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Successful Projects: The Value of Positive Emotions

In the previous blog we explored the concept of Psychological Safety and its importance in building successful teams. In this blog, we will add another essential ingredient for running successful projects: positive emotions.


Positive emotions are not a Pollyanna worldview or putting on a happy face. Positive emotions refer to feelings and experiences that are pleasant and beneficial for our overall well-being. They are associated with happiness, joy, love, gratitude, contentment, pride, and awe. These feelings contribute to our resilience, improved mental and physical health, and increased life satisfaction. They are essential for optimal functioning in life and are crucial for running successful projects.


Back in 1998 Barbara Fredrickson, now a Kenan Distinguished Professor at the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, asked a very simple question: What good are positive emotions? (Fredrickson, 1998). Following this question, she developed the Broaden and Built theory, arguing that negative emotions such as anger, fear and worry narrow our attention, activating “survival-promoting actions”. Positive emotions such as joy and appreciation broaden our attention and contribute to “building our social, psychological and physical resources over the long-term” (Leslie S., Vacharkulksemsuk, T. and Fredrickson, B., 2011, p. 169). What does this mean in practice?


Today we know from research that positive emotions can broaden our awareness by:

· Shifting our attention to perceive a wider perspective

· Heightening receptivity to new information

· Considering a wider range of possibilities and solutions

· Increasing creativity

· Increasing flexibility and inclusion (Leslie S., Vacharkulksemsuk, T. and Fredrickson, B., 2011).


Positive emotions can help us build personal resources by:

· Enhancing attention to others

· Reducing distinctions between the self and others

· Developing a more complex understanding of other people

· Increasing trust between team members

· Strengthening existing interpersonal relationships

· Enhancing social connections and creating stronger social relationships

· Engaging in positive social interactions, which can lead to increased support, cooperation, and a sense of belonging

· Building psychological resources for resilience

· Buffering against stress.

(Leslie S., Vacharkulksemsuk, T. and Fredrickson, B., 2011)


Positive emotions can help us tap into our inner strengths, increase our well-being, and build a foundation for personal growth and flourishing. They are essential in building strong social networks, improving resilience, and the ability to face challenging life situations. Furthermore, positive emotions can create organisational growth and significantly contribute to project success. Research shows that positive emotions play a role in work achievement and creating a high-quality social environment (Staw, M., Sutton, I. and Pelled, H, 1994). In this kind of environment, we are more motivated, happier, and more satisfied with our work, and as a result, we become more productive (Martin, 2004).


Project environments can be potent triggers of emotions. Understanding the emotional processes in a team can be critical for positive team dynamics and crucial for fostering healthy and thriving relationships. The very first prerequisite for understanding emotional processes in a team is Emotional Intelligence (EI). The term emotional intelligence was coined by Daniel Goleman (Goleman, 1995). It refers to the ability to recognise, understand and manage our emotions, and to effectively navigate interpersonal interactions. Individuals with a high level of self-awareness and high EI in teams are more likely to experience and express positive emotions regularly, leading to enhanced relationship satisfaction. Moreover, individuals with high EI are better equipped to perceive and empathise with the emotions of others and to understand and respond empathically to their team members' emotional needs (Bar-On, 2010, p. 57).


Self-awareness and empathy are crucial in recognising what in psychology is called “emotional contagion”, where emotions spread from one person to another (Hatfield, E., Rapson, R. L., & Le, Y.-C. L., 2009). The theory of emotional contagion suggests that emotions can spread within a team. When team members express their emotions openly, both positive and negative, they create opportunities for emotional contagion to occur. For instance, expressing and displaying positive emotions like enthusiasm, joy, and gratitude can lead to a contagion effect, boosting morale and fostering a positive team atmosphere. On the other hand, when negative emotions are expressed constructively, it can prompt a collective problem-solving approach or an empathetic response from team members, preventing the potential spread of negative emotions (Mackie, D. M., & Smith, E. R., 2015).


What is fascinating for me is how all this happens at a physiological level. When team members openly express their emotions, they allow others to observe and experience those emotions through the activation of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire when an individual observes someone else in action or displaying an emotion, resulting in a mirroring effect internally (Bonini, L., Rotunno, C., Arcuri, E. and Gallese, V., 2022). This activation of mirror neurons allows team members to empathise with one another and feel a sense of shared experience. By expressing emotions, team members provide opportunities for mirror neurons to influence emotional resonance and enhance the overall understanding and connection within the team. By recognising these connections, individuals and teams can harness the power of positive emotions. Effective emotional management leads to stronger relationships and improved team dynamics on projects.


Here is a list of some practical suggestions for project managers can develop EI in project teams:


Be an example. Be aware of your own emotions, strengths, and areas for improvement. Model self-reflection and openly acknowledge and manage your emotions. Practice active listening by giving your full attention to team members and seek to understand their perspectives without interruption. Display empathy and validate their emotions and experiences.


