Why Positive Encouragement Works Better Than Criticism, According to Science

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smileI’ve written about positivity before, in terms of cultivating a positive outlook for yourself. What I want to write about today is cultivating positivity in your workplace, particularly if you’re a leader. By focusing on positive interactions with your employees and encouraging an upbeat emotional state as often as possible, you’ll be more likely to have a happy, productive and efficient team.

How positivity affects our brains

To start with, let’s look at how positive and negative emotions work in our brains, and what we can learn from that.

Positive emotions generally work in an opposite way to negative emotions. So, while emotions like fear, anxiety, stress and anger narrow our focus, inhibit our concentration and decrease our cognitive abilities, positive emotions can do the opposite. When we’re feeling upbeat and happy, we’re more likely to have an inclusive focus than a self-centered outlook, and to perform better on cognitively demanding tasks.

That is why exercising often makes us happier, especially if we choose to go for a demanding work-out.

In the face of negative events, our brains struggle to perform at their highest—or even normal—capacity. Our prefrontal cortex, the brain’s “executive center” is pushed aside so the amygdala can take over and prepare the body for crisis.

This shift in control to the low road favors automatic habits, as the amygdala draws on knee-jerk responses to save us. 1

When we’re stressed or scared, for instance, we struggle to think clearly, to coordinate well with others, to take in new information and to come up with new ideas. Even existing routines suffer, as our concentration is taken over by our negative emotions.

The more intense the pressure, the more our performance and thinking will suffer. 1

In his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, Daniel Goleman explains that heightened prefrontal activity, which is associated with positive emotions, enhances mental abilities such as “creative thinking, cognitive flexibility, and the processing of information.” The left prefrontal area of our brains, which lights up with activity when we’re in a positive mood, is also associated with reminding us of the good feelings we’ll have when we reach a long-term goal.

Here is a break-down of where in the brain our positive emotions arise, which tends to be in the Amygdala. Interestingly, in an experiment from Duke University, for Young Adults (YA) have more activity in the left Amygdala, whereas as we age and turn into Old Adults (OA), our place for positivity moves to the right Amygdala:

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Goleman’s book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence also discusses positivity and how it affects us. Goleman explains how positivity is measured at a neural level, which involves looking at the length of time we can maintain a positive outlook after something good happens. In a study of participants with depression, control subjects with no mental illness were able to hold onto positive feelings for much longer than those with symptoms of depression.

Positive encouragement and communication

The way leaders use positivity when communicating with employees can make a huge impact on their emotional well-being and their performance. I was really surprised how big the impact of these interactions can be. Goleman looked at several ways this can happen in Social Intelligence.

In one experiment, the emotional tone of a leader delivering news to an employee made more impact that the news itself. When negative feedback was delivered with a warm tone, the employees usually rated the interaction positively. On the other hand, good news, such as achieving a goal, delivered with a negative tone would leave employees feeling bad.

The emotional state of a leader can rub off on employees even when they’re not sharing feedback specifically. Just being more upbeat can improve the emotional state of your employees, as well as helping them to be more efficient and coordinate better.

Employees are also more likely to remember negative interactions than positive ones, and to spread the negativity among other employees.

When sharing feedback with employees, negatively-focused discussions are more likely to increase feelings of guilt, fear and anxiety. As I mentioned earlier, these emotions work against our cognitive abilities, forcing us into a spiral of being stressed about the need to improve, while our brains are too busy being stressed for us to actually improve.

In Focus, Goleman looked at how talking about positive goals and dreams can be a better way to encourage employess. Richard Boyatzis, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University explained that focusing on what someone needs to do to “fix” themselves will effectively close them down to new possibilities or ideas.

Boyatzis did an experiment on college students, scanning their brains during interviews about college life. For one group, the interviews focused on positive outlooks—where they hoped to be in ten years, and what they wanted to gain from college. The other group had a negatively-focused interview where they talked about the stresses and fears of college life, struggles in their performance and workload and troubles in making new friends.

