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Positivity and Gratitude; Behavioral "Prebiotics"​ to Decrease Organizational Inflammation

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

(Initially published on LinkedIn on 28-May-2019)

The writing was on the wall as soon as I joined the Global Nutritional Health team. Even though my background is in business and not one of the numerous aspects of Life Science, I spend a lot of time with nutritionists, chemists, biologists, and other super smart people. It was inevitable, given the company that I keep, that I'd begin to explain organizational excellence/culture projects in terms that my colleagues would relate to, and given what we're learning about the impact of gut health, the metaphor practically wrote itself! (My kids are convinced I'm permanently warped, too. They're not wrong!)

Recently I had the opportunity to share my ideas on "Positivity and Gratitude as Behavioral Prebiotics to Decrease Organizational Inflammation". This was more than just a catchy title. The paradigm of "Organization as Organism" is actually really valuable when considering how to approach business challenges. Sometimes you have to conduct life-saving surgery (like firing that brilliant but toxic person). You may have to get a blood transfusion (emergency financing). Sometimes you just want to support the health and well-being of your company, and positivity and gratitude play an incredibly valuable role in creating psychological safety in the workplace (and life in general!).

So... Let's consider an organization as if it were a living organism, with interconnected and specialized systems. Where an animal might have a respiratory, gastrointestinal, skeletal, or circulatory system, a company might have Supply Chain, Manufacturing/Production, R&D, Facilities, Finance, and so on, where each plays a unique but interdependent part in the overall well-being and functioning of the company. Unbalanced, over-engineered, inefficient or misaligned processes can cause "Organizational inflammation".

In an organization experiencing inflammation, symptoms might include:

  • Excessive energy diverted from Mission to resolving problems

  • Decreased Efficiency

  • Diminished Engagement

  • Long-term Systemic Damage Possible!

By deliberately including positivity and gratitude as part of an organization's culture, we can reverse a number of these inflammatory risk factors. The positivity and gratitude can provide "substrate" which allow for additional improvements in the company's environment. The Gallup 2017 State of the Workplace Report includes some startling data around the impact of engagement, including estimates of lost productivity due to active disengagement totaling between $483 and $605 Billion US dollars lost each year. Positivity and Gratitude cannot recapture all of that, of course, but they can get us moving in the right direction!

The business impact of positivity and gratitude can clearly be significant. Beyond GDP, recent Harvard Business Review article looks at gratitude in the workplace and how it affected ethical decisions. We also know that productivity, sales, accident rates, stress, insurance costs, cardiovascular disease, absenteeism, employee turnover, all are linked to employee disengagement, and positivity and gratitude help reverse those trends.

"You just want everybody to be happy all the time - that's not realistic!"

No kidding! I'm not trying to eradicate negativity. In fact, negative emotions serve a very valuable purpose to our literal survival, and our amygdala has evolved to seek out the negative (check out "The Negativity Bias" for more info) to protect us.

We do have options, though. We can engage in a kind of "competitive exclusion". Much like we might try to colonize our microbiome with beneficial bacteria, we can actively populate our daily lives with positive actions and experiences to help balance out this tendency to look for the negative. Researchers believe it takes three positive experiences to balance out every negative one, and we can use this 3:1 ratio strategically! Dr. Barbara Frederickson talks about this in her book, "Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life".

We can also respond to negativity in a way that fosters positive thinking without invalidating the other person's initial emotions. Peter Bregman's 3-step process is straightforward and easy to implement:

1. Understand how they feel and validate it. This might be hard because it could feel like you’re reinforcing their negative feelings. But you’re not. You’re not agreeing with them or justifying their negativity. You’re simply showing them that you understand how they feel.

2. Find a place to agree with them. You don’t have to agree with everything they’ve said, but, if you can, agree with some of what they’re feeling. If you share some of their frustrations, let them know which.

3. Find out what they are positive about and reinforce it. This doesn’t mean trying to convince them to be positive. It means giving attention to whatever positive feelings they do show — and chances are they will have shown some because it’s unusual to find people who are purely negative. If they are purely negative, then make sure they see you supporting others who have shown positivity. The idea is to give positive attention to positive feeling. And to offer concrete hope. It’s concrete because it’s based on actual positive feelings people already have, rather than harping on positive feelings you think they should have.

(For more information on how to communicate with people on difficult topics, or regular topics with difficult people, I recommend "Crucial Conversations" by Patterson, et. al, and "Nonviolent Communication" by Marshall Rosenberg)

So how can YOU increase positivity in your team, office, or company? You don't have to be an executive or a senior manager to have a huge impact on your organization. Here are some starter ideas, or as I call them, "A Prescription for a Culture of Positivity and Gratitude". Take one or more daily, and repeat often. :)

  • Give positive Reinforcement. “I appreciate the way you...” “You’re great at….” “I enjoy working with you because…” Be specific, and be authentic. People can tell the difference.

  • Show Gratitude. Thank someone. Be specific about what they did and why it was helpful or important – and copy their supervisor! How about a Virtual Gratitude Jar where people can share good experiences? LinkedIn even has a "Kudos" feature where you can publicly recognize someone for their help, attitude or general awesomeness!

  • Smile and Say Hi! We’re programmed to respond positively to smiles. Try greeting twice as many people as usual - and don't forget the custodial staff, or the receptionist!

  • Have Meaningful Conversations. Get to know your colleagues beyond their professional expertise. Be Authentic! Build deeper connections. Social support and connections are leading indicators of success (and longevity!), and you are in complete control of that!

  • Take Walking Meetings …Outside if Possible. Exercise boosts your mood. So does fresh air!

  • Random Acts of Kindness. Leave an anonymous note on somebody's desk thanking them for something. Drop a gift certificate for a free coffee on your collaborator's chair. Bring fruit to the office to share. It doesn't have to be huge to impact others in big ways. (Need ideas? There's a whole group just for that!)

  • Acknowledge Small Wins. A product launch is worth celebrating. So are incremental accomplishments, and they happen more frequently, so you get more opportunities to celebrate the work people are doing!

  • Reward the Hard Stuff. Thank people for broaching difficult subjects and they'll be more likely to do it in the future. Applaud the hard decision to stop work on something that isn't panning out, or isn't adding value. It often takes courage to do the right thing!

By making positivity and gratitude intentional components of your corporate culture, you're creating an environment where people can spend more time doing the things they love, and positioning your company for improved performance and success.

A few additional resources:



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