A Guide to Positivity at Work

January 12, 2023


Nicklas Balboa

What is positivity?

Positivity at work is more than a personal mindset or attitude. It is part of a bigger movement that influences the individual worker, how the workforce interacts with one another, and how workers align with the organisational goals and culture at large. 

Positive workplace cultures ensure beneficial change that ripples from leaders all the way down to individual employees and vice versa. These types of cultures build empathy, optimism, and resilience —  all keys to success. Building a positive workplace culture demands an understanding of the dynamics of the workplace from the top and bottom and the people within it. 

From the top, leaders create values, experiences, and rules of engagement that trickle down the organisation to the employees. Employees also hold their own attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions that provide feedback to leadership and influence the overall workplace culture. 

Positive vs negative workplace cultures

Do you feel listened to, supported, and included at work? Or do you feel unheard, neglected, and boxed in? The quality of the culture in the workplace plays a significant role not only in overall wellness but also in performance. 

In broad terms, workplace cultures fall somewhere between positive and negative. A 2022 report on Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being by the United States Surgeon General reveals that workplace culture has a significant impact on employee well-being, productivity, and organisational performance. 

Negative or toxic workplaces can result in a loss of worker productivity, performance, and overall quality of work. On the other side of the coin, a positive work culture can boost engagement and innovation.

Put simply, work is no longer just work. The cultures that form in the workplace have just as much to say about a company’s bottom line as the numbers.  

Modern workplace culture

Today, the workplace is more than a space where people gather — either in person, online, or both — to perform their jobs. During the pandemic and the return to the office, I spent time reporting on the work-life. Amid the many interviews of academic experts, industry leaders, and workers, a pattern emerged. 

The rapidly changing landscape, from hybrid work to the Great Resignation, caused employers to shift their views on workplace culture radically. While employers strived to meet goals, employees sought a more balanced work-home life. 

For example, 2022 research by Ernst & Young found that 54% of workers in the United States left a job due to their boss’ lack of empathy when it came to issues at work. The research also found that 49% of workers left their job because of inadequate sensitivity to home life stress.

While some innovative leaders were onto this approach long before, the idea that the workplace should equally focus on employee expectations came to the forefront. The results have created a more dynamic workplace culture predicated on creating positive workplace cultures and mitigating negative influences.

Toxic positivity

Taken at face value, positivity is simply maintaining a positive perspective on life — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful. At its extreme, positivity can seem out of touch with reality. Simply putting on the don’t worry, be happy blinders can neglect the challenges and uncertainties that people face in everyday life. 

Tabitha Kirkland, a psychologist and associate teaching professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Psychology, says that toxic positivity is devoid of empathy and neglects to recognize the negative things in life. This approach can make people feel invalidated and not listened to, which is critical to employee engagement, performance, and the financial success of the company. 

A 2021 survey by the Workforce Institute found that nearly 3 out of 4 employees say that they feel more engaged and perform better at work when they feel heard. This also impacts the overall financial performance of the company, as the survey also found that employees in companies that financially outperform others in their industry feel heard more by a margin of 26%. 

Taking an extreme approach to positivity can actually backfire.

Positive leadership and optimism

Positivity starts with a form of leadership approach that plays to people’s skills, gives recognition and encouragement to others, and maintains an optimistic outlook. Positive leadership has been correlated with better employee engagement, optimism, and performance. 

Sticking to strengths

Renowned Austrian-American management consultant Peter Drucker believed that individuals could create more impact at work by focusing on developing the skills they excel at. Instead of spending time trying to make a well-rounded skill set, Drucker believed that sharpening the tip of the spear and strategically cultivating one’s strengths and learning styles would serve an individual the best. 

Leaders and managers can take a page from Drucker’s book by identifying team members’ skills and enabling them to work within that range. This does not have to be an entirely individual pursuit. 

For example, if a project requires data analysis, but must ultimately be presented at a higher level meeting, assemble a team of analysts and designers to work together to find the trends and then present them in a digestible form. The push and pull dynamics can create something more powerful than numbers or graphics would alone. 

Recognition and encouragement

Encouragement and recognition are two key spices in the recipe of healthy conversations. Gallup notes that simply recognizing employees not only positively impact engagement and productivity, it also can help keep employees around for longer. The study found that employees who do not feel recognized at work are twice as likely to quit. 

Beyond the individual, recognition also impacts teams by painting a transparent picture of what leadership thinks success should look like. But sometimes conversations have to steer towards more difficult subjects, like when things need improvement.  

When it comes to difficult conversations, delivering feedback requires a delicate approach. Instead of using harsh criticism, reframing the conversation to focus on what went well and how to pursue future success can go a long way in making a positive impact on the team. 

Research on team conversations indicates that high-performing teams have 6 positive interactions for every negative one, while low-performing teams only have 1 positive interaction for every 20 negative ones. While these numbers may seem extreme, there is a potential explanation for why positive interactions dominate better-performing teams. 

