The Power of Broadcasting Happiness

New research from the front lines shows that not only is it possible to broadcast positive messages to raise business outcomes such as engagement, performance, and profitability, but that there is a scientifically based way to do it to more effectively get your message across

After my keynote at the Training 2015 Conference & Expo in Atlanta, it was clear that many of the leaders in charge of learning and human resources were already positive themselves. The challenge comes when trying to broadcast that positive mindset to others at your company to fuel engagement and performance. At a time when many organizations are struggling with high stress loads and low levels of engagement, the key is to sustain the drive of positive leaders while transforming the negative ones from toxic to thriving.

My research at the Institute of Applied Positive Research shows that not only is it possible to broadcast positive messages to raise business outcomes such as engagement, performance, and profitability, but that there is a scientifically based way to do it to more effectively get your message across. This is the focus of my new book coming out this month, “Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change.” Here, I’ll share with you some of the research findings featured in the book and how to apply them to make you even more successful at creating a positive culture at work. Specifically, I’ll focus on two of the seven strategies covered: Activating the 31 and using the Power Lead. But first let me explain why this research is so important in today’s business world.

We need to change the way we talk about change. At the height of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, I was thrust onto the national stage as a news anchor for CBS News. As one who believes journalists are there to serve the public good, I took the responsibility of covering the day’s news very seriously. But as I quickly saw, serious news coverage often gets confused with covering all of the ills facing our world, with only minutes left over to talk about things that already are working well. Leaders at organizations regularly use the same approach during important opportunities to communicate to their teams, including performance reviews, shareholder meetings, and quarterly updates. They mistakenly believe that focusing on the areas for improvement is the best way to create success. That stunts performance instead of spurring it. Focusing disproportionately on the negative can leave us feeling helpless and hopeless. More importantly, we miss out on uncovering valuable information that could help us improve our companies, schools, and families.

At CBS, we changed our story and got the biggest viewer response of the year. Instead of simply covering heart-wrenching stories of people losing their homes, jobs, and retirement savings, we devoted an entire week of programming to an interview series called Happy Week. With the help of positive psychology authors and researchers, we discussed actionable strategies to foster happiness in the midst of challenges. Prompted by the potential I saw to spark change by shifting our story, I traded in my anchor desk at CBS News for a research lab at the University of Pennsylvania to study news media and happiness while earning a Master’s in Positive Psychology. What I quickly came to realize is that we all possess the same power broadcasters have to create positive change in the world.

We are all broadcasters. And what we choose to broadcast predicts our success. All of us constantly broadcast information to others, even when we don’t say a word. Sales professionals broadcast to potential clients in a way that wins new business. Managers broadcast to their teams about projects. Colleagues broadcast to one another about available resources. Trainers broadcast a new way to see our workday and approach challenges. As parents, we broadcast to our children how to understand their experience on the playground. The messages we choose to broadcast shape others’ beliefs in the potential for success and their ability to see positive change. In business, positive change is created when we take a realistic assessment of challenges while maintaining a belief that success is possible and showcasing previous wins, available resources, and meaningful results. As leaders, our messages can move others from paralysis to activation. At UBS, we saw the incredible value of broadcasting a new story about stress. Our team trained a group of stressed-out managers how to rethink stress in a novel way so they could leverage it instead of mentally flee from it. It’s a method different from any training you typically might receive in a stress management seminar. Instead of focusing on all the negative effects of stress and how to deal with them, we walked half of the tax audit managers through the research that shows how stress can enhance performance and how to leverage stress when it strikes. Four months later during the busy tax season, compared to the other group that received the standard training, these managers reported a 23 percent drop in stress-related symptoms, including headaches, backaches, and fatigue. By changing their story about stress, they were able to channel it in a way that increased performance.

Negative people need not always win the battle for culture. When I give talks at companies, I’m often asked, “Which is more powerful, a positive person or a negative one?” Is the dark side stronger than the light? We can scientifically answer this, but it’s not the answer you expect. A study done at the University of California, Riverside, shows that when it comes to emotional contagion, it’s not the most negative person in the room who brings everybody down—instead it’s the person who expresses his or her emotions to other people the most. The unfortunate reality is that often the people who are the most expressive are also more anxious or frustrated. This is why it is exceptionally important to activate the positive people in the room and get them to express their optimistic mindset and positive emotions to “infect” those around them.

