On Pesky Pessimists: Q+A with Michelle Gielan (Part 2)

April 26, 2016 Sarah Payne

Do you work with someone like this?

Negativity can have a profound impact on our work lives, whether it’s incessant complaining from a cube mate or the overall mood of an organization. But new research from positive psychology can help.

Last week I shared part 1 from our Q&A with Workhuman® Live Speaker and positive psychology researcher Michelle Gielan. She shared how her background in broadcast journalism sparked her interest in ideas like the ripple effect, optimism, and how to change your story for greater success. She also shared the research on why positivity is better for business.

In part 2, we talk about tips for leaders to communicate more positivity and strategies for buffering against negativity at work.

Read more below.

We’ve all worked with pessimists. Do you think optimism is something we can learn? If so, how?

Yes. That’s the most exciting part of this research. What we’re finding is that optimism is malleable. No matter what level of optimism you were born with, you can train your brain to see the world in a new way.

There was a study done with 80-year old grumpy pessimists who had practiced pessimism for eight decades of their life. When researchers asked them simply to do a two-minute positive habit each day, which in this case was listing three new and unique things they were grateful for each day, after six months those that had been testing as moderate level pessimists started testing as low to moderate level optimists. This is just one study. There are many studies studies that show us that you can not only train your brain for higher levels optimism, but also reap the benefits of that as well. 

What are small changes that leaders can make to communicate more positively with their teams?

The number one strategy that I recommend is the Power Lead. That’s where you start off conversations by saying something positive and meaningful. The reason this is powerful is that you’re taking the lead on the conversation, you’re setting the tone at positive, and since people have been raised to match the mood of the people they are talking to, they’ll typically respond with something positive as well.

Instead of starting a meeting with all the the fires that your team needs to put out, I’ve seen a manager begin with three things he was grateful for: one about life in general, one about the team in general, and one about someone specific on the team. That completely changed the tone of the meeting. They still got to all the business challenges they needed to solve, but they did it with a different mindset.

If we can simply answer “how are you?” with a more positive, meaningful, and perhaps personal answer, that changes how people connect with us and interact with us. For example,  you can say, “I’m doing great! I had breakfast with my son this morning and he was being really funny.” Those conversations are moments when we can create connection. Connection is the greatest predictor of long-term levels of happiness we have at work, and since we know that a positive brain fuels performance, when you cultivate happiness, you’re cultivating success at the same time.

I totally agree. I like to ask myself how I can help the person that I’m talking to.

It is funny you say that because the third of the three greatest predictors of long-term levels of success at work is actually support provision—which is how you as an individual at work support your colleagues. One related stat that we found from our research is that people who score in that top quartile of support provision are 40% percent more likely to get a promotion than the people in the lowest quartile over the next year. It’s scientific proof that you what you give is what you get.

Do you have any advice for buffering against negativity at work?

Negativity from the external world will always negatively influence us unless we buffer our brain by doing positive habits. The positive habit I recommend includes starting your day by sending one email praising or thanking someone in your social support network—a friend, a family member, a colleague, a former English teacher. It’s a quick two-minute email telling someone how they’ve meaningfully contributed to your life. This tells your brain, “Wow, look how many people in this world care about me and support me.”

Another positive habit that’s been shown to be really transformative is to list three new and unique things you’re grateful for each day. Or, if you’re a visual person, the third habit I recommend is snapping one positive, meaningful picture each day to remind yourself of all the good things in your life. Typically, I’ll invite people to do a 21-day challenge around these habits. Pick one and do it each day for 21 days.

These habits re-orient our attention away from the stresses, complaints, problems, and issues in our lives towards the meaning embedded in the work that we’re doing and the beautiful relationships we have in our lives.

Our brain has a negativity bias; it focuses on threats and challenges first. We can’t focus on both at the same time. If we get our brain looking at the good stuff, then we reap the benefits of it.

How do you think social recognition programs in corporations can contribute to the ripple effect?

These are fantastic tools to transmit messages of appreciation and praise. Ultimately when a company can adopt a culture of praise, that fuels business outcomes as well. You can get raises and promotions and a new car from your company, but I think what people are truly hungry for and what fuels their soul is recognition and praise from the people around them. Social recognition programs operationalize it and make it easier. Just making it easier is most of the battle in creating a positive culture.

What does a more human workplace mean to you?

A more human workplace comes from taking a holistic approach to well-being at work. Most people realize that you don’t come to work and all of a sudden not have a personal life, and you don’t go home from work and all of a sudden not have that annoying situation that happened with your colleague. As a happiness researcher, I’m excited to see that more and more companies are not only realizing the value of investing in happiness when it comes to well-being, but also seeing the business impact, including profits, productivity, and performance. As more companies make that investment, more are reaping the benefits.


Change Your Broadcast: Q+A with Michelle Gielan (Part 1)

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Trauma Triage: How to Help Your Culture Survive a Merger

6 Big Mergers That Were Killed By Culture (And How to Stop it From Killing Yours)

8 Cognitive Biases That Will Make Or Break Your Culture

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