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Tuesday, 25 June 2013 02:46

Positive Psychology, Change and the Bottom Line, Part V: The ABCs of Positive Psychology - Affect

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In our previous posts on Positive Psychology, we've talked about what positive psychology really is, about how neuroplasticity affects the way we learn, about the essential factors in creating the motivation to change, and about the implications of all this for organizations.

Now we're going to look at the ABCs of positive psychology:  Affect, Behavior and Cognition.

All 3 of these - affect, behavior, cognition - are necessary for change to occur.  They are important individually, but their real power is in the way they intersect and align.

Let's talk about Affect first.


Typically, when we think about emotions in the workplace, we think of them as being negative.  We think that 'real professionals' don't bring their emotions to work, and they definitely never reveal their emotions in the boardroom - to do so would be seen as a sign of weakness.

Except that all of us have emotions, and it's not all that easy (or even possible) to leave them at the front door of the office.  We may experience anger, frustration or fear as a result of something that happens at work; we may also experience more positive emotions like joy, satisfaction or excitement.

All of these emotions are giving us important clues about ourselves and our situation, and if we pay attention to them, rather than doing our best to suppress them in the name of 'professionalism', we might succeed in using them to our advantage.

When an organization is going through change, it's often the negative aspects of emotions which are most talked about:  Those who oppose the change, those who challenge the change, and those who resist the change.  But even these negative reactions to change provide important information to the organization.

We don't always focus on the positive emotions associated with a change, but I think it's important to pay just as much attention to them as we do to the negative emotions.

Did you know that 80% of individuals who experience some kind of trauma actually experience post-traumatic growth, not post-traumatic stress?  That's a good endorsement of our inner strength and resilience.  However, we most often hear about the 20% who suffer from PTSD.  Now, I'm not minimizing that 20% - their experience is real and difficult.  But it's interesting that we don't focus on the majority who experience something more positive - and it leaves many of us with the notion that there is only one way to respond to trauma (PTSD) when in fact many of us respond much more positively.

When we examine PTSD and PTG (post-traumatic growth), we see that it's often a single event which leads to either one.  Remembering what we learned about neuroplasticity, we know that a single experience creates a new neural pathway in the brain.  When that channel is seen as negative, we end up with PTSD; when it's seen as positive, we end up with PTG.

We know that a single negative experience in our work life can set up a negative pathway that lasts (all it can take is one manager, early in your career, telling you that you'll "never rise to a senior leadership position" to change your career aspirations forever).  But if that's true, can a single positive experience in our work life have a similar outcome?  Can it create a channel that will permanently increase our well-being and a positive response to challenges?  The answer is yes.  Sure, it depends on the experience - but it also depends on what we do with it.


Reinforce positive experiences

When something bad happens at work - someone yells at  you, you make a mess of a presentation in front of the whole team, etc. - we tend to replay it in our heads over and over again, which of course reinforces the negative pathways the experience created.  But when was the last time you replayed a positive experience over and over again?

Many of us are taught to downplay our successes ("Don't get cocky!" or "No one likes someone who's full of themselves!"), so we tend to move on from positive experiences faster than we do from negative ones.  But there's nothing to stop you from replaying a positive experience to yourself.  Journaling is a fantastic way to do this:  By taking the time to describe the experience to yourself and write it down, you're reinforcing the positive neural pathways that were created, and making it part of your personal narrative, which will enhance the results.

Another way to fortify positive experiences is simply to take the time to do so.  In 2006, scientists demonstrated that rats who were given time to rest and 'hang out' ended up learning a maze faster than rats who were simply forced to repeat the (unsuccessful) attempts over and over again.  As humans, giving ourselves sufficient downtime is critical both to the creative process and to allowing us to fortify our positive neural pathways.


Affect and change management

How does all of this relate to change management?  Well, we can deny the existence of emotions in the workplace all we want, but the truth is that when change happens, it always generates emotions in the individuals required to carry out and live with that change.  If we can acknowledge the negative emotions, we can do a better job of managing their consequences. More importantly, if we can harness the positive emotions, we can use them as powerful tools to create real and lasting change that delivers the results we want.


Next time, we'll talk about the B in the ABCs of change:  Behavior.

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Beth Banks Cohn, PhD, founder and president of ADRA Change Architects, is dedicated to helping you and your organization reach your full business potential…
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