Most people wishing to construct a more positive working culture do an all-out attack on the most negative person, get frustrated, and then stop trying. There is a better approach. Instead of trying to quiet the most negative, you can activate a special set of broadcasters to overpower their message. These broadcasters are crucial, because when they speak in favor of something—which they don’t do often—everyone really listens. They are called the Hidden 31, and they are one of the biggest keys to broadcasting happiness.

In a cross-industry research study with Training magazine, we asked more than 660 professionals from a range of industries, “How expressive of your optimism or pessimism are you at work?” Some 31 percent of respondents said they were positive but not expressive of it at work. That means that one in three people are “hidden broadcasters.” They are one step short of being positive broadcasters; they are already positive, but you need to turn on their broadcasting tower. The most important step in building an army of positive broadcasters is finding out who is in your personal “31” and activating them. You can do it a number of ways, from formal surveys to informal conversations. Talk to the people you know and figure out where they stand on a topic and how expressive they are of their approval or disapproval. Instead of going guns blazing after the biggest detractors and the most Negative Norms, try inciting the hidden broadcasters in your life to become outwardly aligned with the positive. This will tip the balance of power in a culture from negative or neutral to positive.

The power lead is the fastest way to reset a culture at work and make it more positive—and it takes just seconds. The power lead is a positive, optimistic, and inspiring beginning to a conversation or other communication that sets the tone for the ensuing social script. The technique is one of the most crucial steps to motivate a team, connect more deeply with colleagues, or set the stage for higher levels of creativity because it helps our brains focus on growth-producing areas. Since humans are socialized to mimic one another, the people you are connecting with often reciprocate the positive nature of a power lead as you continue to connect. Your power lead can focus on recent wins, available resources, good news, or simply something meaningful about your own life. The best power lead I ever came across was a question.

At my first job out of college, my boss would ask me right off the top of our conversation in a caring but serious tone, “What is one awesome thing you did—no matter how small—at work in the last week?”

In the beginning, I couldn’t come up with anything. I would panic. Literally all that would pop into my head was “Ummm, I showed up to work?” It was a simple question, but in order to answer it, my brain had to furiously scan my actions throughout the past week for even the tiniest achievements. Because I usually just stood there tongue-tied, my boss would offer an action she had observed me doing: staying late to help a colleague, a small good idea at our last team meeting, writing a few lines of code that would be used in the next software version. Her simple beginning to all our interactions trained me to look for positive moments from my workday during which my behavior mattered and caused me to identify meaningful moments in my workday that were valuable and led to my success. Not to mention, it also showed me that someone saw the good in me and cared about my performance. Talk about good fuel at work!

You can start conversations by telling others about a recent success from your division, meetings with praise for one or two team members, and e-mails with a pleasantry such as “Hope you had a nice weekend!” At one company, simply adding in one power lead of praise to one person on the team led to a 31 percent jump in productivity for the entire team. Reorienting employees’ brains to the positive can be like a shot in the arm and push them toward achieving their goals quicker.

The problem with many development programs is that you’re preaching to the choir with some people in the room, while the ones who really need to hear the information are absent or disengaged. That is why we often battle-test our research and try to get results with the most skeptical or challenging groups. If we can get results with them, we know we are getting the message across. For example, Gary Baker, the president of Nationwide Brokerage Services (NBS), initially resisted positive psychology training at his company. He said he is a “numbers guy” and seemed to think of happiness talk at work as fluff. So we showed him the numbers—in particular how by quantifying positive change, he can bend the bottom line. He decided to take a gamble and try the program. Just a few years after the start of the Orange Frog Happiness Advantage training program, NBS’ revenues went from $350 million to more than $1 billion. Baker fully credits it to putting happiness research into practice at his company.

Nationwide is just one of many companies at the vanguard of the positive psychology revolution that are successfully broadcasting positive change to achieve tangible business results, including higher levels of engagement, performance, and profitability. New research from the field of positive psychology shows that small shifts in the way we communicate as leaders, managers, and colleagues to sustain that positive culture can generate 31 percent higher productivity, 25 percent better performance ratings, 37 percent higher sales, and 23 percent lower levels of stress. Getting the brain to positive is key, but that is just the first step. Creating a culture that supports the continual expression of an optimistic, resilient mindset creates a renewable source of motivation and boosts long-term engagement. 

As someone at the center of developing talent and creating culture at your company, you are perfectly poised to be one of the most influential sparks of positive change. You do that by first recognizing your power to broadcast happiness.