Previously published on medium.com 13th March 2020
Forcing positivity is hard work. Barbara Ehrenreich’s (2010) personal experience of ‘forced positive emotion in the face of adversity’ seems to be an apt start to considering how to manage the impact of COVID-19 in business. If those positive feelings are not genuine then faking them is detrimental. Let’s not force positivity at this time of enforced isolation but explore how to tap into strengths and opportunities.
The Western view of positive emotions has become generally accepted and aspired to, this view is not universal. Asian cultures value moderation not maximization when it comes to positive emotions, perhaps stemming from the “Buddist belief that pure pleasentness either leads to suffering or is impossible to obtain” (Schimmack et al, 2002). Research showed that Asian populations (first generation) were less likely to have depressive symptoms alleviated by the presence of positive emotions compared with US born Asians and Westerners. The impact of negative emotions had the same impact on all populations in the study. The value of calm, peaceful experiences over high arousal states are more important in the Asian population due to the co-existence of both positive and negative belief’s regarding the over-indulgence of positive emotions.
What about people who have the highly sensitive person trait (HSP)?
A highly sensitive person is more likely to have negative experiences of over-stimulating environments, some of which are associated with positive emotions, and this will result in them withdrawing. So for the sensitive person emotions that are deemed ‘positive’ and highly sought after in the general population may not be so positive for their well-being. They may be inclined towards what is generically — though not necessarily universal — Asian experience of positive emotions.
The working culture in the UK leans towards environments that value, support and champion extroverts who appear to be more resilient in competitive, ‘cheer-leading’, loud environments. Success in environments that have open plan, shared work spaces, stimulating the senses, belongs to extroverts who respond with increased positive emotions. The risks to business is in missing out on the natural abilities of sensitive people to predict/start trends, sense into what needs to happen, the capacity to read a room, accurately measure the emotional temperature and generate ideas based on all of the above. Highly sensitive people do not have to be present at all times to utilise their skills, in fact, limited exposure to the over-stimulating workplace will result in their increased productivity. Quiet time, walking in nature, mindfulness, exposure to art and beauty increase what they contribute in the workplace. Optimal environments that provide space for quiet, where they can control what goes on around them will see them excel and in poor environments they flounder. They are the emotional barometer of your workplace, the canary in the mine. Take notice when they are highlighting issues or when they are not happy, issues left unaddressed will result in disasters further down the road.
The introverts and sensitives in your organisation are the ones who will carry the load much better when they have to work remotely. At this time with enforced isolation you need to connect with your extroverts, the ones who need the stimulation and company in order to be productive — their wellbeing and motivation may decline. Check in, make sure they are getting time with people and see what difference the change in work environment makes to your business. This situation has potential for evolving resilient, flexible businesses with capacity to adapt, change and bounce back when faced with unexpected circumstances beyond your control.
The current situation is an opportunity for introverts and sensitives to shine, you will see how much they bring to your company. Take notice now, this whole process may lead you to change the way you work in the future, if you are lacking neurodiversity in your teams this will be evident. To celebrate, be inclusive and actively engage a truly diverse workforce we need to be mindful of values, socialisation and inherent systemic discrimination. Ensuring there is space for all ways of being, space for people who can share ideas beyond the existing ‘meetings’ format — or the ones that have the loudest voice being heard. We need to run with allowing processes over having defined outcomes, allow space for both extroverts need for positive emotions and highly sensitive people benefitting from quiet, thinking and reflection. A diverse workforce across multiple domains is essential for a sustainable business suitable for the 2020’s.
I like the Swedish term lagom, meaning ‘just the right amount’, the right amount of positive emotion is individually determined and dependent on a broad range of social, trait and cultural influences. The right amount for a flourishing life may be greater for an extrovert when compared with an introvert. More positive emotions are not necessarily best for all. So back to Barbara Ehrenreich (2010), she doesn’t just dismiss the idea of positive thinking, what she is saying is positive illusions do not make for a better reality, acceptance of the good, the bad and the ugly are necessary for a healthy world. Beware of overly optimistic beliefs they appear as “it won’t happen to me” behaviours usually from the same person who is certain they will win £36m on the lottery every week. One foot in the light and one in the dark — lagom — just the right amount of both.