We know that wellbeing in the workplace is a game-changer. Happy people are more resilient, more productive & more engaged, and this has proven to increase the bottom line. Where traditional HR Policies often outline what ‘not to do’ and focus on a deficit model, a positive psychology approach applies to all elements of the HR process – including language.

Sue Langley spoke to HR Daily about how HR professionals could incorporate positive language into everything from advertising and recruiting to induction, policy writing and performance management. From the language used in emails, over the phone, to in-person communication, it all adds up. Positive language has a wellbeing ripple effect within an organisation and beyond.

“We’re trying to get people to think of HR holistically,” she says. “If you look at what we think of as ‘positive HR’, it includes the entire employee lifecycle.

“We help clients look at all their forms, all their procedures and processes, and say: Are they written from a positive psychology perspective? Can we remove the negative language, so it’s creating a positive culture from the minute an employee joins the business?”

– Sue Langley

The Science

From a neuroscience perspective, our brains are wired to approach situations with a negative bias. When processing words into meaning, it subconsciously looks for potential problems or threats within a proposed task or situation. In addition, human beings react more strongly to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli, so the presence of negative language may overshadow positive intentions.

A broad range of research backs up this theory, much of it conducted by Dr Kim Cameron, professor of management and organisations and co-founder of the Centre for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan.

“All living systems are inclined toward or attracted to that which is life-giving—toward positive energy—and are disinclined toward or avoid that which is life-depleting or life-endangering.”

 – Kim Cameron

The above description is known as the ‘heliotropic effect’, and as humans are living beings, we too pull towards life-giving energy. Cameron’s work encompasses relational energy, which he refers to as the energy associated with interpersonal interactions. Relational energy uplifts, elevates and helps other people flourish. As individuals, we renew when we encounter relational energy in others. Unlike other forms of energy, relational energy elevates or intensifies when exhibited. Physical energy, mental energy, and emotional energy can potentially diminish with use—people need recovery time after using them—yet relational energy is self-enhancing and self-renewing.

Our actions and words contribute to our energy and can lead to good vibes in the workplace. Making even slight changes to how we communicate can make all the difference to how our message is received and increase relational energy. In turn, these changes can significantly impact the overall outcome of HR conversations, which has a genuine impact throughout company culture.

The Research

 In their paper ‘Leading Positively,’ Professor Cameron and Professor Wooten explain that positive communication occurs when affirmative and supportive language replaces negative and critical language.

 ‘A study of communications in top management teams identified the single most important factor in predicting organisational performance, more than twice as powerful as any other, was the ratio of positive to negative statements.’

Positive language and strengths-based Human Resource processes go hand in hand. When we consistently use the language surrounding strengths, we build a positive workplace culture.

A study of more than 20,000 workers conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council, for example, found focusing on performance strengths boosted an individual’s performance by about 36 per cent, whereas concentrating on weaknesses decreased their performance – by about 26 per cent.

Strengths Profile is a world-leading strengths tool that changes the way we assess, develop and leverage talent in people. The Strengths Profile tool is unique and distinct from traditional one-dimensional strengths tests, assessing 60 strengths across three dimensions of energy, performance, and use. This model is our preferred as it provides a positive platform for development, enabling people to design strategies to maximise growth potential, minimise weaknesses and optimise performance and wellbeing.

Gallup researchers completed an extensive study of companies that have implemented strengths-based management practices.

Gallup studied workgroups that were using strengths-based interventions to examine the effects those interventions had on workgroup performance. This study included 49,495 business units with 1.2 million employees across 22 organisations in seven industries and 45 countries. 90 per cent of the workgroups studied had performance increases at or above the following ranges:

  • 10% to 19% increased sales
  • 14% to 29% increased profit
  • 6% to 16% lower turnover (low-turnover organisations)
  • 26% to 72% lower turnover (high-turnover organisations)
  • 9% to 15% increase in engaged employees

A Strengths-Based Approach

The benefits of a more positive workplace go far beyond increased productivity.

According to the ‘broaden and build’ theory, experiencing more positive emotions also broadens a person’s thinking and builds resources. These resources include physical resources (for example, there is evidence to suggest it can boost the immune system and reduce stress), social resources (“because people more likely want to connect with you”), and intellectual resources.

“If you’re in a more positive emotional state, more of your brain is active, which means you’re more likely to think of new ideas, be more creative and innovative,” Sue adds. “If you’re positive and happier, people are more likely to want to be around you, [which] helps with things like collaboration.”

When it comes to performance reviews, people often assume the focus will be on areas of improvement and their performance will be through a negative lens.

“In most organisations, nobody wants to do performance reviews. The individual doesn’t want to have them; the manager doesn’t want to do them; HR gets frustrated because nobody wants to fill in the forms or do what they are ‘meant’ to do – it can be a negative process for people.

“If you switch it to a strengths-based approach, where people use a strengths tool, and they have a strength-based conversation and set goals around those strengths (and assess the risks of their weaknesses), you start to find [employees] thinking, ‘Actually, that was pretty good’.

Sue continues, ‘It’s not about ignoring weaknesses, it’s about… encouraging people to focus on their strengths and using positive language, so they are pulling towards what is possible and then have the energy to combat the challenges.’

Positive Language Shifts

 It can be easy to shift our language with a little bit of focus, even those everyday phrases intended to be positive.

Some simple examples of positive shifts in verbal language are:

Never give up: Keep up the good work
Not too bad: I’m great
I can’t: Let me look into this for you
Sure, why not: Sounds good to me
No Problem: That’s excellent / Of course
Can’t complain: Everything is going well thanks for asking 

Some examples of positive shifts in written language are:

We regret to inform you that it is not possible….: I am happy to assist you in working through what we can do….

Unfortunately, your requested option is not available…: We have the following options available to you….

Please don’t hesitate to contact me:  Please reach out if I can support you further.

Leading words such as ‘but’ and ‘however’ can also cast a negative connotation on what follows:

We are pleased with your progress, but there is room for improvement: We are very happy with your progress; let’s look at ways to continue the improvements.

The meeting was productive; however, we will need to discuss further: The meeting was productive; let’s continue our discussion.

When we scan our HR policies and communication processes for simple ways to implement positive language, the opportunities for change begin to culminate.

Ready to Learn More?

At Langley Group, we live and breathe positive language in our daily communications and HR practices. People and businesses will transform through learning with our engaging consultants and facilitators, where the science behind human flourishing, emotional intelligence and neuroscience comes to life.

Click here to learn more about the Langley Group’s Positive HR Toolkit. The Positive HR Toolkit gives leaders and HR professionals the solutions to implementing positive people practices in the workplace.  Built on research from Positive psychology and neuroscience, the solutions provide simple and easy to use tools for every stage of the employee lifecycle.

Click here to download our free report: Investing in Business Wellbeing