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Saturday, 06 July 2013 02:41

Positive Psychology, Change and the Bottom Line, Part V: The ABCs of Positive Psychology - Cognition

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In our previous posts on Positive Psychology, we've talked about what positive psychology really is, about how neuroplasticity affects the way we learn, about the essential factors in creating the motivation to change, and about the implications of all this for organizations.

Now we're going to look at the ABCs of positive psychology:  Affect, Behavior and Cognition.

All 3 of these - affect, behavior, cognition - are necessary for change to occur.  They are important individually, but their real power is in the way they intersect and align.

Today, we're going to talk about Cognition.


Cognitive therapists will tell you that you never simply experience an event - you interpret it.  You have a thought about the event, and then you have a feeling about it.  Their premise is that we can change our feelings about an event simply by changing our interpretation of it.  Now, I'm not totally convinced that this works every time, but I do believe that the way we interpret events leads us to conclusions that may or may not be productive for us.

For example, let’s say I’m in a meeting and present an idea.  My boss cuts me off and tells me the idea has no merit.  I’ve got three choices:  I can either interpret his reaction as an indication that I, as a worker, have no merit and shut down for the rest of the meeting (or, in fact, for many subsequent meetings).  Or I can interpret his reaction with curiosity:  “Why do you think that?” or “Which part of my idea has no merit?”  Or I can interpret his reaction as a misunderstanding:  “Maybe I haven’t explained my idea fully - let me try again.”

Option 1 isn’t productive for me - or for my organization, who now has a disengaged (even if only temporarily) employee.  Options 2 or 3, however, reframe the incident in a more positive way for me as an individual, and for the organization, because I remain engaged.  The option I choose is dependent upon the way I’ve interpreted the situation.

How we interpret an incident or situation affects the way that incident is established as a neural pathway.  If we want to change the way we interpret events - if we want to make it less automatic, especially if we’re in the habit of interpreting events in a negative light - we need to create new neural pathways.  I call it ‘getting curious’.  Instead of assuming, for example, that my boss’ comment indicated that I had no merit and consequently retreating into a disengaged state, I can ask questions:  “Let me clarify:  Do you mean that my whole idea has no merit, or that there is a specific aspect of it that won’t work in the context we’re discussing?”


The Three Ms

As individuals and as organizations, we’re often guilty of the Three Ms:  Magnifying, Minimizing, and Making Up.  Magnifying is when we overgeneralize or engage in ‘all or nothing’ thinking.  Minimizing is when we underplay and dismiss the positive (and sometimes the negative) elements of a situation or idea.  Making Up is when we use faulty emotional reasoning or assign blame incorrectly.

When organizations magnify, or overgeneralize around a change (“This is a fantastic change!  It will be so great for everyone!  This will be the miracle we’ve all been waiting for!”) they can end up losing the engagement of their stakeholders.  The truth is that change is rarely universally positive, and when organizations don’t acknowledge this, they lose trust, which can be fatal to a change (and even to the business as a whole).

Companies which minimize the truth of a change in favor of a sanitized, “don’t pay attention to the man behind the green curtain” version of their change strategy will also lose trust and the engagement of stakeholders. 

And organizations which spend more time assigning blame than in fixing mistakes end up creating a blame culture in which CYA memos become more important than actually getting stuff done - which will derail a change initiative faster than you can say “It wasn’t my fault.”

Cognition is all about encouraging individuals - and the organization - to respond more positively when faced with a potentially negative situation, by consciously creating more positive neural pathways, whether in the individuals involved in a change or in the processes which are the organizational equivalent to neural pathways.  It is these conscious changes - combined with Affect and Behavior [insert appropriate links] which will allow the organization to implement and sustain meaningful change over the long term.

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Beth Banks Cohn, PhD, founder and president of ADRA Change Architects, is dedicated to helping you and your organization reach your full business potential…
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