Recently, I read an article about the book The Upward Spiral, Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. It included great suggestions for reversing your state of mind when you are feeling down or depressed and skills for elevating your mood, cognitive thinking, and creativity.
The article named four key steps to upward-spiralling. I really liked them because I think they apply not only to individual happiness and success but also to creating successful cultures and practices in organizations and on business teams. The same steps apply to the work I do in building great company cultures and communication practices.
The four steps are:
Focus on what you are grateful for.
Label negative feelings.
Make that decision.
Focusing on what you are grateful for -
Throughout the day, with all the concerns, issues, and minutiae we have to deal with, it is easy to feel worry, or even guilt or shame. That is fine and natural, especially when we are feeling overwhelmed, but being overly focused on negative emotions hijacks the amygdala, triggering the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses that limit our creative thinking. And it’s just not fun.
Taking the time to focus on something you are grateful for, big or small, shifts the triggered responses and activates the more cognitive, creative thinking centers of the brain. According to the article, focusing on gratitude can have comparable or even better effects than those achieved from taking antidepressants like Wellbutrin or Prozac.
In business, focusing on what you are grateful for also means communicating gratitude and/or appreciation to others as often as possible. When giving feedback, or having difficult conversations, using appreciative statements results in more positive outcomes. A practice I share with my clients is the 2x2 process of providing feedback: First, give 2 specific examples of things the person is doing well and that you appreciate; then offer 2 specific areas for improvement. This appreciation-focused feedback gives the positive message that you are all on the same team and committed to growing and learning together. It creates bonding and connection even when it’s necessary to discuss potentially difficult topics.
Label negative feelings -
When you are experiencing a negative emotion, the authors of the article suggest naming it, which provides relief.
“In one fMRI study...participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant’s amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.”
While at work, consciously recognizing negative feelings, even just to yourself, can be an effective way to relieve them, resulting in feeling calm and centered throughout the day. Additionally, organizations can benefit from labeling negative feelings by creating communication processes for effectively dealing with negative feelings that arise in the form of interpersonal tension and conflict.
All organizations have conflict. It’s natural. But most organizations lack training in the “soft” communication skills of active listening, emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution that can relieve those tensions. Without that training organizations can stagnate. Consequently, rather than being dealt with, negative feelings related to interpersonal tensions and conflicts are suppressed, amygdalas get activated, and productivity and creativity drop. The solution is to create processes and a culture where great communication thrives and negative feelings, tensions, and issues between colleagues can be skillfully discussed and resolved.
Make that decision -
The author of the article points out the importance of not postponing decision-making. As leaders and staff members in organizations, we all have to make decisions, sometimes difficult ones, that we end up putting off because they can feel overwhelming. The problem with this, according to the article, is putting off making decisions creates even more worry and anxiety. This can be a vicious cycle that paralyzes us and blocks productivity.
So make that decision. Don’t worry about making the perfect decision. Rather, honor a decision that is “good enough.” By making decisions we activate the reward center of the brain that feels good and we reactivate the frontal lobe of the brain, which stimulates further creativity and mental clarity.
In our organizations we also have to set up processes for making good, quick decisions to get things done. Too often, organizations get stuck in debilitating decision-making procedures and/or have uncertainty about decision-making roles and responsibilities. Organizations must be nimble in this area, good at both collaboration and bringing in multiple perspectives while at the same time being clear and decisive regarding decisions. Good organizational development professionals can help with this. In my work, I incorporate the decision-making and governance process called Holocracy.
Touch People -
Not inappropriately, of course, but numerous studies have shown the importance of touch and connection. We all need to feel love and acceptance from others. The article reminds us that when we feel left out, it is literally painful. Just as when you were a child and left out of a game at school, the brain responds as if it were experiencing physical pain.
Relationships are very important to the brain’s feelings of happiness, and considering how much time we spend with others at work, it’s important to foster those relationships, especially if we want to have a happy, thriving workplace. So go ahead, shake that hand or give that appropriate hug or pat on the back. By showing you care, you create bonds in your organization and build your team!