What’s the Big Fuss about Positive Affectivity?

What?  You mean you haven’t heard anything about it?

Well, no.  Like most people, you probably haven’t heard much discussion about it because it’s one of those psychobabble terms that doesn’t easily trip off the tongue and so it gets very little air-time outside of academia.

But it’s something that we probably all have some awareness of, and with a bit more understanding we may well be able to give a good account of how much we tend towards it ourselves. More than this, research to date indicates that it might be one of the unseen and unmeasured features that means one group of people can perform better than another, when on paper everything else is equal.

What Exactly is Positive Affectivity?

Positive affectivity is the personality trait that predisposes someone to generally feel positive, optimistic and to pick themselves up quickly after disappointment or setbacks.  It is the tendency towards feeling happy about situations and outcomes and to express positive responses to adverse situations.

However, it’s more than just being in a good mood because it’s an enduring and measurable variable of behaviour.  Some people are more like this than others and this difference follows them across all sorts of situations.

Even if you are not of this disposition you will nevertheless know the sort of person: comes in all sunshine and butterflies on a February Monday morning and goes on about the silver lining when you are trying to have a companionable moan about the latest collective upset.

The Features of Positive Affectivity

Yes, some people do give the impression of being perpetually happy, or at least happier than a lot of other people.  However, positive affectivity is a multi-faceted characteristic, rather than a simple  “happiness” trait.

The academic literature suggests that there are three distinct aspects to positive affectivity:

  • joviality – which includes features such as cheerfulness, enthusiasm and happiness;
  • self-assurance, covering qualities like confidence, daring and psychological strength; and,
  • attentiveness, which comprises of factors such as alertness, concentration and determination.

Research also indicates that higher levels of positive affectivity tend to be associated with more engagement in social and pro-social behaviour and it is likely that the influence is two way:  feeling positive tends to incline people towards seeking out social interaction and social interaction tends to lead to a more positive mood, albeit temporarily.

If, the more you read the more you are wondering who these strange creatures are and how they got like that, then perhaps you aren’t terribly high on positive affectivity.  But rest easy:  it’s not really your fault.  Research suggests that a considerable influence on this disposition is your genotype – we all have a hard-wired, positive affectivity setting and for some people that may be on low.  Or at least, a pre-determined range at the lower end of the scale.

Working with Positive People

However, whatever your own tendencies, you may in fact prefer working around people who do experience, and express, more positive than negative emotions. You probably like to be around people who are usually in a good mood and the positive atmosphere might just give your own mood a bit of a boost.

What you may be less aware of is that there’s a chance that working with someone high on positive affectivity could not only be a preferable experience, but it might even improve your work performance.

Your positive colleague’s good mood may extend to overt appreciation of you and the work you do, leading you to feel good about your abilities and your role and that in turn could inspire you to achieve more. And if your positive colleague also happens to be your team leader then so much the better: they may well influence you further to improve your performance through engaging in more helping and encouraging behaviours around you.

If this sounds fanciful, research specifically into customer service teams by Jennifer George suggests exactly that.  As measured by their mood at work, team leaders who are higher in positive affectivity tend to have higher performing customer service teams.

Paraphrasing George’s reflections on positive affectivity and job performance, perhaps positive affectivity is one of the “silent drivers” of team performance, explaining why some leaders achieve much greater results than others, when their skills, abilities and methods seem to be similar.

Given that the concept of positive affectivity largely doesn’t seem to have made the trip out of the ivory towers, let alone been widely tested in an applied setting, there is clearly great scope to learn more about the concept in the spheres of work and productivity. But these resarch results point to significant potential in terms of real world application if we can find opportunities to use and test the concept in practice.

The dedication and insight of the few positive affectivity thought leaders like David Watson and Jennifer George (apologies to those not mentioned) has significantly advanced our understanding of the construct and its potential.  However, their work highlights that this characteristic promises much more than it has delivered at this point.

Perhaps the semantically correct but less than catchy title hasn’t helped in the world of busy practitioners.  The significance of positive affectivity is probably easier to grasp when we talk about working with people who are generally in a good or a bad mood.  But that is a question for another time.

In the current economic climate, with every inch of performance and competitive advantage counting, now is the time to take positive affectivity to task and fully explore the consequential difference it could make to the workplace, to team performance and the quality of customer service provision.

References

George, Jennifer M. (1995). “Leader Positive Mood and Group Performance: the Case of Customer Service”, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25, 9, pp 778-794,

Watson, D. & Naragon, K. (2009) “Positive Affectivity: The Disposition to Experience Positive Emotional States”.  In, Snyder, C.R. & Lopez, Shane J.  (Eds.), The Handbook of Positive Psychology, Oxford University Press, 2009.

