to reduce turnover and increase engagement in the workplace.

If you’re reading my mind, you know what I’m going to say next: teach managers about the Positivity Ratio, provide them simple tools for injecting positivity into their daily interactions.

2. Make It Specific

I once oversaw a large veterinary hospital with about 30 employees. Every day as I was preparing to leave, I’d walk through the facility and say, “thank you for your work today” to each person.

I thought I was going to win Boss-Of-The-Year hands down! Imagine how shocked I was when I began hearing from the team they felt I didn’t value them and their contributions.

The human brain is incredibly adaptable to repetition. The first time I made the effort to find every person in the hospital and thank them for their work, it meant a lot. On the second day, it meant a little less. And what was I really thanking them for? To my employees it felt like an empty compliment.

Effective praise, the kind that results in positive emotion is, specific, timely, genuine, and relevant. The same rules apply to constructive feedback.

3. Engage the Whole Team

I can almost hear you groaning.

“Josh, this all sounds good but how is a manager supposed to provide at least three positive experiences to every employee, EVERY DAY?” You can’t. Unless you can speak as fast as an auctioneer. And run as fast as The Flash. And you don’t get any of your own work done.

So what’s a manager to do? Well, here’s some good news: positive experiences feel positive no matter where they come from. Make the Positivity Ratio a team effort!

Educate and empower everyone on your team to find ways to inject positive experiences peer-to-peer, into the workplace each and every day. Better yet, accelerate it with a tool like Bonusly. A program like Bonusly vastly increases the opportunity to meet (and exceed) the Positivity Ratio by putting the power of recognition and praise in everyone’s hands.

Now go forth and improve your team’s performance through positivity!

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Written by Josh Vaisman

Josh Vaisman

Josh Vaisman is a Positive Change Ninja and Co-Founder at Flourish Veterinary Consulting. He has dedicated his professional trajectory to promoting workplaces in which people may be their best selves at work.

Originally published on August 21, 2018 → Last updated September 11, 2018