The Magic Number That Helps Teams Flourish
By Danuta McCall

September 08, 2013

I was patrolling my corner of the blogosphere when I came upon a post that referenced research by psychologists Marcial Losada and Barbara Fredrickson about how positivity impacts team performance. Experiments have shown that positive affect (positive sentiments, attitudes and emotions) makes individuals, teams and organizations flourish – that is function optimally. People and teams who flourish are more flexible, resilient, creative and intuitive. On the opposite side, languishing teams exhibit narrow thinking, boredom, cynicism.

The Magic Number
Now, Losada and Fredrickson hypothesized that people or teams with a positivity ratio (ratio of pleasant feelings to unpleasant feelings) that meets or exceeds a specific threshold would be also characterized as flourishing. Losada studied a large group of business teams during their annual strategy meetings, tracking statements made in the meetings as positive, negative or neutral. He then measured the performance of these teams and determined that there is indeed a positivity ratio, and it’s (drum roll, please) 2.9. This says that if you experience at least 3 instances of positivity to every 1 instance of negativity, you should be performing at your peak. However, there is an upper limit; apparently if the ratio exceeds 11, you tend to lose your grip on reality. Here’s a paper that describes the mathematical basis for this ratio:

Making Meetings Flourish
The author of the post that got me started on this investigation applied this positivity concept to various good and bad meetings she had experienced, and decided that she would point this out to her thesis committee before her defense to ensure that the meeting was as productive as possible.

This thesis of positivity and flourishing seems particularly significant in light of the challenging times we’re in, where problems require not minor adjustments but major overhauls, and people must be steadfast, resilient and adaptive. I am reminded of difficult meetings that I attended back in the early 90s when I was a mid-level manager at a large corporation undergoing some difficult times. To say that our division management meetings languished would be an understatement. The language used was about failure and defeat (“we screwed up again, we’re going to have to let another 15% of our people go.”). We spent our time justifying and protecting, rather than innovating and adapting.

A Success Story
I contrast this with a strategic planning meeting that I facilitated a month ago for an agency that serves the developmentally disabled. The reality was grim: the governor had just slashed the agency’s budget, and the agency now needed to dramatically reduce the number of strategic focus areas to invest in over the next 3 years. The CFO laid out the situation to the assembled stakeholders, with frankness but without negativity. The Director in charge of the strategic plan laid out the groundrules: we’re going to stick together, uphold our values, make sure all voices are heard, work in small groups to find the best solution possible. The 70 some participants broke into table groups for a series of discussions that started with broadening the field of options (let no idea be a bad idea), then narrowing it in a series of prioritization exercises. At the end, each participant voted individually on a slate of strategic focus areas. There emerged a clear winner, demonstrating a level of consensus that seemed impossible when we first considered the situation. Because of the constructive and positive approach, people walked away from a potentially tense and defensive situation feeling renewed, and as one participant put it: “filled with hope for the future of this organization”.

As for the positivity ratio, I’m a believer.

Posted by Danuta McCall