How Positivity Promotes Performance

Alice Isen of Cornell University has shown how tiny events triggering positive emotions can drive you toward success.
November 10, 2011

I've been looking into how the smallest things—things we often take for granted—can make the biggest difference in outcomes. Take the case of a small act of kindness. It turns out that simply saying something nice to someone or giving someone a little unexpected gift can create a flood of positive emotions that studies suggest increase the urge to play, push the limits, be creative, take in new experiences, learn and, ultimately, boost performance…even in the most complex of activities.

Alice Isen of Cornell University’s Johnson School has demonstrated how tiny events triggering positive feelings can achieve these effects. One of her studies revealed that physicians who were given some positive reinforcement were more likely to make an accurate diagnosis than those who weren't. The doctors were given a list of ailments from a hypothetical patient and also given a misleading piece of information—that the patient had been diagnosed at another hospital as having lupus. Half the doctors were also given a bag of candy and told it was a token of appreciation for their participation in the study of medical decision-making. The others were given nothing.

Doctors receiving the candy were far more likely to correctly diagnose the patient's problem as a liver ailment resulting in hepatitis. They considered a broader range of treatment options, and patients reported better doctor-patient relationships. Decoding the dynamics went something like this: the small token gift evoked the positive emotion of gratitude in the recipient, who not only then felt good, but also had the urge to repay the act and continue an upward spiral of increasing reciprocity, either directly or by “paying it forward” to others.

“Even well-paid professionals, such as doctors, can use some positive stroking to make them feel happy and cause them to do a better job,” says Isen. "Pleasant-feeling states give rise to altruism, helpfulness and improved interpersonal processes. When people feel happy, they have better access to more varied material in their memory. They are more creative problem-solvers because their minds are more 'alive,' and they are less easily confused."

More accurate diagnoses, better working relationships, and broader thinking—not from some bloated performance improvement initiative, but from a little spark that costs nothing!

Dr. David Cooperrider, of Case Western Reserve University, has applied the power of positivity to companies through an approach he terms Appreciative Inquiry, which describes as valuing and recognizing the best in people, affirming past and present strengths, successes and potential, and exploring and being open to new possibilities, as opposed to fixing what's not working.

Tom White, a divisional president of GTE, took this approach in addressing the rather serious issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. He won an award from the American Society for Training & Development for creating a culture of world class gender relations, and said this upon accepting the award:

"Appreciative Inquiry can get you much better results than seeking out and solving problems. That’s an interesting concept for me, because telephone companies are among the best problem solvers in the world. We trouble shoot everything. We often concentrate enormous resources on correcting problems that have relatively minor impact on our overall service and performance (and which)...when used continually and over a long period of time, this approach leads to a negative culture. If you combine a negative culture with all the challenges we face today, it could be easy to convince ourselves that we have too many problems to overcome—to slip into a paralyzing sense of hopelessness. Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating mindless happy talk. Appreciative Inquiry is a complex science designed to make things better. We can't ignore problems—we just need to approach them from the other side."

So what are the differences between the two approaches? According to proponents of Appreciate Inquiry, there are a few:

  • In traditional problem-solving, you begin by identifying the problem and analyzing the causes. With Appreciative Inquiry, you begin by setting a context, identifying and seeing the present "what is" and appreciating or valuing the best of that "what is."
  • In traditional problem-solving, you then propose solutions to fix the problem. With Appreciative Inquiry, you enter the "Dream" phase of envisioning the future and asking: What is possible? What is might be? What do we really want?
  • In traditional problem solving, you plan out the action you're going to take and how you're going to get it done. With Appreciative Inquiry, you enter the "Design" phase of discussing, dialoguing and aligning people around "what might be."
  • In traditional problem solving, you execute the solution. With Appreciative Inquiry, you move into your "Destiny" by "creating, innovating and sustaining the 'what might be.'"

Like most things that take subtle yet different positions on a given situation, there's value in both approaches. So it may be better to ponder how to blend the best of both, rather than make an artificial either/or decision.

In the end, I think it all gets down to how you look at the world. Do you view your team, partner or company as something to be solved or repaired, or do you view it as a mystery to embrace? Your answer may make a world of difference.