Positive psychology on Agile teams

Everyone, including Agile team members, can benefit from the power of positive thinking. The keynote speaker at this year’s Agile 2011 conference, Barbara Fredrickson, explained how positive psychology relates to success in Agile development, including increasing creativity, performance and decision making abilities.

"Talking for an hour about positive emotions can seem kind of frivolous," noted Positivity author Barbara Fredrickson as she delivered the August 9th keynote at the Agile 2011 conference. However, she quickly noted that despite the serious issues that we all face, positive emotions have been proven to “open us up,” allowing us to experience increased awareness, more possibilities, more creativity, more resilience, better performance...

and to make better decisions. Fredrickson’s keynote revealed some interesting information about positive psychology and how we can use that information to improve how we work in an Agile environment.

Parallels between the Agile movement and positive psychology

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Agile Manifesto. The conference featured a reunion of 15 of the 17 authors of the Manifesto who spoke of the history of the meeting and the importance of having a faith and trust in people.

Fredrickson noted that right around the same time, there was a big movement towards positive psychology. She joked that the manifesto that was crafted for positive psychology was not nearly as pithy as the Agile Manifesto, but that it, too, stressed the importance of people and that in being positive, people are able to thrive and be successful.

Scientific proof that positive emotions increase awareness

Fredrickson described some of the experiments that scientists have been using to prove the benefits of positive emotions. “Brain science shows that positive emotions expand our awareness and minds,” she said. She described experiments in which the scientists first “inject positive emotions” into subjects in ways such as giving them surprise gifts, showing them “happy” pictures, playing pleasant music. Then the subjects are asked to look at pictures and answer question about what they see.

By studying the subject’s eyes , brains, and the answers they give, the scientists have a lot of data to indicate that those subjects who have been first exposed to positive emotions are more aware of their surroundings and are better able to focus.

Positive emotions unlock “other-focused” thinking

Fredrickson said that the positive emotions also allowed us to focus more on others, rather than only on ourselves. Studies have shown that when there is more connection with others due to positive feelings that it leads to “better perspective, more ways to help, more oneness [with no race bias], more trust, better negotiations, and more win-win solutions.”

More recently, psychological studies have shown that mixing positivity with eye contact leads to something scientists call “bio-behavioral synchrony” or “acting as one.” People who experience this begin to mirror one another and feel a strong connectedness. They can experience what Fredrickson called a “mini mind-meld” -- two minds and bodies acting as one.

This prompted a question from the audience. Does this mean those who work remotely will not be able to have this connectedness without the eye contact? “It's something we're going to have to pay very close attention to,” answered Fredrickson, noting that using video technology or other tools that would allow for simulated eye contact might be needed to help foster strong teams that are not co-located.

Positive emotions transform us

"In addition to positive emotions expanding our awareness, positive emotions transform us," says Fredrickson. Positive people are able to better see the big picture and be better able to deal with the big, real world problems. Emotions accumulate and change us at a cellular level.

But in order for change to take place, it will take more than simply looking at cute pictures or getting a surprise gift. You need to have a “steady diet” of positive emotions with lifestyle changes. By making changes, we can see “upward spirals of positivity.” Just as depression can lead to a downward spiral, positive emotions help to seed further positive emotions.

Scientists are able to study such changes using the Vagus Nerve, the part of our body that allows us to calm down in times of stress. This can be measured with our breathing patterns and those who are best able to cope have a “high vagal tone.” 

Fredrickson did a study, looking at a specific type of meditation that focused on practicing “loving kindness.” Over time, it was found that those who practiced this type of meditation saw subtle shifts, allowing them to become more resourceful. They were better able to focus and be mindful aware. Their connections with others were more supportive and warm and they experienced fewer physical ailments, such as headaches.

When people are practicing positivity, it has been shown that they increase their vagal tone. In short, positive emotions allow us to become better versions of ourselves.

How much is enough?

Fredrickson noted that the data, based on mathematics and studies involving complex dynamics of human flourishing, has shown that the minimum “positivity ration” is 3:1. In other words, there should be at least three positive emotions to everyone one negative emotion. This ratio is the tipping point,” but it is helpful to be above three to one, notes Fredrickson.

However, negativity is necessary. Fredrickson notes that it’s important to face adversity, and that masking negative emotions causes as much damage as excessive negativity. “Feigned positivity is toxic,” she warns.

How to get to that 3:1 ratio? “Create the mindset of positivity. Be open, be appreciative, be curious, be kind, be real,” she says.

Fredrickson also reminds us to be present. "Statistically speaking most moments we find ourselves in are benign." We're often so worried about the future or problems of past that we miss the good of the current moment.

For use on Agile teams

The keynote ended with members from the audience noting the application on Agile teams. "Coaching and positivity go hand in hand," said one Agile coach. Others agreed that a positive atmosphere will not only improve productivity and morale, it will simply improve the team’s overall attitude, which can only help lead to success.

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