Positivity… Tree-hugging nonsense?

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Written by Matt Bolton-Alarcon on 17 September 2014

When you train and coach leaders on creativity you can experience the odd moment which stands out and here is one I will never forget.

I was training a bunch of GMs from a global publisher. We had done all the (apparently) clever stuff around creative strategy, process and models but then we got on to the dirty subject of ‘mindset’. Not just mindset, but the need for a positive mindset. I explained that we are in a mode of analytical and reductive thinking for most of our time at work, so when we need to be creative we have to be deliberately and explicitly positive-minded. We have to explore possibility and push that thinking hard, versus drifting back to old patterns “that won’t work because…”

Suddenly the GM of Germany exclaimed: “This is all very well here Matt, but it’s tree-hugging nonsense!” I then had 20 GMs facing me with a look that said: “Go on, what have you got?” So I pushed it back on him and asked him to explore things positively for the rest of the workshop and just see how it goes. Luckily he was bright, not just stupidly stubborn, and he ended up getting a lot more from the workshop. His biggest learning was the fact that he hadn’t been positive for 10 years. He now runs Europe and leads the charge on innovation!

Leaders have to wrestle with positivity. Too much and you have too many ideas floating around and ultimately you lose credibility. Too little and you run the risk of doing the same thing but faster and harder. Your people ultimately lose engagement.

Human beings are naturally positive in their outlook. In 2009 Gallop asked 150,000 people a question: ‘Do you expect the next five years of your life to be: a) Worse b) As good c) Better... than your current life?’  89 people of people answered B or C.  At heart, people are optimistic. It’s a survival skill from our caveman past when we needed to be able to deal with problems in a constructive way as otherwise we would die out.  However, our caveman brain, which hasn’t evolved that much, also has a negativity bias, which means that, all too easily, we can freeze a little when any threat comes our way.

In business, we are more negative than positive ‘cave people’. Only 20 per cent of people say they are mostly positive at work. A good leader is a positive leader (but positive in the right measure).

Here’s why positivity is important…

1.   When we are in a positive state our brains are flooded with dopamine, which allows us better access to our subconscious increasing creativity.

2.   We become much faster thinkers and can quickly connect with and influence others more easily.  Doctors who are primed to be in a positive state diagnose patients 20 per cent faster, four year-old children put together blocks 50 per cent faster when in a positive state. 

3. A positive mindset means we avoid stress and anxiety which close down the left prefrontal cortex of our brain - the part we use for thinking, logic and reasoning - and fires up the amygdala, our automated fight or flight response. 

4.   Chronic distress doubles the risk of major disease making it twice as dangerous to our health than smoking. People with a positive mindset allegedly live 20 per cent longer. 

5.   When facing challenges positive people do not give up. They remain energised, invent solutions and take action.

6.   We can become sales machines. In 1985 Dr. Martin Seligman found that sales people at the Met Life Company who scored above average for positivity sold 37 per cent more insurance.

So, tree-hugging nonsense eh? I would argue not and so would my previously negative, now highly successful, European CEO friend. So, as a leader, how many positive comments or actions have you had this week? Double it and see what happens! 

Here are some questions to ask yourself? 

Is this a moment for creativity? If so, you need to get yourself and others thinking positively.

What language am I using? Positive thinking isn’t about saying “that’s brilliant” the whole time. However there’s a big difference between “we can’t afford that” and “how could we deliver that idea for £X budget?”

When can I be critical, even cynical? Once you have generated enough options. Until then, you run the risk of ending up with nothing new. 

Who are my ‘poos’ in the swimming pool? Be really aware of the ‘who’ in your team is always cynical and could ruin the (pool) party. The many can often be affected by the few because cynical thinking is easy.  Coach them to channel their critical faculties into the right moments.

Matt Bolton-Alarcon is a partner at Upping Your Elvis. He can be contacted at matt@uppingyourelvis.com

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