Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Heard Any Good News Lately?

I’ve been looking into the field of positive psychology lately, participating in a pilot program and reviewing some of the research.

For the regular readers of Great Leadership, who have gotten to know my “no nonsense” pragmatic approach to leadership development, this may come as somewhat of a surprise. I’m also personally not the touchy feely type, so this has been a bit of a stretch for me.

This is not some wacky leadership development flavor of the month. I’ve been impressed with what I’ve learned, and think a lot of it can be applied to leadership. In a very practical way, of course. (-:

Here’s one aspect of positive psychology: How you react to someone’s good news can hurt or improve the relationship.

When an employee (or a peer, or anyone) comes to you with good news, how do you respond? Do they walk away feeling satisfied, inspired, and motivated? As leaders, that’s what we strive for, right? Or do they walk away feeling de-motivated?

You may be surprised to discover you may be wasting an opportunity – even worse, harming the relationship – and not even realizing it. Let’s dig a little into positive psychology to find out why.

Shelly Gable, who is an associate professor of psychology at University of California, Santa Barbara, works on the positive psychology of love and marriage. Most psychologists who research marriage work on problems. They focus on how a couple responds when something bad happens.

Gable takes a different approach. She works on what makes a marriage great, and her approach can apply to anybody who wants to improve a relationship – at work or at home.

Here’s an example to illustrate the concept. How you would respond if your significant other tells you that he or she has just been promoted?

1. Do you react enthusiastically (active-constructive)? "Hey, that’s fantastic news! You must be so proud. How about if we go out and celebrate tonight?”

2. Do you point out the potential problems or down sides of the good event (active-destructive)? "Uh oh, does that mean you’re going to be working longer hours and traveling more?"

3. Do you say little, but convey that you are happy to hear the news (passive-constructive)? "That’s great, honey."

4. Do you seem uninterested (passive-destructive)? "What’s for dinner?"

She calls the first category "Capitalizing," - amplifying the pleasure of the good situation and contributing to an upward spiral of positive emotion. Capitalizing turns out to be the key to strong relationships.

Here’s some more of “the science”: University of Washington researcher John Gottman found that partners in satisfying marriages say at least five times as many positive things to each other as negative things.

Let’s take this back to the workplace and leadership. How do you think your employees would describe your typical responses to their good news?

1. Active/Constructive
My manager usually reacts to my good news enthusiastically – sometimes even more excited than I initially was. I’m often encouraged to “relive the moment”, and he/she takes the time to listen and ask questions.

2. Passive/Constructive
My manager doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but I’m pretty sure is happy for me.

3. Active/Destructive
My manager often finds a problem with my good news – the glass is always only half full.

4. Passive/Destructive
Sometimes I get the impression my manager isn’t paying attention or just doesn’t care much.

As a leader, every interaction with your employees is an opportunity to inspire and motivate. We tend to spend a lot of time teaching managers how to deliver bad news, deal with conflict, deliver constructive feedback, and solve employee concerns.

How about if we discipline ourselves to respond in a positive way to good news? It sounds so easy, but trust me, it's not.

Try it out, and see what happens. What have you got to lose?


Bret Simmons said...

Dan, can you share more about the pilot program you are working on? Bret

Dan McCarthy said...

Bret –
You can learn more about how these programs work by checking out

Tom Glover said...

One of my takeaways from this is the damage we can do when we don't pay attention to those around us. I thinking of times when we're just too busy with our own stuff and don't adequately pay attention.

I can picture times where my own responses ran the gamut from Passive/Constructive, to Passive/Destructive and Active/Destructive. At the time, the response doesn't seem intentional and with more time to process the information I may think of a more Active/Constructive response, but at that point the moment has passed and the damage is done.

This reminds me that the impact we have can be based on how much attention we pay.

Unknown said...

Great post!! I agree that a positive reaction to someone's good news can improve the relationship because it happens all the time, but I think what we have to learn is how to keep ourself being positive. A positive attitude is a strong power to deal with different kinds of problems, but it's not easy to keep a positive attitude all the time. Thinking about how many times we don't react enthusiastically or happily when we heard a good news from our co-worker because of too busy? Sun-Hua

Unknown said...

Hi Dan,

I found it particularly interesting in how they compare a marriage to a career. This is really true since both require so much work to be successful. Also both are things that become part of our everyday lives. I also think that it is true that you have to react positively and enthusiastically to good news because it shows that you care. With an employee, I think that it creates a more personal relationship which is good because it shows that you are not just some co-working robot that’s only working with someone because you have to and are paid to. I would honestly be interested in how to react to bad news as well though.

Anonymous said...

I think active/constructive responses are very important. I do it all the time. I am a supervisor and I believe it encourages more positives. I try to encourage people to go back to school and back to the gym and get healthy. As for my boss, I told him I was going to business school and he was really excited for me and he can't wait until I am done, so I can take his job. He asks me about school all the time and encourages me. I would be fine without his active/constructive responses, but it is nice to get.

Unknown said...

Hi Dan,

Thanks for the feedback that I am not a big old dork! Well, that is not quite what you said, but sometimes my enthusiastic response is met with raised eyebrows. Most of the time people have become accustomed to a muted response to good news (although the same cannot be said about bad news). Being active constructive is a huge help in being supportive of others and building trusting relationships with coworkers. I always knew how powerful this is, but now you have given me the language, and resources, to describe it to others.



Dan McCarthy said...

Tom -
Thanks. I'll bet we can all look back and think of times when we could have been more active/constructive, without really realizing how much it can hurt.

Sun-Hua -
Thanks, right , it doesn't take any more time, we just need to be aware of it.

Siraj -
Sure, relationships matter, they drive results at work.

Greg -
Good for you! Sounds like a good boss you have there.

N -
LOL!! That made my day. You are welcome.

Wally Bock said...

Mary Jo Asmus' post on "Choosing" is a good companion to this post.