Virtually none of us, no matter what our personality type or upbringing, are naturally skilled at taking in positive experiences.
Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist whose work we’ve been sharing for many years. He talks about the brain’s negativity bias, and how we’ve evolved to be “Velcro” for negative experiences and “Teflon” for positive ones. Here’s the essential backstory. Our ancestors’ brains evolved to survive on the savanna, and biology changes very slowly. Our brains are likely very similar to those who lived 50,000 years ago or more. At that time it was biologically adaptive to be worried and wary all the time. Let’s say that I looked over to my left and thought, “Hmmm., that could be a saber-toothed tiger or that could be a rock.” If I concluded, “Oh, it’s all good, why worry, it’s probably just a rock,” now and then it really was a saber-toothed tiger, and I didn’t get to pass on my genetics. Happy-go-lucky meant happy-get-eaten! On the other hand, if I thought, “Oh no, oh no, it must be a saber-toothed tiger, escape! Escape!” then even if I was wrong most of the time, I was right some of the time, and I got to pass on my genetics. Hence the development of our negativity bias. The more we focused on what could go wrong, rather than on what might be right, the longer we lived and the more likely we gave birth to children with the same bias.
What does this mean in practical terms? When negative things happen they stick like Velcro. It doesn’t take any effort. Even worse, our brains secrete stress hormones which strengthen those memories being implanted. On the other hand, when positive things happen, they don’t stick. They actually slip off our brains like Teflon. They don’t get internalized.
What happens when you and/or your team have worked really hard to get a positive result? You’ve put in the extra effort, collaborated, and actually succeeded at something? Even if someone acknowledges the quality of the work (which, as you know, is sadly missing from most organizational cultures), you probably don’t internalize the benefit from that. When we work with leaders, we sometimes use this metaphor: You’ve worked so hard, prepared a meal, it’s in front of you, but you actually never eat and then digest it. Even if you’re aware of the positives, they don’t go from short-term to long-term memory or, as Hanson writes, they don’t go from activation to installation.
Teams need to do after-action reviews where they focus on what they did well, individually and collectively, both to increase resilience and to build on what they did well in their next projects.
Why is it so important to learn to take in the good? It builds resilience against the inevitable things that go wrong in life. It’s like putting money in the bank and then having a positive balance, so we’re better prepared for life’s withdrawals. Resilience allows us to be less “thrown” when life presents something negative. It reduces our stress levels and increases our overall life satisfaction.
How do we consciously take in the good? What can help this process?
- It takes 12–15 seconds of focused attention. Think of two long, slow, deep breaths. That’s not a long time, but it really matters. The longer the better.
- If it’s something that happened in the past, recall the memory vividly. Perhaps it’s a memory of someone acknowledging the contribution you made. Remember it as if it’s happening, right now.
- Use as many of your senses as possible. What did you see? Hear? Feel?
- Breathe the positive into your body. Imagine parts of your body are thirsty, and you’re taking in the purest and most sparkling of waters. Or be aware of any internal beliefs such as not being good enough, or smart enough, or competent enough, and allow what you’re taking in to counteract those beliefs. Allow what you’re taking in to soothe and heal.
- Take in what was important about what you did. Who and what was impacted? What contribution was made? For example, if you had a positive interaction with a direct report, visualize how that person felt, and those who would then be impacted in a positive way by that person’s enhanced mood or engagement. Think of the likely cascading positive ripples from what you did. Consciously breathe that in.
If you practice taking in the good, then you can assist others in doing the same. You can tell them what you’re learning. Then, if you give some acknowledgment and they brush it off, you can invite them to just take two or three deep breaths and internalize what you’ve said. And then, afterward, you can also internalize the positive impact you had on that person! It becomes contagious.
Very few teams do active reflections on work they’ve done (after action reviews). Even when they do, they may acknowledge what went well and lessons learned, but they almost never take time to really take in what they did, collectively and individually, that was really positive. Doing so can have a huge impact on team or organizational culture.
Awareness of the power of culture/context is also really important in building resilience. Leaders tend to take too much responsibility for any negative results that occur, rather than being aware of how they were impacted by what we call their “Pond” (please see this article for details), or the context(s) in which they work. They blame themselves, rather than using Circles of Influence and identifying what was within their control, within their influence, or out of their control.
When we consciously take in the positives we build resilience, internal resources that help us cope with the inevitable setbacks of life. This is one of the important reasons for having an active practice of daily reflection. When you set an intention at the beginning of the day, and then reflect on what actually happened at the end of the day, it provides an opportunity to take-in-the-good.
An active practice of reflection is critically important in building leadership capacity. This is the ability to lead more effectively in times of increasing VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and rapid change. Please see our article about the crucial distinction between leadership capacity and leadership competencies. Regular cycles of action and reflection gradually build the new neural pathways that allow us to think and then act differently. But this is only if our reflection is skillful. It’s important to ask, “Who is reflecting?” Is it the compassionate inner observer or the toxic inner critic? The compassionate inner observer focuses on what we did well, and the positive impact it had on others. This builds resilience.
We encourage you to have a daily practice of consciously taking in the positives in your life, and be pleasantly surprised at how that impacts you.
Clear Impact Consulting Group is Dr. Sandra L. Hill and Dr. Joel M. Rothaizer, MCC. Our work includes executive coaching, organizational/team consulting, and leadership development. Please feel free to contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org, 780–430–0714.