At Happy we have always believed being positive is crucial for creating a happy workplace. Indeed being positive and supportive of others is a key requirement here. We recruit for that characteristic and it is crucial in reviews and promotion. Indeed in our early days we had a happiness swear box: if you were negative about somebody else, a client or especially about yourself (even in jest) you had to put money in the box. And then, for a while, you had to make the next round of tea.

I was told that, to become a qualified teacher in New Zealand, the assessor counts how many positive and negative statements you make. To pass the ratio has to be at least 7:1 positive to negative. I can’t verify if this is true but how great would it be if it was? Imagine what classrooms would be like. And, in my experience, kiwis are a pretty positive bunch – so maybe it works.

A recent talk by Martin Seligman (of Authentic Happiness) alerted me to the work of Marcial Losada, whose reseach backs up the importance of being positive. He found that a ratio of 2.9 (ie, almost three positive statements for every negative one) is the key point, above which individuals, business teams and even marriages flourish. Positive statements included support, encouragement and appreciation. Negative ones included disapproval, sarcasma nd cynicism.

In another study he found that, in a sample meeting, high-performing teams had a positive/negative ratio of 5.6, for medium-performance teams it was 1.9 and for low-performance teams it was just 0.4. High performing teams also spent far more time on inquiry, rather than advocating existing viewpoints, and on talking about others rather than about themselves or their company.

He also describes the work by John Gottman on couples, who claims to predict whether a marriage will end in divorce with 83% accuracy. A ratio of less than 1 (ie, more negative statements than positive ones) is a key danger sign, while a ratio of more than 5 predicts a long and happy marriage.

Can you be too positive? Apparently you can. Losada found that when the ratio goes above 11.6, which he describes as a state of “Pollyannaish optimism”, then the benefits disappear – possibly because it becomes an environment where it isn’t possible to pass on necessary bad news. But I suspect there are not many work environments where there is a danger of this level of excess positivity.

Losada’s conclusion is that we need to “tap into the liberating and creative power of positivity” and he advocates the generation of a “state of realistic enthusiasm that can propel organisations to reach and uphold the heights of excellence.”

That sounds good to me. Think about it. What is the ratio of positive to negative statements in your workplace? And in what you yourself say? What can you do increase the positivity and become more effective – now?

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