Commentary: Stay positive. It’s good for you.

June 23, 2013

So, you’re going through a tough time at work. Sequestration has tightened up government contracting, big companies are diving after contract scraps, and small ones are looking to their bankers for credit extensions. It’s tough to smile, let alone be positive.

In the midst of such negative forces, your vision gets clouded, like when your eyeglasses get covered with dust, smears and fingerprints. All you can see is doom and gloom. As a leader you had better buck that downward trend, or people around you will suffer the results of negative emotional contagion. Quite literally, your leadership mood is a communicable disease, even an epidemic, when times are bad.

I’ve seen this dissonance cycle in my executive clients over the years. So, I decided to explore the antidote — positivity. After spending a year researching the researchers, I wrote a book (just released) called “Positive Leadership: The Game Changer at Work.” Here’s a high-level look at what researchers have discovered.

1 People who are social and who have a strong relationship with their families, friends and colleagues at work are among the happiest people on the planet. Here are some stats to consider: To have a productive relationship with someone, you need to have a 2:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions with that person. To point the needle north toward a flourishing relationship, you need a 3:1 ratio. And married folks need a 5:1 ratio. At work, you need to have a strong relationship with your boss, and you also need positive relationships with your direct reports and your peers — often neglected at your own peril.

2 People who can capi­tal­ize on their strengths at work tend to be the happiest of workers. In the Marine Corps they say, “Never try to teach a pig how to sing, because he’ll never learn, and you’ll just make him mad if you keep trying.” People like to do what they do well. So, taking a personality assessment like the MBTI, Gallup’s StrengthsFinder or one of a number of other instruments on the market makes a lot of sense. Next, find a job that matches your strengths, and work no longer feels like laboring in the salt mines — the clock on the wall actually speeds up. If you get stuck in a job not in your strengths, try to volunteer in a way that uses and showcases your strengths or maneuver to another part of the company that’s a better fit.

3People who practice positive activities — both physical and mental — are the happiest and most productive. However, staying positive is a full-contact sport, requiring daily practice.

Physical investments in your body require effort and time. Some numbers might help: Get 150 minutes a week of aerobic exercise. I’m not saying you have to run with the bulls or climb mountains; just walking rigorously will do. Get seven to eight hours of sleep a night to allow the body and mind to repair themselves. Remember, sleep deprivation is a favored form of torture. And, don’t forget diet. Download a calorie counter app for your phone and join a group such as Weight Watchers. Socialize the process.

Psychological positivity boosters such as gratitude, kindness, optimism and love make a big difference.

Gratitude: If every night before bedtime you write down just three things that went well that day (gratitude journal), you can move a depressed person significantly toward happiness in only 15 days.

Kindness: Intentionally doing five kind things (small or big) for others one day a week significantly boosts your happiness levels.

Optimism: Optimistic people who go through stress actually get stronger, more resilient. Pessimistic people become depressed and even experience post-traumatic stress, depending on the severity of the stressful experience. Optimism can be learned and practiced.

Love: This is the strongest of all positive emotions. The most frequent place for love to happen is in intentional conversation with friends, mates, even co-workers — not romantic love but a special being-fully-present kind of deep listening that creates a feeling of engagement and love.

Leaders need to be cognizant of the impact they have on the people around them and how important it is, both personally and professionally, to be positive. In the midst of all that’s going on in the world, take a deep breath and consider how you might get social in your networks, get strong at work and get positive in your activities. You’ll be glad you did, and so will everyone around you.

Steve Gladis is a Fairfax-based leadership development expert, speaker, executive coach and the author of 19 books.

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