Positive Emotions: The Broaden and Build Model

What good are positive emotions in the workplace? This is a question scientists have studied well. Research actually points us to two good reasons to encourage positivity as a leader.

Unlike negative emotions, which narrow our focus with respect to possible actions, positive emotions achieve the opposite: They open us. Positivity expands our social, physical and cognitive resources.

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, has conducted extensive research in this area. She outlines her “broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions” in Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity and Thrive (Crown Archetype, 2009).

Dr. Fredrickson suggests that positive emotions (enjoyment, happiness, joy, interest and anticipation) broaden our awareness and encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions. Over time, this expanded behavioral repertoire helps us build skills and resources.

In contrast, negative emotions prompt narrow, immediate, survival-oriented behaviors. For example, anxiety sparks a primal fight-or-flight response, which we needed to survive during our caveman days. When anxious, we narrow our focus to shut out distractions—important for cavemen, but often counterproductive in business.

On the other hand, positive emotions take your mind off stressors. Over time, the skills and resources you have built through broadened awareness serve to enhance your professional survival. They are essential for innovation, customer service and employee engagement.

Dr. Fredrickson conducted studies in which participants watched films that induced either positive (amusement, contentment), negative (fear, sadness) or no emotions. Viewers who experienced positive emotions showed heightened levels of creativity, inventiveness and “big picture” perceptual focus.

Dr. Fredrickson emphasizes two core truths about positive emotions, they broaden and they build:

  1. They open our hearts and minds, making us more receptive and creative.
  2. Consequently, we can discover and build new skills, ties, knowledge and ways of being.

What do you think about this theory? What have you noticed in your own work situations when you’ve experienced genuinely positive emotions?

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