Outweigh the Bad with Extra Good at Work

In a dry understatement of the obvious, a 2008 study found “a degree of consensus” in the research literature “that large law firms have a reputation for being tough places to work” (Forstenlechner and Lettice, 2008, p. 643).  The researchers found that the larger and more prestigious the firm is, the worse the working conditions become. In my experience, this is true but not inevitable.

No doubt, there are built-in aspects of a lawyer’s job that make it inevitably tough. Because salaries are high, so too are expectations. Legal issues are complex, clients are demanding, opposing lawyers are a continual source of aggravation, judges can be disengaged and unpleasant, motions are lost, corporate deals fall apart, and on, and on. The negative emotions stemming from these inevitable challenges are part of the job. What is not inevitable—despite its prevalence—is a law firm or office culture that stokes the negativity oven. Aspiring positive law firms will strive to counterbalance the inevitable negativity in lawyers’ working lives by refraining from contributing more negativity and by injecting more positive emotions.

The value of positive emotions (e.g., joy, gratitude, love, interest, pride) in workplaces often is misjudged. It’s not just that it’s nice to have happy employees. Positive emotions help produce successful individual and organizational outcomes.

Research shows that positive emotions broaden people’s attention, thinking, and action and build their physical, intellectual, and social resources (Fredrickson 1998, 2001). These resources can fuel workplace success.

Positive Emotions Contribute to Individual success

On an individual level, people who frequently experience positive emotions are more successful than their negative colleagues (Lyubomirksy, King, & Diener, 2005). According to the evidence, it’s not just that success makes us happy. Rather, feeling happy makes us more successful (Lyubomirksy et al., 2005).

For example, studies examining the effects of positive affect found that the frequent experience of positive emotions is associated with better supervisory evaluations and job performance, higher annual salaries, client service, job satisfaction, organizational citizenship behavior, retention, less conflict, less absenteeism, job autonomy and meaning, reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression, sociability, resiliency, cooperation, lower ego defensiveness, and accuracy of judgments (Lyubomirksy et al., 2005; see also Sekerka, Vacharkulksemsuk, & Fredrickson, 2012).

Positive Emotions Enhance Group Performance

Positive emotions also contribute to successful group performance (Sekerka et al., 2012). Compared to low-performing groups, high-performing teams have high positivity/negativity ratios and a higher degree of connectivity, which is linked to greater productivity (Luoma, Hämäläinen, & Saarinen, 2008; Sekerka et al., 2012). Groups with higher positivity ratios also show broader thinking patterns. Low performing teams have lower levels of connectivity and lower positive-to-negative ratios. This combination makes teams more likely to get stuck in situations due to their narrower mindsets and weaker interpersonal connections (Sekerka et al., 2012; Luoma et al., 2008).

Positive emotions also play a role in effective leadership. Employees perceive leaders who express positive emotions as more effective and more desirable to work with (Sekerka et al., 2012).

Emotional Contagion

The emotional tone that leaders and colleagues convey in the workplace is important because it’s transmittable. An organization can be infected with negativity or elevated by positivity through “emotional contagion,” which is a type of social influence in which a person or group influences the emotions (positive or negative) of another (Barsade, 2002). Shared positive affect in an organization can trigger a beneficial upward spiral of positive emotions, inspiring increased cognitive flexibility and higher connectivity, which is linked to better business outcomes like productivity (Sekerka et al., 2012; Amabile, Barsade, Mueller, & Staw, 2005).

Emotions also travel to customers, meaning positive emotions can contribute to good client relationships (Stephens, Heaphy, & Dutton, 2012).

Positive Emotions Enhance Organizational Effectiveness

From an organizational perspective, a positive emotional climate fosters employee growth and can produce optimal organizational functioning over time (Fredrickson, 2003). Research shows that people simply perform better when they experience more positive emotions during their workday (Sekerka et al., 2012). The broadening effect of positive emotions broadens the scope of peoples’ self-perception, which blurs the distinction between self and others (Sekerka et al., 2012). This can result in people feeling greater responsibility toward the organization and others and actually being more helpful to others. People who feel appreciated and grateful like working together more and are better able to stimulate ideas and achieve shared goals (Sekerka et al., 2012).

Positive emotions also encourage trust, which is linked to greater contributions to the organization. The result can be that, over time, an organization can move from a competitive, self-interested orientation to a more generative, interdependent-orientation. This can result in enhanced collaboration and understanding and, ultimately, thriving (Sekerka et al., 2012).

Outnumbering the Bad with Extra Good

Unfortunately, negativity permeates lawyers’ daily work lives and they too often contaminate their work environments through emotional contagion, which disrupts the optimal functioning of their teams. The psychological impact on lawyers and their teams of the continual negativity is compounded by the “negativity bias,” which is an adaptive predisposition to attend to bad things (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001). To survive, it was critical for early humans to notice and react quickly to bad things—like poisonous snakes. The effect of negative emotions is to narrow people’s focus and attention, which aided quick, appropriate action to adverse circumstances (Fredrickson, 1998, 2003). By contrast, a failure to respond appropriately to positive life opportunities was not likely to result in dire consequences (Fredrickson, 1998). The result is that we now are hardwired to react more strongly to the bad. Bad events produce stronger emotions and have longer-lasting effects on our emotions and behaviors than good events (Baumeister et al., 2001).

Although bad events are more powerful, subjective well-being still can prevail if positive emotions outnumber the bad (Baumeister et al., 2001; Fredrickson, 2013). A variety of workplace studies indicate that the minimum “positivity ratio” in the workplace for high-quality performance is about 3:1 (Fredrickson, 2013). This means that, for people to feel psychologically well and perform well at work, three positive emotions are necessary to counteract one bad one.

Notably, the precise ratio of 3 to 1 has come under fire due to weaknesses in the mathematical modelling that was used as one basis for deriving the ratio (Brown, Sokal, & Friedman, 2013). Putting the mathematics aside, experimental and field studies also support the 3:1 ratio in workplaces (Fredrickson, 2013). Dr. John Gottman’s studies of marital relationships also supports the general proposition that good can prevail only where it significantly outnumbers the bad (Gottman & Silver, 2000). Gottman’s work shows that marriages are in danger of ending in divorce when the ratio of positive to negative interactions dips below five to one. Based in part on this ratio, he is able to predict whether a marriage will end in divorce with 94% accuracy (Gottman & Silver, 2000).

Whatever the precise ratio might be for the workplace, the main point is that positive emotions should outnumber negative emotions by some material amount to ensure a well-functioning team. While there might be some upper limit at which too much positive emotion becomes dysfunctional, research indicates that, generally, the more positive emotions, the better (Fredrickson, 2013).

What this means for aspiring positive law firms is that they will cultivate higher-performing teams by enhancing the positivity ratio. Positive law firm leaders can choose from a variety of ways to incorporate more positive emotions into the workplace and to encourage others to do so. Efforts to cultivate meaning, to support autonomy, competence, and connection, and to focus on strengths all cultivate positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2003). Positive meaning can be drawn from experiences of competence, achievement, significance of their work, and social connection (Fredrickson, 2003).

Firm leaders and partners can try to inject more positivity into routine daily events by, for example, frequently communicating gratitude, starting meetings with recent success stories, socializing at office lunches, establishing regular gratitude award ceremonies for the office, organizing after-work sports activities, and other fun events that build relationships and cultivate positive emotions.


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