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Managers Can Use Positivity to Boost Employee Well-Being


Thu Nov 29 2018

Managers Can Use Positivity to Boost Employee Well-Being

Early in my corporate career, my boss emailed me two spreadsheets with over 500 lines of data with a request that I merge them and have it ready for her the next morning. She sent this message at the end of the day, so I had no way of asking her how to do this, the context of the project, or the level of urgency in getting it done.

I stayed past 11 p.m. manually merging because I didn’t know any better. I realized that this could take hours, and there must be a better way, but I didn’t know how, and nobody was around to ask. I left before midnight, came back the next morning, and told my manager that I hadn’t finished it. She was angry.


We can probably all tell dramatic stories of terrible bosses—hopefully with a sense of humor in hindsight. (My sister once had a manager who threw his shoes at her!) We also most likely have less dramatic stories of bosses who were not the best: the boss who looks at your work and fails to affirm your intelligence; the boss who takes credit for your work; or the boss who always expects you to work on weekends.

People leave managers, not jobs. In a Gallup poll of more than 1 million people, the number one reason people leave their jobs is having a bad manager.

But here’s the thing: Managers shape our jobs. So, people leave managers and jobs.

As you tend to the relationship with your manager and your direct reports, focus on both your relationship and how you shape work that is fulfilling to your direct reports.

When you think about what kind of manager you want to be and what kind of manager you want to develop in your organization, I invite you to broaden the scope to what kind of person you want to be—and to consider that you have the power to raise well-being in your interactions to create a more human and caring work environment. This will also have a positive ripple effect on relationships and interactions you and your colleagues have outside of work.


Infusing your relationships with well-being not only feels good, it raises performance, productivity, creativity, collaboration, and retention. It gives people enthusiasm for their work, their workplace, and their work relationships.

My working definition of well-being is the positive energy, joy, and sense of belonging you feel while in pursuit of your purpose. There are many strategies, supported by research, that managers can use to increase well-being in their relationships with their direct reports. Here, I offer one strategy: positivity.


Positivity researcher Barbara Frederickson has identified that an approximate 3:1 ratio of positivity is needed to support high-functioning teams and relationships. To reap the performance benefits of positivity, for every bit of negativity, offer three positive, uplifting, and affirming experiences to your direct report.

Create and execute your work from a well of positivity. When your body is flooded with serotonin and dopamine, you feel a sense of safety. This boosts your performance, strengthens neural connections, helps you think faster, and strengthens your relationships.

In contrast, when stressed, we go into fight-or-flight mode, and cortisol pumps through your body, signaling alarm. Your body cannot safely collaborate, create, and learn. Instead, you narrow your focus and narrow possible solutions.


I invite you to flood yourself and others around you with positivity. Bring positivity into your role as manager, whether you manage yourself as an individual contributor or entrepreneur or you manage direct reports. Here are some ideas:

  • Try the 3:1 positivity ratio. Let it be an experiment. Look for the good in every situation—the learning opportunity, the progress, and the growth. Express positivity to yourself, your direct reports, and your manager every day.

  • Go on a criticism diet. One day at a time, refrain from criticism. There are always ways to improve and grow, and healthy feedback can uplift people and performance. Keep on sharing honest feedback—be sure to express it with the belief that you or your direct report can grow, improve, and make a positive impact in the future, and have an open conversation together about strategies and support for how this can happen.

  • Show genuine gratitude. Go beyond “Thank you,” and be specific and emotionally honest. Studies show gratitude strengthens relationships and leads to reciprocal generosity. Look for the good in a work project or relationship, and make a point to share your gratitude.

  • Look for learning opportunities. Learning is empowering, interesting, and leads to growth. It leads people to higher performance. Help your direct reports experiment and show them you are willing to invest in their potential. Ask questions in one-on-one and team meetings like, “What did you learn from that?” or “What are you learning as you work on this challenge?”

  • Know each of your direct reports’ strengths, and do your part to affirm and encourage those strengths. Design work and development opportunities that give them the opportunity to play to their strengths.

You can create the kind of world you’d like within the ecosystems of your workplace, starting with your relationships with your direct reports and your boss. What kind of person do you want to be, and what kind of world are you creating for your employees and yourself when you infuse positivity into how you manage?

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