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Why calls for positivity, without commitment to justice, are hollow

As we seek to understand and strive to be understood, we are nurturing our better angels.

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A member of the audience holds a “Justice for All” sign during West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s election night watch party at The Greenbrier Resort, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. Justice facilitates positivity, and vice-versa, write two Weber State University researchers.

Chris Jackson, Associated Press

With social unrest occurring locally, nationally and globally, many are calling for an increased focus on positivity. The pursuit of positivity is a noble one. According to the field of positive organizational scholarship, a focus on positivity can reveal and nurture “the highest level of human potential.” Examples of positivity include building strengths and resilience, showing compassion and empathy, forgiving, thriving and flourishing.

According to Kim Cameron, one of the founding scholars of positive organizational scholarship, “empirical evidence suggests that positivity is the preferred and natural state of human beings, just as it is of biological systems,” such that we have a natural tendency to seek contexts that bring out our best selves, even if our behaviors do not always reflect this tendency.

One reason our behaviors do not always reflect this tendency is that we also have a strong sensitivity toward the negative, as noted by Cameron, “both positive inclinations and negative sensitivities exist simultaneously in human beings.” This creates a paradox wherein we are pulled, sometimes forcefully, in two different directions. Although our sensitivity to negative stimuli can help us survive a harsh world, it can also weigh heavily on us — resulting in anxiety and burnout.

Our negative sensitivities pose a real threat to our positive inclinations. What can we do about it? We believe adherence to principles of justice is part of the solution. Unjust events and unfair processes are especially powerful triggers of negativity and suppressors of positivity. In fact, injustice is at the heart of many of our society’s current struggles. Feelings of inequality, inequity and an inability to have constructive dialog with each other can lead to intensified anger and fuel extreme perspectives.

Conversely, the positive outcomes associated with justice are pronounced. Research confirms that individuals are more likely to be committed, satisfied and engaged when they experience just outcomes, processes and interpersonal treatment. These outcomes extend into every aspect of our lives; fairness is important to people — it influences how we behave and what we experience.

With justice being so important to positivity, how do we cultivate justice?

One way is to focus on our immediate sphere of influence — fair interpersonal treatment of others. This relates to how we listen to each other, how we offer a different point of view or how we react when we disappoint each other. As we show respect, demonstrate openness to learning something new and recognize that the needs of others are as valid as our own needs, we position ourselves to offer interpersonal justice. When we engage in personal attacks (whether aggressively or passive-aggressively) or mischaracterize the positions of those with whom we disagree (either intentionally or negligently), we undermine interpersonal justice and damage our ability to promote positivity.

For positivity to emerge and thrive, we must seek understanding — of objective truths and of each other. As we honor the dignity of others, we provide the conditions to revisit assumptions and come together to address problems. In doing so, we might also conclude that the behaviors of others are, in fact, unjust, especially when such behaviors violate our senses, threaten entire groups of people, or undermine institutions of fairness.

Seeking to understand does not mean we have to accept unjust behavior. To the contrary, as we gain understanding, we are better positioned to challenge injustice. Some confuse the challenging of unjust behavior as not being positive, but ultimately, the thoughtful pursuit of what is just is an uplifting and positive pursuit. Calling out injustice is unifying — it is injustice that is divisive. Justice promotes pro-social behaviors and is a necessary condition for positivity. Calls for positivity, in the absence of a commitment to justice, ring hollow. Those who are truly advocates for that which is positive will also be advocates for that which is just.

Those who are truly advocates for that which is positive will also be advocates for that which is just.

As we seek to understand and strive to be understood, we are nurturing our better angels. We are also nurturing the better angels of those with whom we interact. This is the essence of positivity — generating strengths in each other and gravitating toward our positive inclinations. Justice facilities this process. 

Nelson Mandela was a great example of someone who sought to understand. As a result, he gained a broader perspective and became a powerful advocate for forgiveness (an example of positivity) and justice. In his 1994 inaugural address, he said, “Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all.”

Bryant Thompson is an Eccles Fellow and associate professor of business administration at Weber State University’s John B. Goddard School of Business & Economics. Jennifer Anderson is an associate professor of business administration in the Goddard School and an associate director of Weber State’s MBA program.