Look around any organization and chances are you will find at least one person whose positive energy has a contagious effect on others. These individuals inspire those around them to do better and to be better. They see potential in those who don’t see it in themselves. They recognize weaknesses and deficits, but instead focus their attention on bringing out the good and building on strengths. They are generous givers, providing support and encouragement when it matters most. Their realistic optimism allows them to persevere when things do not go their way.
At Sustrana, we are a team of positive influencers. For us, creating positives means a commitment to discovering and promoting factors that allow individuals and organizations to thrive. In a world where there is so much fear and division, we strive to focus on and create positives, and push that out into the world through our work. We recognize the bad and use it to fuel our drive to change the world for the better.
Much like our other core values, creating positives takes conscious effort and attention. It is not always easy.
As humans, our brains are wired to place greater emphasis on the negative than the positive. This is what researchers call negativity bias. This bias is so firmly engrained and automatic that it can be detected at the earliest stage of the brain's information processing. To be sure, there are certain evolutionary benefits of the brain focusing on the negative before the positive. At the dawn of human history, missing the bad was life threatening. Missing the good was not.
If bad is stronger than good, it means we need a lot more conscious awareness of the positives to override this natural tendency towards negativity. Fortunately, we have co-evolved a parallel system in the newer parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex), which enables us to address long-term challenges in need of more integrative, transformative, and holistic solutions.
Broaden and Build
According to the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotion developed by Barbara Fredrickson, the presence of positive emotion (joy, happiness, excitement) broadens one’s perspective and encourages novel, exploratory thoughts and actions. Whereas negative emotions prompt narrow, short-term, survival-oriented behaviors, positive emotions elicit higher levels of creativity and inventiveness, opening the mind up to a greater number of possibilities. Extending beyond the level of the individual, the broaden-and-build theory provides a useful framework for organizations to discover big picture solutions to complex challenges.
There are ways of creating simple mechanisms for people to experience positive emotions more frequently. You can think of this as “priming for positivity.” One broaden-and-build intervention I use in the course I co-teach at the University of Pennsylvania is to begin each class by having students share one good thing that has happened to them in the past 24 hours. I have heard everything from “I got engaged” to “I cooked with my mother” to “I went for a walk in the park.” It’s amazing to see how this simple 2-minute exercise creates a buzz of positive energy in the classroom. Not only does this produce greater camaraderie and engagement among students, but it also leads to a more insightful and generative discussion than we would have had otherwise.
Seeing With New Eyes
It sounds counterintuitive, but focusing on problems is often the worst way to solve them. An alternative is the positive deviance approach. It focuses on what is working and how to create more of it by leveraging solutions that already exist within a community or organization. Positive deviance recognizes that there are certain individuals and groups whose uncommon, but successful, strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers.
A powerful example of positive deviance is from the early 1990s, when malnutrition among Vietnamese children was a staggering 65%. Research showed that some children, despite living in the same dire conditions, were well nourished. These were the “positive deviants.” The researchers studied their behavior and found that these children’s parents were breaking from locally accepted wisdom and social norms. These children were being fed more frequently, but with less food. Their parents were also adding sweet potato greens to the children’s rice, despite it being considered a low-class food. These simple strategies began to spread through the community. In just two years, malnutrition dropped 65 to 86 percent in every village. Best of all, the parents who were actively involved in the process felt a sense of great pride for improving their children’s health. Engaging the community helped them take full ownership of the process and produced sustained results.
Identifying positive outliers and building on existing knowledge is a core aspect of our approach at Sustrana. With each of our customers, we start with the assumption that the solutions already exist within their organizations. In other words, we have the humility to know that we do not have all the answers. When a positive deviant doing something great within a company emerges, we encourage and empower them to share those best practices with other departments and locations. It is from this place that silos break down and collaboration happens.
Our online software platform provides an effective vehicle for spreading and sustaining innovative new ways of doing things. Instead of focusing on what is not working within a company and trying to fix it, a positive deviance approach looks for sustainability exemplars and finds ways of getting those ideas out to the rest of the organization. For example, one of our customers, a global engineering, repair and logistics company, has an employee who quietly made incredible progress at her distribution center to minimize energy use, increase recycling, reduce packaging waste, and encourage the use of reusable bottles. Her projects have now been captured in Sustrana and can be easily reviewed and replicated by others in various locations throughout the company. Capturing the learning and making it accessible to others builds institutional capacity, and rapidly grows sustainability thinking throughout the whole organization.
Creating Positives In Trying Times
Make no mistake. Creating positives is not about sugarcoating the tremendous challenges we face, individually and collectively. We are up against deeply entrenched systems and there is no guarantee that things are going to turn out in the way we hope they will. But as Göran Carstedt reminds us in his TED talk, “The future still has yet to be created, and it has to be co-created by liberating human creativity and inviting people into a meaningful cause to believe in.”
There is no shortage of cynics in today’s world. That is not a resource we need more of. In their book Break Through, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus rightly point out that negative messages do not inspire people; they cause them to feel disempowered and helpless. Remember Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I Have a Dream”, not “I Have a Nightmare.” Great leaders inspire people to action by creating a positive vision of a desirable future, not by scaring them with doom and gloom messages or fear-based threats.
What is your vision of a flourishing future? What kind of world do you want to help create? Now more than ever, we must employ and deploy the power of positivity. We cannot hope to make the world a better, happier place if we do not also aspire for this in our own lives. When we apply a positive lens to our thoughts and actions, it has a multiplying effect and ripples out to those around us. Now that is bold work.
This is the fifth in a series of blogs about Core Values:
- Core Values: How Differences Helped Define a Sustainability Culture
- Listening Deeply: How to be a Better Sustainability Professional, Sales Person, and Parent
- An Open Mind: the Superpowers of Diversity and Inclusion
- Cultivating Authenticity
- The Power of Positives: Creating a Community for Impact
- Inspire & Empower: Why It's Better When More People Have a Seat at the Table
- Why Values Matter: The Common Ground of Creating Enduring Companies