As you might expect, the areas of the brain related to negative emotions like anxiety and sadness were more often activated during the negative interviews. During the positive interviews, more activity was seen in the brain’s reward circuitry and areas related to happy memories and positive emotions.

A conversation that starts with a person’s dreams and hopes can lead to a learning path yielding that vision. 2

Marcial Losada, and organizational psychologist, found in studying the emotions of high-performing business teams that the most effective teams had at least 2.9 good feelings for every negative moment.

No doubt, we can’t avoid all negative moments, but adding enough positive ones to offset those that trouble us can make us happier and more productive.

Positive leadership – 3 things to focus on

Improving the positive ratio of your own team can be as simple as making some important changes to your own leadership approaches.

1. The two most important states: Listening and show empathy

Showing empathy to your employees helps them to develop a stable base at work, so they can feel comfortable to explore and take risks. This can lead to more creativity and better problem-solving within your team.

If we look at some of the best interviewers in the world and how they listen, we can quickly see how well trained they have their own sense of empathy.

Boyatzis found in his research that the part of our brains that focuses on goals actually inhibits the part that helps us to understand and empathize with others.

The most successful leaders cycle back and forth between these within seconds. 2

2. A caring boss is more important than what you earn

Making your employees feel heard and understood can actually improve their physical health as well as their mental well-being:

Workers who feel unfairly criticized, or whose boss will not listen to their problems, have a rate of coronary heart disease 30 percent higher than those who feel treated fairly. 1

Simply listening to your employees helps them to offload their negative feelings and release tension. Carrying around anxiety or frustration can hinder an employee’s performance, so try to tap into how they’re feeling on a regular basis.

In a survey of employees at seven hundred companies, the majority said that a caring boss was more important to them than how much they earned. 1

3. Make interpersonal chemistry a priority

Our sense of engagement and satisfaction at work results in large part from the hundreds and hundreds of daily interactions we have while there, whether with a supervisor, colleagues, or customers.

It’s no secret that culture is a huge part of how we hire new employees at Buffer. Making a priority of how well your employees get along is something I hadn’t heard much before, though, and I like this idea a lot. Especially in bigger teams, where you may not interact with each employee as often, ensuring that there is positive chemistry among team members could make a big difference to your overall company culture.

The accumulation and frequency of positive versus negative moments largely determines our satisfaction and ability to perform; small exchanges—a compliment on work well done, a word of support after a setback—add up to how we feel on the job. 1

Obviously, looking at leadership styles from successful entrepreneurs and their daily habits it becomes clear pretty quickly that they all have thought about this approach a lot. Yet, a lot of times this is still an approach unheard of.

How about you, would exchanging criticism for encouragement work better at your workplace?

If you liked this post, you might also like “What happens to our brains when we exercise and how it makes us happier” and “10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier, Backed By Science

PS: Only last week we launched brand new Buffer analytics, with Google Analytics support, fan and follower growth options and more. Check it out and see if it can help your social media efforts.

Image credit: Dr.Amen, Duke University

  • http://www.alexisrodrigo.com/ Lexi-Web Copywriter

    I seem to be seeing a lot of posts about happiness today. Hmmm is it a message from God? Seriously, thanks for this thorough post. I never knew there was so much science to back up “positive thinking,” “learned optimism,” or simply choosing to be happy. Good to know, and a couple of additions to my Amazon wish list. Have a nice day!

    PS: I wish more bosses — and parents — would read this!

  • Centrino

    Thanks for the science to confirm what sounded logical.

    Unfortunately bosses don’t care about these facts…

  • https://www.facebook.com/DakinAssociates Shaun Dakin

    Great post.. I think there is a typo in this heading:

    “Positive leadership – 3 things t”

    • LeoWid

      thanks so much for the heads up Shaun – updated! :)

  • albertkaufman

    yes, and I think it’s high time we all get way better at accepting feedback! http://albertideation.com/opening

    • albertkaufman

      And, I’d love your feedback on my thinking.

