Accentuate the Positive: The role of positivity in emotional intelligence

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Courtney Walsh, Assistant Dean of Executive Education, University at Buffalo School of Management

When Buffalo native Harold Arlen and Capitol Records founder Johnny Mercer wrote the Oscar-nominated song “Accentuate the Positive” in 1944, they probably never considered how the lyrics would stand the test of time. “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and latch on to the affirmative,” Bing Crosby and Sonny Tufts sang in Here Comes the Waves.

More than 70 years later, the most emotionally intelligent leaders regularly practice a handful of important skills, and one of them is positivity. To be an emotionally intelligent leader, you need to see the positive in people, situations and events. You also need to be resilient enough to pursue goals, despite obstacles and setbacks. All of these things are part of maintaining a positive attitude.

Know yourself

The best way to approach any skill involving emotional intelligence is to start with self-examination. To determine your natural set point for positivity, you need to understand your own tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.

It is hard to see ourselves clearly, so you should ask a few close family members, friends or colleagues to help you take stock of your personality traits and how they affect your behavior. Have them share their observations with you about times when they have seen you at your best and your worst. These candid conversations will give you a behavioral baseline.

Questions you can discuss include:

  • Is your first inclination to see opportunities or challenges?
  • Are you more likely to give positive or negative feedback to yourself and others?
  • When faced with a complex situation, do you become frustrated or energized?

You can certainly supplement these observations with assessments, such as StrengthsFinder, and happiness and optimism questionnaires from the University of Pennsylvania’s Authentic Happiness page.

After a decade of experience working with professionals in our Executive and Professional MBA programs on emotional intelligence, I can tell you that business professionals are more likely to be negative than positive and typically focus more on tasks than relationships. Although these same professionals are usually resilient, they often don’t praise themselves or those around them.

Although changing your set point is difficult, an easy exercise to start creating new neural pathways for behavioral change is to take a moment each evening to choose three positive things that happened to you that day. If you write down your choices on a small note pad, you can easily flip the page over each day, allowing you to go back and look at the pattern of things that have had the most positive impact on you. This concept is a version of an exercise known as “three gratitudes.”


Having self-awareness and the ability to manage your positivity is the most difficult step. However, once you begin to create personal habits to reinforce positive behavior, you can expand those habits to include reinforcing positivity within your professional group, team or department.

The practice of positivity can be as simple as keeping track of how frequently you give feedback to your group. A number of studies suggest that we need to give positive feedback at least four times more than negative feedback. This reinforces the good behaviors we want to see more frequently.

Positivity can also be reinforced through group communication. If a group does not encourage open discussion and praise, positivity can be difficult to foster group-wide. Even the structure of a group can create a more positive environment. Groups with shared decision-making can include processes that encourage positivity in how decisions are made.


Encouraging positivity at the organizational level can be achieved by linking rewards to positive behaviors noted in performance reviews. Creating specific performance items that encourage employees to help one another develop and emphasize teamwork are ways to improve positivity throughout an organization.

Initially, we might have been tempted to define positivity as giving someone a compliment. However, we all know that acting and motivating others through positivity, and structuring an environment that thrives on positivity and stands up to adversity, is an essential component of strong leadership and healthy organizations.

So, go ahead and “latch on to the affirmative” — it will go a long way toward eliminating the negative.

As assistant dean of executive education in the University at Buffalo School of Management, Courtney Walsh oversees everything in the Center for Executive Development. You can also find her teaching the “Emotional Intelligence” course for Executive MBA students.

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