What comes to mind when you think about the phrases positive climate or positive emotions at work? You may have a range of thoughts going through your mind. You may be thinking it’s about you making your team happy all the time. Or that you need to be working in an environment where no one says anything negative anymore. Or maybe you’re now wondering whether creating a positive climate means having to play games at work all day. Are these guesses any close to what was going through your mind?
I won’t lie, I truly appreciate my boss for bringing both jokes and games to the team catch-up we have every Friday – they definitely contribute to creating a positive climate. But there’s a lot more that goes into creating a positive environment at work. And I hope the content that follows will convince you that there’s value in striving to make this one of your aims.
What does ‚positive climate‘ at work mean?
In a nutshell, when you create a positive climate at work, there are more positive emotions than negative ones. This translates into less stress and anxiety, less distrust and distress, and overall, less dissatisfaction. On the other side of the coin, you have more optimism, cheerfulness, and increased well-being.
Working in a positive climate is good for the organisation because “conditions that foster positive emotions lead to optimal individual and organisational functioning” (Cameron, 2012, p. 25).
Off the top of your head, can you name ten positive emotions? According to Fredrickson, 2013, chances are that it’s easier for you to name ten negative ones. And yet, positive emotions include so much more than simply feeling good or happy. The illustration below shows some of the positive emotions we experience frequently.
Had you ever thought about any of those in the context of your work? Probably only about some.
The link between emotions and behaviours
All emotions stem from how we think about our situation. If we judge our current circumstances and events favourably, then we experience positive emotions. For example, we may feel:
- Gratitude when we receive a gift or benefit.
- Pride when we accomplish a socially valuable achievement.
- Inspiration when we witness human excellence.
- Hope when we yearn for better (even though we fear the worst).
- Interest when circumstances are judged safe and new.
So our thoughts determine our emotions, which, in turn, influence our behaviours and how we show up in the world.
- Gratitude sparks a creative urge to be prosocial.
- Pride allows us to dream big.
- Inspiration encourages us to strive towards higher grounds.
- Hope makes us plan for the future.
- And interest lets us explore and learn.
This is significant because, as researcher Fredrickson, 2013 found, all these behaviours help us build crucial internal resources. To continue with the above examples:
- Gratitude builds our skills for showing care and increases loyalty and social bonds.
- Pride amplifies our motivation to achieve.
- Inspiration increases our drive for personal growth.
- Hope factors into resilience and optimism.
- And finally, interest builds knowledge.
Now, who wouldn’t want loyal employees who care, are motivated to grow and achieve big goals, accrue vital knowledge, and stay resilient and optimistic in the face of challenges? It’s all possible. But it starts with the climate you create because that’s what influences how people judge their circumstances. And in turn, that makes them experience positive emotions.
The positive outcomes of experiencing positive emotions
According to Diener et al, 2020, experiencing more positive emotions leads to better performance. When we experience pride, we feel empowered. When we’re interested in what we do and the tasks we’re given, we experience work satisfaction. And when we feel grateful in the context of work, we tend to be happy with both our colleagues and our managers.
On the other hand, when we don’t feel grateful, feelings of exhaustion and not feeling connected can easily creep in.
Also according to Diener et al, 2020, we can actively change the quality of an experience by regulating positive emotions. In other words, we can choose positive behaviours, by “being present and paying attention to current positive moments” and “capitalizing on positive events through celebration.”
Positive emotions lead to positive outcomes because:
- When we feel positive emotions, we’re more attentive, more creative, and can think more broadly (more ‚big picture thinking‘). We also get to make more accurate cognitive decisions and display better judgement. Plus, we’re less likely to shy away from any new and challenging situations.
- We “engage in novel and larger behavioral repertoires.” This means we are more willing to try new things. In turn, this gives us opportunities and helps us build new skills. We’re also more likely to engage in health-promoting behaviours, such as eating and sleeping well, exercising, and managing our stress better. On top of that, we also tend to be more collaborative and cooperative.
- Positive emotions are self-perpetuating (i.e. one leads to another). They can also undo the detrimental effects of negative emotions because they are contagious (in the best possible way) and can spread through teams. Just think of how a friendly colleague with a genuine smile can make you feel.