  • http://joshdthompson.com/ Josh

    This is an excellent read. It’s so easy to say “My last manager should have implemented this! Too much negativity!”

    But really, I can try to worry less about a past or current manager, and think a little better about how well I implement the good advice I hear.

    This implementation is less fun, but much more rewarding.

    As always, thanks for the excellent articles. Keep ‘em coming!

    • Deirdre

      Belle’s article is fantastic and your response is exactly what I was thinking!

  • Heather YamadaHosley

    Very interesting! The whole bit about brain chemistry and stress resulting from criticism makes absolute sense. I like Belle’s thoughts about trying to integrate employee compatibility in to the hiring process as “office drama” (aka negative environments) often stem from interpersonal issues. Thanks for another well researched post, Belle!

  • Sam

    Well written and excellent read. Thank you Belle.

  • Thomas lesenechal

    thanks Belle, super article again ;)

  • mcatlett

    Beyond leadership, this is true of just negativity and positivity in general – I found myself on reflecting on some of the experiences I’ve had with griping, bitter coworkers that weren’t in management. Want to enjoy work? Help others enjoy it too then.

  • Charlotte Garin

    Struggling to be a positive manager, I find it hard to do, when my own manager’s attidude or decisions impacts negatively on my work. Especially since transparency is very important to me. Explaining to my direct reports what is the situation, why do we do this and not that, why I have sometimes a hard time smiling… is also stressful for them, I fear. So, how can I at the same time, perspire happy feelings, and positivism, and give full information and transparency to my direct reports? Tricky…

  • Caroline Webb

    Great post, and a very clear summary of the core neuroscience behind threat and reward states and their effect on cognition. Two things to flag, though, if you don’t mind me chiming in. The first is that the 2.9 positivity ratio has been dramatically debunked, in one of the biggest stories in psychology last year (and possibly the decade). Losada used mathematics designed for fluid dynamics modeling to identify a tipping point beyond which the positive:negative ratio would truly shift psychological outcomes. Except the math didn’t work, and it was only discovered last year. Here’s the fascinating story in all its gory detail: http://narrative.ly/pieces-of-mind/nick-brown-smelled-bull/ Barbara Fredrickson, the co-author of that ratio work and a very well-respected psychologist as well as being a decent, well-liked person, stands by the huge amount of evidence that shows there is a qualitative benefit to having more positive feedback, for all the reasons you lay out above, and she wrote a paper last summer summarising that evidence. (But if you’re interested in positivity, which you guys at Buffer clearly are, the events of 2013 are definitely something to read and review.) The other slight rider on the positivity point is that positive affect makes our thinking more expansive and creative, but beyond a certain point it also increases our susceptibility to certain thinking biases because we’re not thinking as critically. Happy to pick this up offline if interesting to explore further. DM on Twitter @caroline_webb_

  • http://www.swordandthescript.com/ Frank Strong

    The most underutilized tool in a manager’s toolkit is a compliment.

    • Zunaira Elahi

      Agree 100%!

  • albertkaufman

    Very nice, and how we like to treat our employees at http://albertideation.com – OK, there’s just me, but I like to treat me, well :) Have a great weekend!

  • BMGA

    What a great article!

  • Holly McIlwain

    Great job, Beth. “A caring boss is more important than what you earn.” There’s always a disparity between what managers/owners think employees want and what they really want. All owners should take stock of this. Thanks Y’all.

  • Avril111

    my Aunty Amelia got a new blue Land Rover LR4 only from working part
    time off a home computer… helpful hints J­a­m­2­0­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Zunaira Elahi

    I can absolutely relate with this article! At my previous workplace I always felt there was very little communication between leaders and employees. Most people who got promoted to leadership positions used intimidation more than encouragement as way to get things done. And I believe this wasn’t because they were bad people, it was just because that’s how they were being treated from the top.

  • Stuart Kaplowitz

    Great blog! Stuart Kaplowitz, MFT
    http://www.encouragingyourlife.com