Effective Management Consulting

Managers Get What They Give: The Neuroscience of Positivity

By Jeffrey Harris, MFT, CPC, CEAP


If I were to tell you that I just experienced a fantastic week, but my Tuesday was awful, what would you ask me next?

Over 90% of people that I give this scenario to will say, “Sorry to hear that, what happened on Tuesday?” This sympathetic gesture will require me to share the setbacks, disappointments, and little crises that made the day rotten. In this way, your question has me reliving the distress of the day as if it were happening in the present moment.

But in my original statement, I told you that 6/7 of my week was fantastic. How might my response and mood have been different had your response been to ask, “Tell me what made your week so great?” You would likely see my eyes light up, and my mood brighten as I regaled you with stories of good food, good friends, and possibly some great outcomes at work.

It is not my intention to shame anyone for a thoughtful and caring inquiry. But the fact remains that the questions we pose to other people will trigger a neurobiological response, the outcome of which is entirely predictable in either scenario. Put another way, one of my first clinical supervisors told me, “You deserve the answers you get, based upon the questions you ask!”

Managers Get What They Give
Managers who seek the consultation of an EA professional about a troubled employee will often report their exasperation at the negativity, defensiveness, and closed-mindedness presented by that employee. They are likely unaware that their own questions or statements in a discussion are setting the course for a negative response.

Far too often, managers try to fix an employee’s weaknesses, rather than encouraging development of their strengths. Alternatively, by focusing upon the positives, managers are not denying the negatives but are engaging the employee in desirable performance or behaviors.

In consultation with managers, while being diplomatic and respectful, acknowledge the manager’s frustration while also suggesting that they have the ability to shape the discussion toward a more positive outcome using neuroscience.

The Neuroscience of Positivity
In their book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, authors Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler describe how emotions pass from one person to another due to some interesting human features. First, they report that humans are biologically hardwired to mimic others in their outward expressions, and in so doing, we turn our inner state to be congruent with that display.

When a manager criticizes, is disagreeable, or causes the employee to feel minimized or marginalized, this has the effect of shutting down the part of our brain that does the best thinking. The negatively-charged conversation will activate conflict aversion and protective behaviors. And the manager will likely see the employee become reactive and hypersensitive. In the act of dwelling upon weaknesses, the manager’s words may negate prior recognition or praise.

The science on this is really solid. The human brain, sensing conflict, will produce the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which trigger the fight-flight-freeze response. On the other hand, comments that are positive and encouraging will activate the release of oxytocin, the hormone that produces a sense of well-being. Oxytocin improves our communication skills and activates behaviors such as collaboration and trust building. But oxytocin metabolizes in our body more rapidly than cortisol, so its effects are brief and less pronounced. This explains the catchphrase you’ve heard, that it takes three compliments to neutralize one negative comment.

B.L. Fredrickson, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reports that “Positive emotions momentarily broaden people’s attention and thinking, enabling them to draw on higher-level connections and a wider-than-usual range of precepts and ideas. In turn, these broadened outlooks often help people to discover and build consequential personal resources (cognitively, psychologically, socially, and physically).”

According to Christakis and Fowler, induced positive emotion benefits the workplace as it widens the scope of attention, broadens behavioral repertoires, and reduces the lingering effects of negative emotions. Additional benefits to positivity in the workplace include increases in intuition, creativity, flexibility, openness, and the ability to integrate new information.

Furthermore, a positive workplace is associated with a range of team performance-enhancing changes, including greater altruistic behavior, increased creativity, and more efficient decision-making.

Building a Manager’s Positivity Toolkit
When you consult with a manager who is a “critical Carla” or “negative Ned,” consider exploring with them the manager behaviors that are most likely to produce oxytocin. These include:

* Being receptive to having difficult conversations;
* Painting a picture of mutual success;
* Stimulating discussion and curiosity;
* Showing concern for others; and
* Starting meetings by asking, “What went well today?”

Also, why not try the neuroscience of positivity in your own consultation? Ask the manager to jot down the things that he or she appreciates about a challenging employee. What talents, strengths, or good characteristics does he/she have? Everyone typically has at least some good characteristics. This may require you to be tenacious in facilitating the manager’s search for those strengths.

Let’s Keep the Discussion Going
For those of you who would like to have a tool for managers on this topic, send me a message on LinkedIn, and I will send you a worksheet titled, “Ways to Increase Positivity as a Leader.”
The author invites you to network around all topics of effective management consulting through his LinkedIn profile at www.LinkedIn.com/in/JeffHarrisCEAP and Twitter at www.twitter.com/JeffHarrisCEAP.

Jeffrey Harris, MFT, CPC, CEAP, has provided management consulting to a wide variety of organizations throughout his 22-year career in employee assistance, including corporate, government and union organizations. The author also has extensive experience as a manager and executive coach, from which he draws insight for his consulting. Jeff currently serves as Program Manager of EAP & WorkLife at the University of Southern California.