Find the Positives

An excerpt from Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 4: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to The Power of Beliefs in Business, Secret #41.

It’s not easy to stay positive in a world in which we’re surrounded by cynicism, knocked down by tragedy in the news, trying to work through illness and uncertainty in our personal lives. But even a mindful and imperfect effort to keep moving in the right direction makes a difference. We feel better when we’re walking the path we chose to be on, regardless of how hard it may be in the moment. Emotional resilience gains respect, which builds inner strength.

I’m all about win-win, but emotion is essentially a zero sum game. When a culture is filled with harsh criticism, naysaying, blaming, and behind-the-back baloney, there’s not much room left for the light and upbeat. An environment like that is very vulnerable to disaster. The best way to move out the negative is to fill the ecosystem with affirmative and appreciative approaches. Weeds may still grow, but they’re peripheral. The more we fill our spaces and our spirits with appreciation—the real thing, not inauthentic superficial sweetness that sends nice sentiments that we clearly don’t mean—the better things are going to go. As Henri Matisse said, “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”

It’s certainly proven true for us at Zingerman’s. It’s right there in the 12th Natural Law of Business: “Great organizations are appreciative, and the people in them have more fun.” To quote positive-psychology professor Martin Seligman, “Positive mood produces broader attention, more creative thinking, and more holistic thinking. This, in contrast to negative mood, which produces narrowed attention, more critical thinking, and more analytic thinking.” Data show a connection in positive work environments to lower staff turnover, better mental health, higher immune-system function, and fewer sick days taken. (If you don’t believe all that, maybe skip to Secret #43 and explore whether you might want to change that belief.)

If you believe, as I do, that there’s some good and some not so good in most situations, it can be challenging to quickly identify the upside. I was raised to focus on finding the flaws first, then argue about the right answer, and finally fix what was wrong. I know I’m not alone in that. Rebecca Solnit notes, “Yiddish can describe defects of character with the precision that Inuit describe ice or Japanese rain.” American Jews swapped Yiddish for English, but the thinking process didn’t change. I learned how to argue, how to think quickly, how to push forward through adversity, how to have emotional resilience.

But, still, I’m glad I moved on. Finding the flaws first—other than in an emergency where urgent action is the point—almost always leads to failure. Even in the darkest of days, there are plenty of positive things happening. Everything we know about our minds says that the more we focus on those positive things, the more positive things are going to happen. Wendell Berry suggests, “Maybe the answer is to fight always for what you particularly love, not for abstractions and not against anything: don’t fight against even the devil, and don’t fight to ‘save the world.’”

A small story from my childhood comes to mind. When my grandmother used to go shopping, she was sure that most shopkeepers were out to cheat her. She was very diligent—watching their work for short weighting, or in case they should try to surreptitiously slip in some subpar product. She’s not the only one—when I go to markets I often see people digging through piles of produce to find just the “right” piece of fruit or ear of corn. If you look up at the vendors while their customers are doing this, sometimes you’ll see them smirking slightly and biting their tongues. My own approach is the opposite of my grandmother’s. Instead of treating the farmers as potential antagonists, I appeal to the farmer’s expertise and integrity. When they ask me which pint of peaches I want, I ask them to just give me the one they think is best. I can’t prove that what I get is any better than what my grandmother got. But I’m confident that my life is less stressful and that going to the market is a much more enjoyable experience for me.

Practical Tips

• Use the Three and Out Rule. This is a little self-management mechanism I made up a few years back and wrote about in Part 1 (on page 214, if you want to see it in the original). It’s such an eminently effective tool that I couldn’t stand to leave it out of this piece just because I’d already put it in print earlier. It goes like this: When I feel my energy sliding into the negative realm, I find someone around me—whether in person, on the phone, or via email—and I thank them. Sincerely. For something that they’ve done that I honestly appreciate. I always get back positive energy from doing this.

Then I immediately find someone else and do it again. Bingo. I get back more positive energy. Within a matter of minutes, I repeat my act of appreciation a third time. Voil.! More good energy comes my way. In the face of all that positivity, I simply cannot stay in a bad mood. The smiles, the warmth, and the wealth of good feeling that others give me for having unexpectedly appreciated them always turns my day around. And, if my mood gets better, consider the impact on the rest of our organization. Talk about time as an investment. What better use of 10 minutes can you imagine than doing the Three and Out Rule? Try it out. Three and Out is great stuff!

• Try the Three Good Things exercise. I learned this one from positive psychologist Martin Seligman. Every day write down three good things that happened to you. Then, for each, answer these questions: Why did this thing happen to me? What does it mean to me? How can I have more of it in the future? I’ve used the technique myself and taught it to others, too. It works. Over time, people build the habit of seeing more of the good things that were there all along. And guess what? More good things start to happen all the time.

• Flood with positivity. Noting three good things daily works well over a period of weeks. But sometimes, when I’m in a dark space, I don’t have time to wait. This technique can turn my day around in a matter of minutes. I just pull out my journal and start listing all the good things I have around me and in my life. It’s the emotional equivalent of flooding rice fields. The water kills off the weeds. By the time I’ve listed like 20 or 30 great things, I’m usually back to a more centered place. The whole process generally takes me less than five minutes.

• Offer appreciations at the end of meetings. When you’re getting ready to wrap up any formal group meeting, pause for four or five minutes of appreciations. Anyone in the room can appreciate anyone or anything they want. It’s informal and no one is required to speak. Most people usually do, though. It’s a great way to get ourselves focused on all the good around us before we head back into the day-to-day work world. (For more on how we do it, see Secret #13, in Part 1.) We’ve been doing this for 20 years now, and I swear by it. It’s simple; it’s free; it requires no software license; and other than possible awkwardness the first few times you do it, it can’t fail.

Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading: The Power of Beliefs in Business

Secret #41 Leading with Positive Beliefs