We are hard wired to look for gaps. It’s a distant cousin, thrice removed, from our ancestral survival instincts. We look for what is dangerous, not safe, threatening in any way, and we solve for it. Then we can relax, get on with things, keep going. Stay alive. Some call it minding the gap. It’s in our neurology.
The shadow: we have become soooo good at noticing what is wrong, where we need to fix something… we see it in vivid, Technicolor detail. Sometimes it’s all we see. You’ve probably been rewarded for how good you are at it (or encouraged to get better at it). I know I have (ditto).
The taller shadow: Never mind the endless tax on our immune systems from constantly bracing for danger; the stress of it, the constriction of it energetically speaking, is an affront to circulation. Not only have we been conditioned to find errors in exemplary detail—we have also minimized our capacity to notice what is going right.
We get what we pay attention to. When we are rewarded for catching errors and fixing things, we look for errors to catch and things to fix. And when we look for these things, we find them, because we get good at it. See the cycle that has been created?
When I facilitate meetings, I frequently ask participants both what they liked about what they’ve heard, as well as what concerns they have. Guess which one comes with more—both more comments and more detail? Yep. Their concerns. Worries. What isn’t quite right from their perspective. Hard wired.
And what I know about how things work is this: the way we do anything is the way we do everything. If we’re proficient at solving for gaps in general, we are more apt to notice, comment and take action on gaps we notice in relationship with others as well. We do it everywhere.
Yet here’s what Positive Psychology teaches us about how the brain works, how interpersonal connection works, and how team effectiveness comes to bear: the capacity for positive reflection, appreciating what is good and right about a situation or circumstance, tends to broaden our minds and our hearts.
It builds connection and attunement to one another, it opens us up to new ideas, and it increases resilience and the way we experience resourcefulness—of ourselves and each other. The field of Positive Psychology holds powerful insights for leadership; if you want to know more, I recommend Barbara Fredrickson’s book Positivity (2009).
Why you should care about this as a leader
Can you see how this act of survival, of scanning for gaps, precludes curiosity, inquisitiveness, and possibility? How, in your haste to come to a conclusion about the situation / observation / action / non-action / whatever, you’ve squeezed out curiosity, inquisitiveness and a certain level of open-ness? We can not learn when we are sure we already know.
And maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of a relationship where it seemed that the only thing the other person could see is what you were doing wrong. You probably did not feel very safe with them, or inspired by them; and eventually you might have given up trying to meet their impossible expectations. Truth is, they were just minding the gap; and indeed it took a toll on you.
Positive Psychology also has ample research that informs a ratio of positivity-to-negativity which points to a life experience of surviving vs flourishing. Keep this in mind if you, yourself– or your work or your personal relationships—are less vibrant and enjoyable than you might like.
In general the positivity ratio of 3:1 is the tipping point for flourishing, with some research that 5:1 is the magic number in marriage. This means that for every gap you notice, you need to notice 3 (or more) gratitudes, appreciations, or positive observations.
Think about it: are you as likely to describe in detail a compliment or acknowledgment to your spouse, team mate or direct report, as you are when you share – let’s be generous and call it—constructive feedback?
In my team facilitation, I notice that the positive observations are often vague, slim in detail, and often obligatory rather than authentic – superficial. Not a judgment – just data. If the affirming feedback being shared with direct reports is the same (remember – how we do anything is how we do everything), those conversations could feel pretty… empty, right?
The great news is this: the way we think and take notice, this is actually a behavior. We can take dominion and change it. That’s right – you are not destined to be managed by your thoughts, even when they have become so automatic that it seems like it’s not anything you can affect.
You can affect it, and honestly, it’s your most sacred leadership responsibility. It takes time and practice, and it CAN be done. You can retrain your brain to help you build connection and your capacity to create an interactive environment where you and your teams can thrive.
- Start by noticing: Over the course of a week, make note on a daily basis: how much of your thought-field is occupied by appreciation, gratitude, and positive / affirming observation? How frequent is it, relative to critical thought? You need to do this daily to build the muscle of noticing positive thought, which often leads to having more positive thought. After all, we get better at what we measure. The purpose of this practice is just to notice. Wouldn’t it be ironic if you beat yourself up over how much or how little positive thought you have? Seriously, just notice. Success is that you observed, neutrally, for a week to find your starting point.
- Plan ahead: When you are preparing to sit with a direct report 1:1, be mindful to build connection through detailed positive observations, in addition to any course corrective feedback you might have to offer. This is not about avoiding course corrective feedback – it is about bringing the right balance to the conversation so you can move the relationship in a direction that meets your goal as their line manager, and honors the truth about them: they are doing things right. You can always find something to appreciate; let them know that you see it. Challenge yourself to find 3 genuine appreciations for every requested correction. It will support them in being able to receive the constructive feedback that helps them learn and grow, and it will go a long way toward building and environment of trust between the two of you.