Positivity & Productivity

September 7, 2017 | Maranda Provance

The research is pretty clear: high-pressure work environments have hidden costs. A cut-throat environment generates fear, which generates disengagement. Disengaged employees are much more likely to get in accidents, allow for defects, and miss work. Organizations with low engagement scores are 18% less productive than their engaged counterparts (HBR, 2015).

According to Emma Seppala, a researcher at Stanford, a culture of positivity exhibits the following characteristics:

  • Genuinely caring about colleagues
  • Supporting one another, especially when a peer is struggling
  • Exhibiting a sense of forgiveness and reducing blame
  • Inspiring each other
  • Promoting meaning through shared work
  • Treating everyone with respect, trust, and dignity

Positivity Helps


Research shows that gratitude is tremendously important for improving wellbeing, both on a personal and person-to-person level. One study out of the University of Miami asked participants to write several sentences each week, focusing on specific subjects. The group that wrote about things for which they were grateful were more optimistic about their lives. Interestingly, they also exercised more and had fewer doctor’s visits than the two other groups who either focuses on neutral or negative events.

Another study out of the University of Pennsylvania found that employees who were thanked by their managers were 50% more productive than those who were not (Harvard, 2011). The human brain is often focused on the negative because it is in those scenarios that we must focus our attention to solve. Cultivating a sense of gratitude helps us balance our tendencies.

In the workplace, this looks like supporting your coworker about the kick-ass job they did on their last project, or just chiming in with an occasional note of appreciation. On a personal level, taking a few moments each morning with your cup of coffee to think about the things you love in life can go a long way.


Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has spent her life studying the idea of “Mindfulness.” While often associated with the teachings of Buddhism and meditation, Langer’s focus is purely based on keeping your mind active and open to possibility. Many of us go through our day mindlessly, and we then wonder why we don’t find the success we seek. Langer’s approach is to take a step back and observe our feelings and predispositions before we act. In the workplace, this means we can approach stressful situations with care. (Harvard Magazine, 2010).

“Wherever you put the mind, the body will follow.”

—Ellen Langer, psychologist


The Caveat

But, there’s a caveat to all of this. A study by the Harvard Business Review implies that while generosity is good for ourselves and those around us, giving without considering the cost to our own productivity can have negative effects. Their study of more than 400 second-year teachers found that educators who were completely selfless toward students and colleagues actually had lower student achievement scores at the end of the school year. Going above and beyond in terms of generosity leads to burnout (HBR, 2017).

Navigating the line between benevolence and burnout can be tricky. Here are a few tips to find your way:

  1. Remember, you can only love (or show love to) another as much as you love yourself. Focusing on self improvement is not only good for yourself but for those around you.
  2. Think honestly and fairly about the tradeoffs for both you, your coworker, and the company as a whole. Does helping or not helping leave any one of those parties in a ditch?
  3. When faced with a request you know is too much, consider your short-term discomfort against long-term resentment. Saying no up front may cause 30 seconds of discomfort, while saying yes may incur resentment that festers for days.

“We’ve been conditioned to believe that being kind means being available 24/7.”

—Caroline McGraw, writer


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