Encourage self-awareness. Encourage team members to reflect on their own emotions, strengths, and weaknesses. Provide opportunities for self-assessment and reflection exercises.


Promote effective communication. Promote open and honest communication within the team. Create a safe space where team members feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, emotions, and concerns.


Provide emotional support. Be attentive and empathetic to team members' emotions and challenges. Offer support, guidance, and resources to help them cope with stress or difficult situations.


Promote empathy and understanding. Encourage team members to actively listen and seek to understand others' perspectives and experiences. Foster an inclusive environment that values diverse opinions and backgrounds.


Encourage positive relationships. Foster team bonding activities and encourage collaboration and social interaction. This promotes positive emotions and strengthens relationships among team members.


Provide feedback and recognition. Recognize and acknowledge team members' emotional efforts and growth. Provide constructive feedback that emphasizes emotional intelligence development.


Promote work-life balance. Encourage a healthy work-life balance by prioritising rest and self-care. Support flexible working arrangements to minimize stress and promote overall well-being. High levels of stress can weaken emotional reactivity resulting in reduced emotional responsiveness and difficulty in expressing emotions.


Address conflict constructively. Teach team members conflict resolution strategies that emphasize empathy, active listening, and finding win-win solutions. Facilitate open dialogue and mediate conflicts when needed.


Developing emotional intelligence is an ongoing process and requires time and conscious effort. However, by implementing these practical suggestions, project managers can create a team environment that values and promotes emotional intelligence, leading to improved relationships, higher satisfaction levels on projects, and increased team productivity.


To finish with, we will explore the concept of Social Intelligence (SI). Social intelligence and emotional intelligence are related concepts, but they are distinct from each other. What is the difference between the two? Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions as well as the emotions of others. Social intelligence refers to the ability to navigate and understand interpersonal relationships and social situations effectively (Seal, C., Boyatzis, R. and Bailey, J., 2006). Social intelligence focuses on interpersonal relationships and social dynamics, while emotional intelligence focuses on understanding and managing emotions. Both are essential in managing teams. Having a project team with high social intelligence significantly contributes to project success.


Project teams with high social Intelligence (SI) show the following characteristics:


Social awareness. They have a high level of awareness and understanding of social dynamics.


Excellent interpersonal skills. They can effectively relate, communicate, and collaborate with each other.


Effective communicators. They can convey information, ideas, emotions and thoughts in a clear and accurate manner.


Get along with each other. They are able to establish positive relationships and work with each other well, fostering mutual respect, understanding and support.


Possess cognitive empathy. They understand each others feelings, thoughts, moods, and non-verbal messages.


To summarise, positive emotions play a vital role in project success. According to the broaden and build theory, positive emotions broaden our thinking and problem-solving abilities, leading to increased creativity and flexibility within project teams. Emotional intelligence enables team members to recognize and manage their emotions effectively, promoting better communication and collaboration. Social intelligence complements this by fostering empathy and strengthening team relationships. By cultivating positive emotions and leveraging emotional and social intelligence, project teams can enhance their performance and project outcomes.


References


Bar-On, R. (2010). Emotional intelligence: an integral part of positive psychology. South African Journal of Psychology, 40(1), 54-62.


Bonini,L., Rotunno, C., Arcuri, E. and Gallese, V. (2022). Mirror neurons 30 years later: implications and applications. Trends in Cognitive Science 26(9), 767-781.


Fredrickson, B. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300 – 319.


Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.


Hatfield, E., Rapson, R. L., & Le, Y.-C. L. . (2009). Emotional contagion and empathy. In I. J. (Eds.), The social neuroscience of empathy (pp. 9–30). Boston Review.


Leslie S., Vacharkulksemsuk, T. and Fredrickson, B. (2011). Positive Emotions: Broadening and Building Upward Spirals of Sustainable Enterprise. In a. K. Gretchen M. Spreitzer, The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship (pp. 169–177 ). Oxford Academic Books.


Mackie, D. M., & Smith, E. R. . (2015). Intergroup emotions. . In P. R. In M. Mikulincer, APA handbook of personality and social psychology, Vol. 2. Group processes (pp. 263–293). American Psychological Association.


Martin, A. J. (2004). The Role of Positive Psychology in Enhancing Satisfaction, Motivation, and Productivity in the Workplace. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 24(1-2), 113–133.


Seal, C., Boyatzis, R. and Bailey, J. (2006). Fostering Emotional and Social Intelligence in Organizations. Organization Management Journal 3(3):, 190-209.


Staw, M., Sutton, I. and Pelled, H. (1994). Employee positive emotion and favorable outcomes at the workplace. Organization Science, 5(1), 51–71.

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