Optimism and emotional contagion

If positivity is part of the larger cultural framework of an organisation, then optimism certainly plays a role. The American Psychological Association defines optimism as “hopefulness: the attitude that good things will happen and that people’s wishes or aims will ultimately be fulfilled.” 

Optimistic leaders provide a necessary positive emotional contribution to the team. They find solutions to problems, help create a vision for the future, and inspire others to reach that goal by reinforcing the positives. Sound familiar? A leader who practices recognition and encouragement is already building an optimistic culture. 

This optimism can positively impact teams through emotional contagion. Coined by Sigal Barsade, Professor of Management at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, emotional contagion is the ripple effect that occurs as emotions spread among individuals and groups. Barsade’s innovative research found that positive emotional contagion helped people work together, limited conflict, and boosted performance. 

So when optimism becomes the attitude and outlook in the workplace, positive emotions can flow. This is critical because if the team is optimistic, then individuals can begin to harbour a personal sense of optimism — which may be even more valuable. 

A 2022 study by Leadership IQ of over 11,000 employees found that while managers that give recognition have a positive impact, employees with a personal sense of optimism are more engaged. In fact, employees higher in self-optimism are more than twice as likely to feel inspired to try their best at work. 

The ripple effect of optimism starts at the top but has the potential to create the biggest impact on employees when it is felt at a personal level. The Leadership IQ study also identified another major component of an employee’s inspiration and engagement at work: resilience. 

Resilience training, tools, and techniques

Resilience is the use of flexibility to adapt to change and challenges, says the American Psychological Association. Even more critical, resilience skills can be trained. This is important because resilience not only factors into worker engagement, but it can also account for 25% of an employee’s inspiration at work. 

Measuring Resilience

The Resilience Institute conducted a global study on resilience levels that spanned from 2018-2021. When the pandemic hit, resilience levels dropped globally. However, people began to bounce back as they adapted to the rapidly changing world. This bounce factor enables people to adapt in the face of change and challenges. 

During the pandemic, people have bounced back by learning to connect in new ways during lockdowns, learning to cope with their mental health, and learning how to get better sleep. In fact, the Resilience Insitute’s 2022 Global Report found that sleep is the most important factor for developing resilience. 

We measure resilience through the Resilience Diagnostics assessment. Using key psychometrics, the Resilience Diagnostic assessment uses 60 questions that measure specific factors that support or undermine resilience. Individuals and the entire organisation can use the tool via the web or mobile app to view the factors that promote your resilience or hinder it. This is known as the Resilience Ratio. 

The Resilience Spiral

This visual tool represents the 11 main categories that make up different parts of the 60 questions in the Resilience Diagnostics assessment. Completing the questionnaire provides the user with a map of strengths and risks and practical recommendations to move up the spiral. 

The top half of the Resilience Spiral includes the following categories: 

  • Spirit in Action
  • Train Mind
  • Engage Emotion
  • Energise Body
  • Master Stress

The upper half helps develop resilience and enables growth, connection, and flow. At the top of the spiral sits Spirit in Action, which represents peak performance. Next sits Train Mind, which relies on the fact that training the brain can combat the effects of ageing and performance. 

Engage Emotion uses awareness to harshness the passion and creativity of emotions. The mind and body are intimately connected — energising the body sets the tone for the rest of the spiral. At the base sits Master Stress. Stress is the teetering point between the top and the bottom of the spiral because stress can rule your world when left unmanaged. 

On the other side of the coin, the lower half of the Resilience Spiral includes the categories: 

  • Confused
  • Disengaged
  • Withdrawn
  • Vulnerable
  • Distressed
  • Depressed

The lower half represents a lack of resilience. The first step down the spiral is Confused, which leads to a lack of focus. Next is Disengaged, which creates boredom and, eventually, loss of productivity. Progression down the spiral leads to Withdrawn — where the body loses energy and engagement. 

Fatigue kicks in at the Vulnerable, as people feel indifferent. Distressed can lead to loss of staff and unhealthy organisational culture. Finally, Depressed signals the end of an organisation. 

Resilient people and organisations work at higher levels. When resilience fails, people and organisations drop into the lower levels. 

Training Resilience

The Resilience Institute offers resilience training — ranging from the Resilience app to webinars, workshops, and comms support — that can increase performance by 41%, decrease risk by 34%, and boost growth in capability by 38%. 

Gain access to a library of information to help you learn more about the resilience factors and your own Resilience ratio, and learn skills for how to bounce back, access flow states,  and increase emotional intelligence. The app also includes goal tracking, over 50 resilience training videos by Dr Sven Hansen, daily meditations, and a support chatbot. 

The app is available in English, French, Spanish, Dutch, German and Mandarin. Thousands of organisations use The Resilience Institute to measure and improve individual and organisational resilience. Are you ready for resilience? 

Ready for resilience?

We support thousands of organizations worldwide with precision training programs and our evidence-based digital toolkit. Our global team of resilience experts will be delighted to discuss your needs and share best practice tools for building resilient leaders and teams.

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