Positively Productive: 4 Ways Leaders Can Promote Performance Through Positivity in the Workplace

What if we told you that you could make your employees perform better by simply ensuring they experienced positive emotions at work? I can hear the collective eye roll as I say “A happy workplace is a productive workplace” so let’s explore the opposite end of the spectrum first. 

Imagine you work in a company where you consistently fear termination, experience anxiety over deadlines or incur stress because you aren’t exactly sure what you’re supposed to be doing. How motivated are you to be creative with your projects? To go above and beyond? To even show up? More likely than not, you will rush through a few things and do the bare minimum, all while scrolling through videos of unlikely animal friends on social media. 

Negative emotions are the enemy of performance. 

It should come as no surprise that leaders have the ability to shape the culture of a workplace. So what can leaders begin to do to create environments that decrease negative emotions while increasing the positive ones? 

Research has identified these four easy steps:

  1. Set high, yet attainable, goals for employees along with the fundamental support needed to attain them (that last part is critical)

  2. Set clear boundaries, but with collaboration and consideration of individuals’ unique situations and needs across job functions

  3. Be responsive to the needs of employees as they arise by setting aside short but effective amounts of time to listen and develop solutions

  4. When course correction or feedback is necessary, provide it in a supportive rather than punitive way, coming from a mindset of curiosity and development rather than emotional states like frustration or anger.

A.J. Martin (2005)

Productive behaviors such as discussing goals, exploring resources and doing new and creative activities are correlated with positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2001 Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Izard, 1977; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Lewis, 1993).  An employee who works in a culture where they feel supported with a sense of freedom and respect at work will be more likely to suggest new (maybe million dollar) ideas to their supervisors, seek input on projects and problem solve difficult tasks. In other words, they will be exponentially more productive.  On the other hand, negative emotions are correlated with a decrease in the way a person is able to think and act (Lazarus, 1991; Levenson, 1994).  Think fight or flight; when you experience states of stress similar to, say, running from an angry bear, how likely is it that you will be capable of thinking about ways to improve upon old systems at work or opportunities for self-improvement? At the point of high stress, survival is the priority, not business-essential behaviors like innovation or high performance. 

If a leader becomes the angry bear (i.e., a signal for punishment), they influence a culture of fear, dread and anxiety. It is likely that employees will seek these leaders out for very little and do just enough to not get chased out the door. 

By using these simple yet effective strategies, leaders can begin to avoid the culture trap of breeding negative emotions and crippling creativity. A leader can instead create a workplace that thrives on the positive things, such as collaboration and resourcefulness. So while “a happy work place is a productive work place” may not be the next best-selling bumper sticker, hopefully these concepts stick in your mind as a memo to promote productivity through the behaviors above that are shown to produce positive emotions and greater outcomes.

While this takes self-awareness, emotional management and the ability to articulate and focus on your people, these are all behaviors that can be learned. Go ahead and try it, we believe in you (virtual thumbs up).

Csikszentmihalyi M. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. HarperPerennial; New York: 1990.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American psychologist, 56(3), 218.

Izard CE. Human emotions. Plenum; New York: 1977.

Lewis M. Self-conscious emotions: Embarrassment, pride, shame, and guilt. In: Lewis M, Haviland JM, editors. Handbook of emotions. Guilford Press; New York: 1993. pp. 563–573.

Martin, A. J. (2005). The role of positive psychology in enhancing satisfaction, motivation, and productivity in the workplace. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 24(1-2), 113-133.

Ryan RL, Deci EL. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist. 2000;55:68–78

Gianna Biscontini