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Positive Affect and the Solution Focused Approach

Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing What does Barbara Fredrickson’s work offer the Solution Focused Practitioner?

Many of you will be aware that Steve de Shazer who was central to the initial development of Solution Focused Brief Therapy which has underpinned the subsequent development of the broader and more general SF approach was always reluctant to explain why SFBT worked. People would ask him ‘so what is the theory that underpins Solution Focus?’ Steve would invariably answer that there was no theory underpinning the approach. SFBT, he would say, was merely a description of a way of talking with clients that seems to be associated with change in his team’s work, indeed a description and not even a prescription he would sometimes add. Sometimes conference participants would persist ‘but why does it work?’ they asked and Steve would answer, with a smile ‘because I get such great clients’ and move on to the next question. Yet the question, inevitably perhaps, does not go away and every now and again some research emerges that seems to provide some part of a potential explanation for the approach’s effectiveness.

One example of this is the body of research emerging from the work of Barbara Fredrickson and her various collaborators from the University of Michigan. At its heart this work highlights the value of ‘positive emotions’ in building the effectiveness, the successful performance of the individual, the group and the organisation. Fredrickson and collaborators make a distinction between what they refer to as a state of ‘flourishing’ and something they describe as ‘languishing’. Flourishing they state ‘means to live within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth and resilience’ whilst languishing is associated with the experience of life as ‘”hollow” or “empty”.’(Fredrickson and Losada, 2005) The crux of their research centres on their finding that the state of flourishing is characterised by individuals experiencing more positive affect in relation to their experience of negative affect, something that they refer to as the positivity ratio or P/N ratio. In their studies they have established a ‘critical positivity ratio’ (which they refer to as the Losada Line) which is deemed to be a significant predictor for flourishing or languishing. The ratio that they have arrived at is 2.9;1, in other words 2.9 experiences of positive affect to each experience of negative affect. This out-balance they explain by pointing to numerous findings supporting the idea that negative affect is more powerful, tends to outweigh, to out-muscle positive affect, and therefore that in order to flourish we need substantially more positive affect experiences compared to negative affect.

  • Positive affect Negative affect
  • Awe Anger
  • Compassion Contempt
  • Contentment Disgust
  • Gratitude Embarrassment
  • Hope Fear
  • Interest Guilt
  • Joy Sadness
  • Love Shame
  • Pride
  • Sexual desire

Interestingly Fredrickson and her colleagues also propose, on the basis of their findings, an upper critical ratio which turns out to be 11.6:1. Moving above this upper limit the positive effects of the p/n ratio begin to decay.

So how does this apply to organisations and thus to leadership?

The work here has been carried out by Losada (Losada, 1999 Losada and Heaphy, 2004). Losada has studied flourishing teams which he defines as those ‘showing uniformly high performance across three indicators: profitability, customer satisfaction, and evaluations by superiors, peers and subordinates’ (Fredrickson and Losada 2005). His studies showed that high performance as opposed to medium or low performance teams showed higher p/n ratio, 5.6:1 for the high performance teams, 1.85:1 for the medium and 0.363:1 for the low performance teams. Interestingly he also highlighted two other transactional differences; the high performance teams were more likely to refer to stake-holders outside the company in their discussions rather than to those in the room at the time of discussion and were also more likely to respond with inquiry responses rather than advocacy responses. Inquiry responses were defined as those that sought more information about a colleague’s statement, whilst advocacy responses concentrated on rebutting another’s position or advocating one’s own.

How does Fredrickson explain the positive effect of a higher p/n ratio?

Central to Fredrickson’s thesis is an idea which she calls the ‘broaden-and-build theory’ (Fredrickson and Joiner, 2002). What she points to is the evidence ‘that negative emotions heighten people’s autonomic activity and narrow their attention to support specific action tendencies (e.g. attack, escape)’ whilst ‘positive emotions quell autonomic arousal because they broaden people’s attention, thinking and behaviourial repertoires (e.g. play explore)’ (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh and Larkin, 2003). So a higher p/n ratio is characterised by, crucially, a wider scope of attention, an expanded behaviourial repertoire and increased intuition and creativity. This, in turn, is associated with an approach rather than avoidance-based response, and means that people are more likely to explore, to learn, to discover and to come up with new and innovative solutions. Within a corporate climate of rapid change, characterised by the development of new technologies and the emergence of new challenges, the capacity to explore, to innovate and to learn that Frederickson and Losada point to, seems crucial. They also highlight the proposition that the difference that a positive p/n ratio makes is not ephemeral and is not limited to the life-span of the positive emotions ‘positive affect – by broadening explanatory behaviour in the moment – over time builds more accurate cognitive maps of what is good and bad in the environment. The greater knowledge becomes a lasting personal resource. Although positive affect is transient, the personal resources accrued across moments of positivity are durable. As these resources accumulate, they function as reserves that can be drawn on to manage future threats and increase odds of survival. So experiences of positive affect, although fleeting, can spark dynamic processes with downstream repercussions for growth and resilience.’ (Fredrickson and Losada, 2005).

So where does this take us?

One question that Losada’s research raises regarding the teams, (Strategic Business Units), which he observed seems clear and the question, simply put, is of the chicken-and-egg variety. Was the p/n ratio in the high-performance teams higher because they were more successful or were they more successful because they had a higher p/n ratio? And what would be the effect of raising the p/n ration of a less well performing team? Of course Solution Focus has a range of highly successful tools that would allow this question to be tested. Any takers? A final thought that occurs to me is that Fredrickson’s work certainly seems to support the attractive proposition put forward by the What if? Team: Creative fact of life number 1: ideas rarely come if you have a frown on your face. They come if you have a smile, and they come with passion.


Allan, D., Kingdon, M., Murrin, K ., Rudkin, D. (1999) ? What If!: How to Start a Creative Revolution at Work. Capstone: Oxford Fredrickson. BL, Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. American Psychological Society, Vol. 13, No. 2, March 2002

Fredrickson, BL.,Tugade, MM., Waugh, CE, Larkin, GR. (2003)What good are positive emotions in crises? A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the Terrorist Attacks on the united States on September 11th 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. APA: Washington, DC.
BL Fredrickson, MF Losada. (2005) Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist APA: Washington, DC.
Losada, M. (1999) The Complex Dynamics of High Performance Teams. Mathematical and Computer Modelling, November 1999, vol. 30, no. 9, pp. 179-192(14).

Losada, M Heaphy E. (2004) The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics - American Behavioral Scientist, Sage Publications

Evan George

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