Accentuate the Positive

Look carefully at the below equations.  What do you notice?

 2 + 2 = 4
7 + 1 = 8
5 + 2 = 7
4 + 4 = 9
3 + 4 = 7    

 If you are similar to most people you will have noticed that one of the equations is incorrect.  This is what will have stood out to you, not that four equations are correct. 

 The tendency to focus on what is wrong is a common one and one I often encounter when coaching high achievers.  For example, when I go through 360 assessment results with people they generally skim over the positive comments and zoom in on what they perceive as critical.  Sound familiar?

 It is entirely understandable to want to identify and manage the areas in which we have deficiencies.  We need to know about these and manage them if we want to advance and be the best we can be.  Yet we lose sight of positive results to our detriment.  Martin Seligman, the guru of positive psychology, cites considerable research suggesting that building on our strengths has a greater impact on our performance than focusing on our deficiencies.  Furthermore, focusing on the positive does not mean burying our heads in the sand about the things we don’t like.  Taking a strengths-based approach just looks to address developmental issues by better understanding and replicating the ingredients of our previous successes.

 Let’s look at an example to better illustrate how this positive approach works in practice.  In the past I have received 360 results that suggest a significant gap between how different stakeholders perceive my performance in similar areas.  My traditional approach to this would be to try to understand what I am doing wrong when interacting with the lower rating group.  A more positive approach is to instead look at what I am doing right with the higher rating group(s) and then consider how this can be replicated when interacting with the lower rating group.

 As a general exercise for yourself, think about one of the best experiences you have had a work.  What was it that made this experience a good one?  The more concrete and specific you can be the easier it will be to replicate the relevant elements of this experience in future.  For example, if you really enjoyed something that was intellectually stimulating, think about what exactly it was that made that activity intellectually stimulating (e.g., it made you look at old knowledge in a new way or it was challenging to undertake and required a lot of concentration).  Once again, the more concrete and specific you can be the easier it will be to create opportunities for similar experiences in the future.  This will in turn increase the proportion of your work-life that you are truly engaged and productive.

 Once again, the tendency to focus on deficiencies is common.  Yet the research suggests that the greatest returns on our developmental investments will occur when we look to learn from our successes. 

 For more information on Martin Seligman and Positive Psychology visit:


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