- And finally, positive emotions impact our physiological health. They lead to “greater longevity (Pressman & Cohen, 2005), lower intensity of illness and higher immune resistance (e.g., Boehm & Kubzansky, 2012), and better physiological recovery (e.g., Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998)”)
The personal and interpersonal impact of positive emotions at work
Feeling positive emotions has both a personal and an interpersonal impact. When we look at the individual, positive emotions lead to believing more in ourselves. This, in turn, increases our motivation to work and our performance on the job. It means we set ourselves more ambitious goals and have higher expectations. Plus, it also increases our ability to cope with negative events.
Positive emotions also make us more creative. We’re better at identifying problems, ideating and evaluating solutions, thinking more flexibly, and coming up with product ideas that are novel and useful. We’re also more engaged at work, cope better with challenges and difficult situations, and feel healthier.
When it comes to interpersonal relationships, positive emotions at work lead to increased teamwork and cooperation. This translates to more collaboration with other people, more choices, more trust, and less conflict. It also means better relationships at home and at work because we’re more engaging, more playful, and more fun to be around. We have more shared positive experiences and better communication, but also more satisfied customers, better leadership, and less voluntary turnover.
And finally, both in terms of individuals and teams, we experience better performance and increased career success.
How can leaders create a positive climate in the workplace?
The good news is that as a leader, you can personally induce, develop, and display positive emotions (Cameron, 2012) and therefore contributing to the creation of a positive climate. When people around you experience more positive emotions, you achieve more optimal functioning, better performance, better decision-making, and increased productivity. Plus, a positive climate acts as a social glue.
However, negative emotions can also outweigh the good because they tend to be experienced more intensely. The effects are longer lasting and linger in our memory longer. Negative emotions also often come with a host of downsides. When we feel bad, we tend to become less sociable and can’t cope as well with challenges. In the long run, negative emotions and their effects even take a toll on our health.
Luckily though, experiencing positive emotions can undo some of these consequences. For example, Fredrickson et al (2000) showed that participants who experienced “anxiety-induced cardiovascular reactivity” and then watched films that induced positive emotions “produced faster cardiovascular recovery” than those who watched neutral or sad films.
So should we only talk about positive emotions? Not really. It’s important to avoid getting into a state of toxic positivity. Because “no emotion is universally ‚good‘ or ‚bad‘ but its value is context-dependent.” For example, anger can lead to prosocial functions and behaviours when it’s generated by a sense of wrongdoing, injustice, or unfairness. And shame can also lead to positive prosocial and reparative actions, including self-improvement (Diener et al, 2020).
The impact of negative emotions on your team
Negative events might be a threat to the positive climate we want to create at work, so, as leaders, we need to be mindful of them. As your team is working on a project, for example, they should be mindful of any risks, difficulties, and problems that may arise, so they can address them head-on.
Likewise, if we’re disappointed because a colleague let us down, feel hurt when a senior leader lashed out at us, or feel sad when we didn’t achieve an outcome we were hoping for, there needs to be room for experiencing these emotions. This is important because it helps us process what’s happening. And it’s only through doing that that we can then make wiser decisions in the future, muster up the courage to hold colleagues to account, find a new boss with better people skills, or learn from the mistakes we made so we can do better next time.
Plus, even in the context of work, we’re human beings first and foremost. So suppressing or bottling up feelings will probably backfire at some point. We’re better off learning to process emotions in a more productive way, rather than merely acting them out. The great news is that, as a leader, you can always “choose to emphasise the uplifting and flourishing side of organisational life, even in the face of difficulty.” (Cameron, 2012, p. 30)
Practical steps to create a positive climate at work
Encourage and instill compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude
Kim Cameron, (2012) describes these as key activities to foster a positive climate citing research he did in small, medium, and large firms as well as not-for-profit organisations. The research showed that “when leaders fostered compassionate behaviour among employees, enabled forgiveness for missteps and mistakes, and encouraged frequent expressions of gratitude, organisations’ profitability, productivity, quality, innovation, customer satisfaction, and employee retention were significantly higher than in other organisations.” (Cameron, 2012, p. 33)
Here are three steps to encourage and instill more compassion in your team:
- Noticing. Encourage team members to share both personal and work struggles if they feel comfortable doing so. Ask everyone to be on the lookout for others who might need help and enquire about obstacles during performance conversations.
