Positive Teams are More Productive

Positive Teams are More Productive, by Emma Seppala
(Harvard Business Review, March 2015)

One of the first things to note about this very short article is that is written by the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Think about the fact that an institution like Stanford values compassion and altruism such that it has established a center dedicated to researching the phenomenon. I don’t think this would have happened a decade ago. I think that it reflects a growing body of research evidence and understanding that attending to the well-being of ourselves and others – in our families, friend groups, organizations and communities – is not just nice to do if we can find the time, but essential to support thriving families, workplaces and communities.

The author draws on research from a number of different sources and suggests that the traditional approaches to increasing productivity – setting plans and goals, streamlining procedures, setting targets, measuring performance or offering incentives and perks – might have their place. However, so does paying attention to the context and culture for the team’s work and how this contributes or detracts from well-being. Citing a study from University of Michigan, she notes that workplaces “characterized by positive and virtuous practices excel in a number of domains.” They increase positive emotions (which helps to build resilience and amplify creativity to solve difficult issues), buffer against negative events and enhance personal and collective resilience, and they attract and bolster employees, including enhancing loyalty and staff commitment to offer their best.

These positive and virtuous practices include:

  • Caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues.
  • Providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling.
  • Avoiding blame and forgive mistakes.
  • Inspiring one another at work.
  • Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work.
  • Treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust & integrity.”

So what creates a climate or culture that is virtuous? The author suggests that leadership is critical. In particular, modelling caring and supportive behaviour in an authentic way. Small steps also make a difference – there doesn’t need to be a grand strategic plan and dedicated resources to encourage a more positive workplace.

Another article that offers some insights here is by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, in which they distil their research into the relationship between authenticity and effective leadership. They found six principles or virtues at work in dream workplaces, in which people are happy and engaged:

  • Individual differences are nurtured
  • Information is not suppressed or spun
  • The organization adds value to staff (through support, supervision, learning and growth opportunities, training, mentorship, etc.)
  • The organization stands for something meaningful
  • The work is intrinsically rewarding
  • There are no stupid rules

The authors note that: “several of the attributes run counter to traditional practices and ingrained habits. Others are, frankly, complicated and can be costly to implement. Some conflict with one another. Almost all require leaders to carefully balance competing interests and to rethink how they allocate their time and attention.” Nonetheless, they issue an invitation to leaders to consider how they might enact some of these virtues in their spheres of influence.

How might your team context and culture stack up against the principles noted above? What small steps might you take as a leader (either by position or influence) to contribute to a greater sense of well-being (and thus productivity, effectiveness, and creativity) in your team?