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3 Comments to “What’s the Big Fuss about Positive Affectivity?”

  1. Interesting post that stimulates a number of questions:
    1. What reliable measures for this exist that have been validated against customer service populations? How accessible is the measure for administration to different groups of customer service employees?
    2. If it’s a personality attribute, then it’s a relatively fixed disposition. So when would you include this in hiring criteria, and would that be to given extra weight to applicants who are high in this attribute or instead just provide lower weight for applicants who are particularly low in this attribute?
    3. How do you contrast this to Seligman’s notion of ‘learned optimism’, which holds implications for interventions that impact the cognitive and affective style of some people?

    Like most research, it can be misapplied in the wrong setting or in the wrong hands. I’m keen to read your further thoughts on this topic.

    Marc

  2. Thank you for your reflections and questions Marc.

    Responding to each of your points in turn:
    1. I think this is a particularly under-represented area in applied psychology and so the choice of measures for practitioners who might want to evaluate someone’s level of positive affectivity as part of a hiring decision are limited.

    There also seems to be some variation between researchers about what should be explored in order to gain an overall measure of positive affectivity, or even positive mood. I am persuaded by the model proposed by Watson and Clark which emphasises content based on factor analysis and can be measured using scales within the Expanded Form of the Positive and Negative Affect Scales (PANAS – X). I am not aware of any work using this scale with customer service populations but this doesn’t mean there is none to be found.

    What I would say though is that in my experience organisations usually need quite accessible measures that have a work context and feel, and although the detail that scales like the PANAS-X provides is invaluable in research applications, it may not appeal to employers sufficiently to gain usage for front-line hiring.

    In terms of measures that have been specifically designed for the workplace, OPC Assessment, which is the organisation I work with, has a personality questionnaire (the CSPQ) designed for customer service roles that includes positive affectivity as one of its nine measures or personal style, but I don’t know of any other tools which specifically address the construct.

    In my blog post I was considering the impact that team leader affectivity has on service performance, as Jennifer George’s work focuses on the management role. To date, the CSPQ has been validated on front line customer service roles rather than team leaders and we depend on organisational interest in the role of positive affectivity to drive our own research. It is the apparent lack of interest on the emotional aspects of team leadership that I encounter that gave rise to me thinking about what a better understanding might offer to employers and employees.

    Of course. it would be a fair charge to say that as an occupational psychologist I am responsible for engaging organisational interest in these issues, so if it isn’t happening I need to be doing something about it. I guess that is a big part of what this blog is about.

    2. You raise very interesting questions here Marc! I would really like to hear from others about their experiences and how they have approached it the evaluation of positive affectivity, if anyone has used the construct as part of selection.

    Personally, I would consider discussing the role of positive affectivity with any organisation interested in recruiting people well-suited to customer service leadership roles, however, the specifics of how any measure might be used would be dependent on the outcome of the job analysis process which would also define its relative importance in relation to other personality attributes that were desirable in the role. I would attempt to get at least a working idea of the relative weight of the attribute in comparison to the others needed and any cut off would depend on that and the validity of the measure to be used.

    The real learning would come with predictive validation research that could be done following the assessment of positive affectivity in team leader selection – but as we know all too well, there isn’t always the organisational will to “look backwards” in order to learn more.

    3. The point you make contrasting the trait of positive affectivity with Seligman’s learned optimism is apposite. It seems to me that the two ideas are compatible if we accept that our predispositions are not single points on a spectrum but represent floors and ceilings within which there is a relatively broad range of behaviour and cognitions possible.

    This would allow for the possibility that our trait level can be meaningfully measured and carefully evaluated in terms of hiring and development decisions, without failing to acknowledge that we are not slaves to biology and that with sufficient understanding and skills, we can adjust our setting within our range, so to speak.

    I would probably argue however, that much of the time many of us do not spend a great deal of time reflecting on each facet of our personalities, nor about whether or not our default setting is adjustable and what the value might be of trying to change it. As a result we generally don’t do the work that would be needed and a measure of our personality tends to be relatively stable, even if there is scope for significant change.

    I hope I have responded to at least some of the questions you raised Marc but it is clear that the area is under-researched in a work setting and very much open for debate and I would be intrigued to hear other perspectives on these points.

  3. each time i used to read smaller content that also clear
    their motive, and that is also happening with this piece of writing which I
    am reading here.

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