The broaden & build effect: How going back to work creates positive emotions

The impact of positive emotions on returning to the office
An article from our expert

Christophe Nguyen

Occupational psychologist, teacher at the IAE (Lyon School Of Management) and speaker.

SOCIAL SPACE - Social psychology is the study of individuals and their emotions in society. It looks at how and why people change the way they behave around others. What about the way they behave in the workplace? Welcome to the Jungle’s expert and occupational psychologist Christophe Nguyen applies his background in social psychology to the world of business. In this second installment, Nguyen looks at the broaden-and-build effect. He explains how positive emotions in the workplace create a genuinely virtuous circle, expanding everyone’s intellectual and physical capacities for well-being.

Case study:

Olivier works as an IT engineer for a large company. He develops tailormade tools for his colleagues and is really committed to his work. During the pandemic, he tried teleworking for the first time in his career. Olivier felt more efficient at first. He saved time that would otherwise be devoted to commuting, ironing shirts or avoiding the distractions of an open-plan office. Everything went well. After a few weeks, however, Olivier learned that his internal clients weren’t happy with his work. This was a career first for Olivier. Although he kept trying to remedy the situation, Olivier just couldn’t get it right. He kept running into technical problems and was stymied at every turn. He felt that he was no longer up to the job. Feeling demoralized, he started to return to the office whenever he could. He was happy to meet his colleagues there and he enjoyed being back in a work environment marked by laughter, camaraderie and bonding over lockdown stories. Back at his computer, things began to look clearer and more straightforward. Being with his colleagues helped him to put things in perspective and see things more objectively. So Olivier began to feel less disconnected and alone.

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Experience: the broaden-and-build effect

The broaden-and-build effect is based on a recent theory in the field of positive psychology. For a long time, negative emotions such as fear or anger dominated psychological research. Unlike positive emotions, they alone were considered essential to human survival. But at the end of the 1990s, American researcher Barbara Fredrickson demonstrated that positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, calmness and interest were equally crucial.

So what are positive emotions for? According to Fredrickson, they help to expand (broaden) a person’s “thought-action repertoire” in other words their repertoire of intellectual and behavioral skills. These emotions have an effect on our thoughts, behaviors and awareness. Positive emotions heighten an individual’s intellectual awareness or vigilance towards their surroundings, promoting expanded thinking, creativity and flexible problem-solving, according to Fredrickson. Most people have experienced this before. For example, you’ve likely found it easier to solve problems when in a positive frame of mind.

Better yet, when positive experiences accumulate over time, the broadening effect helps to build a reservoir of resources. The effects can be physical, with many studies showing how this affects the immune system. There are also psychological benefits such as improved awareness, flexibility and creativity. Finally, there are social benefits, including an enhanced ability to connect with others and a greater range of human interactions.

When it comes to positive emotions, Fredrickson talks about an upward spiral. When you experience positive emotions, it broadens your skills and then allows you to store them to improve your wellbeing and access more positive emotions. The upward spiral is the positive counterpart to the vicious circle of negative emotions.

How to develop positive emotions in the workplace

In the world of work, emotions are everywhere. In a 2016 article entitled Feeling Good Makes us Stronger, three Spanish researchers studied the broaden-and-build effect. The experiment involved more than 1,000 employees from 200 teams working in 40 companies. Looking at how positive emotions help team performance, the study demonstrated that collective resilience plays a critical role. And their work is particularly interesting for the post-lockdown world.

The researchers showed that when team members felt positive emotions such as enthusiasm, optimism and satisfaction, these feelings quickly spread in a number of ways:

  • Comparison: People compare their emotions to those of others so as to adopt the appropriate affective reactions;

  • Emotional contagion: Emotional states are passed on subconsciously from one person to the next;

  • Empathy: Individuals show feelings that match those of other individuals so as to tend to their needs and demonstrate kindness.

According to the study results, teams that share these emotional experiences are more resilient because of an increased sense of optimism and solidarity between members. Those teams also performed much better when assessed by their managers using scientific scales. Employees worked more efficiently in what they were asked to do (in-role); even better, they suggested improvements to how work was carried out and organized (extra-role).

Renewed interest in working together

At a time when many companies are looking to entice employees back to the office, the Spanish study is important. Its results suggest that businesses need to promote and spread positive emotions, if they are to be successful in this. In a French survey from May 2021 conducted by my company, Empreinte Humaine, almost half of the respondents said they would be more willing to return to the office if the working environment was better.

In concrete terms, management needs to take action to create the conditions to encourage positive emotions. Particular attention must be paid to ensuring that all teams are treated fairly, listened to and given recognition. For example, now is the time for managers to:

  • Outline the eligibility criteria for working from home – who should return to the office and why – to avoid any feelings of unfair treatment.

  • Build trust by ensuring their expectations and those of the team are clear.

  • Make sure everyone feels recognized for their individual contribution during the pandemic.

  • Give regular feedback on everyone’s work, not just the same few people.

  • Resolve any team conflicts quickly and pay close attention to the morale of team members.

  • Rebuild social bonds through activities and rituals that create positive experiences, wins and moments of pride that can be shared.

  • Create a climate of closeness and support. Even if managers and employees no longer see each other every day, it is important to keep up personal relationships and show an interest in people, along with their motivations, passions and need for recognition.

  • Set aside time at the beginning of certain office meetings to give updates on the lives of colleagues. Make space for chit chat where they can talk about where they are, what they have been doing and happy events in their lives. With personal topics, focus on the positive to foster camaraderie.

  • Encourage humor and laughter by sharing stories and anecdotes within teams.

At the same time, it’s important to avoid toxic positivity. Some staff might have had a tough time during the pandemic and returning to the office may be difficult for them. It’s better to avoid forced enthusiasm as it is unlikely to have the desired effect. In this context, authenticity is vital.

For example, I’ve noticed that many companies have been organizing team-building events. That’s great, but these are short-term solutions. Employees won’t come back to the office happy because they did a team-building activity in the forest. Actions that promote positive emotions have to be embedded into their daily routine. There’s nothing worse than trying to force people to be happy or giving false arguments for why they should go back to the office.

For me, the broaden-and-build effect also teaches you something different: a rich personal life opens you up to positive emotions, which expands your professional skills in turn. It also shows that you can share your personal life with colleagues and your professional life with family. In terms of psychological well-being, it all helps to create a virtuous circle.

Translated by: Andrea Schwam

Photo by Welcome to the Jungle

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