- Feeling. Create space for team members to express their compassionate feelings and share what you feel compassionate about. This can be done in meetings or through written communication.
- Responding. Based on the above, take organised action.
To encourage and instill more forgiveness in your team:
- Never respond to an offense by initiating downsizing, cutbacks, or making unethical decisions based on violated trust. Don’t hold a grudge or seek retaliation. Instead, aim to neutralise angry or judgemental feelings and replace negative emotions with positive ones.
- Always take what happened seriously but don’t let it poison the future. Acknowledge any negative experiences of your team members and help them see these as an opportunity to move forward into a more positive future.
- Show your team that they’re part of something bigger. This helps them shift the focus from themselves and see how they might give value to someone.
- “Maintain high standards and communicate the fact that forgiveness is not synonymous with tolerance for error, lowered expectations, forgetting the offense, or minimising the consequences from harm.” (Cameron, 2012, p. 38). Instead, it’s about not dwelling on things and using our brain space to work towards solutions and improvements.
- Help your team members see the person behind the event. This way, both those who offended and those who suffered can move past it.
- Use words that create forgiving worlds, such as reconciliation, compassion, humility, courage, love, and caring.
And finally, to instill more gratitude in your team:
- Actively encourage ‘gratitude visits’ where team members go to another person (either in your team or another one) to express their gratitude.
- During team meetings, ask people to share what they’re grateful for.
- Or leave a handwritten gratitude card on your team member’s desk.
Savouring is an interesting construct because it can deepen and prolong our experience of positive emotions. By looking forward to something we’ve planned, being truly present in the moment, and immersing ourselves in memories of past events, help your team members savour what’s true, good, and possible in their lives by asking appreciative questions (McQuaid & Kern, 2018). For example,
- What’s working well right now?
- What’s been the highlight of your week so far?
- Or what are you looking forward to in the coming months?
When people answer these questions, be sure to respond actively and constructively by truly listening, being genuinely interested to learn more, and asking open follow-up questions.
How you and your team members interpret events matters. You can paint anything black if you want. But then you’ll feel miserable and suffer the consequences of those perpetuated negative emotions. For example, you’ll be faced with a workplace where everyone dreads Monday and negative emotions spill over to the family dinner table and lead us to be unable to sleep at night. And in the long run, this may even increase your risk for physical illness.
Or, you can choose to learn to think about both successes and failures in a way that creates a positive climate with all the desired effects (Seligman, 2006). The table below shows how an event can be interpreted in different ways – through an optimistic lens or a pessimistic one.
|Optimistic interpretation||Pessimistic (or helpless) interpretation|
|Successes and other good events.|
For example, the successful completion of a project.
|Permanent, pervasive, and personal.|
This has been one of many successes over the past years, and there are more to come. I can build on our strengths, skills, and strategies and be successful in other parts of work and life, too. I’ve contributed so much to this success.
|Temporary, specific, and created by external causes.|
This was a one-time situation where this happened. I’ll never be able to do this again. It also says nothing about my ability to succeed in other parts of life. And I just got lucky. This is no reflection of my skills or capabilities.
|Failures and other negative events.|
For example, a major mess-up that delayed a project and increased costs.
|Temporary, specific, and created by external causes.|
Ok, this time I made a mistake. But the other projects are going fine. Even though I did my best, I lacked vital information to make the right decision. I’ll work to correct my mistakes.
|Permanent, pervasive, and personal.|
This always happens in our projects – I could’ve bet on it. Everything else is turning to sh*t, too. I’m such a failure, no point in even trying anymore.
|Result.||We believe we can change our situation and feel inspired to take action. We give ourselves a pep talk when faced with adversity or obstacles and keep pushing forward. In the long run, we benefit from more success at work, better health and relationships, and an overall better quality of life.||We think that the situation is beyond our control and don’t take action. We give up too soon when faced with adversity or obstacles. Negative self-talk and rumination might impact our sleep, impair our health and lead to depression, anxiety and stress.|
With that being said, there’s a time and a place for realistic pessimists to raise their concerns and doubts. And with their help, the team can learn from mistakes or mitigate risks by thinking things through from all angles rather than acting too impulsively and tripping over their own enthusiasm.
So what will you do to create a more positive climate at work?