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Home » All, Business, Positive Feelings, _1 Positive Experiences

Want to Flourish? Stay in the Zone

By on December 8, 2008 – 6:00 pm  25 Comments

Dr. Marcial Losada is the founder and executive director of Meta Learning, a consulting organization that specializes in developing high performance teams. He currently consults with executives and their teams at several corporations in the U.S. and around the world. More information here. His articles are here.



Here’s a link to Part II of this series: Work Teams and the Losada Line: New Results.

What is the path that can take us from languishing to flourishing? This path is nonlinear. Nonlinearity is a bad word. It doesn’t define what it is, it only says what is not.

Some things in this world are linear, like the accelerator in a car: the more I press it, the faster the car goes. It is a good thing that the accelerator is linear; it would be disastrous if it were nonlinear. Like the accelerator, there are many other devices that are useful because they are linear.

Marriages are Non-Linear!

Linear means what I put in is proportional to what I get out.  Non-linear means the input is not proportional to its output; i.e., with little, but clever, effort I can get disproportionably more out of a complex system, and with a lot of dumb effort I can get disproportionably less. In marriages that work, it could be that what matters most is not how much they do for each other, but rather when and how they do it. In other words, nonlinear means that I have to understand the context in order to find the lever that provides the clue to smart actions.

Nonlinear in black and white When it comes to complex systems, where components interact strongly, linearity is practically useless. Marriages and teams are such complex interacting systems: there are no simple linear recipes to be successful, which makes it both challenging and fascinating. The best linear models can explain about 30% of the variance in output (team performance). About 70% of the variance remains unexplained.

What Is the “Meta Learning Model”?

On the other hand, a nonlinear model like the meta learning model accounts for 92% of the output variance; only 8% remains unexplained. Most linear models require many variables and parameters to explain a small amount of variance. In science, we like parsimony: explaining the most with the least.

The meta learning model shown in Figure 1 consists of three bipolar variables:

  • inquiry-advocacy (how much people ask vs. talk),
  • positivity-negativity (how much people are positive vs. negative),
  • other-self (how much people are focused on others vs. on themselves),

one control parameter, connectivity, and  two other parameters (a and b in Fig. 1):

  • viscosity (how the environment resists change), and
  • negativity bias (our speed of response to negative events to avoid harm).

Flourishing - The Losada Zone

Fig.1 The Meta Learning Model

PPND readers may be familiar with the positivity-negativity ratio (P/N) from previous articles (including “Flourishing with the Positive” by Doug Turner and The “Right Fit at Work” by Jen Hausmann).  As a reminder, the P/N ratio falls within the Losada zone, when it is greater than or equal to  2.9013, but lower than 11.6346. In this zone, nonlinearity rules.

Lorenz Attractor

Lorenz Attractor

Above the Losada zone, the system goes to limit cycles; and below it goes to fixed-point attractors. A fixed point is like being confined to a solitary cell with almost no space to move. In a limit cycle, while you are still confined, you have more room, but can only walk around and around in a tedious, repetitive, way.

 

Furthermore, the Losada zone reminds us that the key does not lie in runaway positivity. If the key were linear, then we could say that the more positivity the better, as is sometimes wrongly assumed. But the key is nonlinear: The ratio of positivity to negativity has lower and upper bounds for it to function optimally. We have not observed teams that go above the Losada zone, not even after intense training in meta learning (around a year). The vast majority of the teams we have worked with in a variety of countries and cultures start below the Losada zone and all of them, without exception, end up above the Losada line (which is the lower bound of the Losada zone), but well below the upper bound––typically, teams end up not higher than a P/N ratio of 6.

Why Is Meta Learning Good for Teams and Marriage?

Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu

The ancient Chinese sage Lao Tsu wrote, “nonlinearity begets completeness; misjudgment creates linearity.” Let’s focus on the key words that Lao Tsu uses: completeness and misjudgment.  Misjudge is to estimate wrongly. Trying to see complex phenomena as linear is tempting because the human mind looks for simplifications in order to apprehend what otherwise might not be within the grasp of our understanding. Because of our success in using linearity to control many devices, mostly mechanical, we tend to look for similar answers to try to understand and control complex situations for which mechanical analogies are insufficient. The danger lies in estimating these complex situations wrongly and believing our estimation is sufficiently accurate.

 

Let’s now focus on completeness, the second term Lao Tsu uses to refer to the power of nonlinearity. In statistical theory, completeness is a property of a statistic that allows us to obtain optimal information about the unknown parameters characterizing the distribution of the underlying data. This definition is directly relevant to the way the meta learning model was developed.

First, hundreds of thousands of data points were gathered at two labs in Ann Arbor and Cambridge that represented the interaction patterns of business teams. Then in 1999, I developed a model that captured the essential features of these data. The time series generated by the meta learning model were cross-correlated with the empirical time series gathered at the labs. It was determined that the model approximated the actual data with a very low probability of error (p < .01). Hence, we were able to comply with Lao Tsu’s completeness requirement.

The power of the meta learning model comes from its nonlinear structure (see the nonlinear differential equations that define the model in Fig. 1). When its control parameter, connectivity, is below a certain threshold, we have one kind of dynamic regime, a linear regime that is represented by fixed points. But if it is above that threshold, we have a nonlinear dynamics regime, represented by what I call a complexor – union of two words: complex order. 

Emily Heaphy

Emily Heaphy

This is my research with Emily Heaphy from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan from 2004. The linear regime can only produce repetitive and rigid order, which is not sufficient to deal with complex environments. The nonlinear regime produces complex and flexible order that is negentropic – it doesn’t decay to fixed points or limit cycles – and can lead to innovative solutions which are a hallmark of high performance teams as I show in my 1999 paper.

We can see in Fig. 1 that complexor dynamics lead to flourishing, while fixed points and limit cycles lead to languishing. Meta learning is a nonlinear methodology that allows a system (person, relationships, teams or organizations) to move from languishing to flourishing in a sustainable way. I explain this in detail in my forthcoming book, Meta Learning: The Nonlinear Path from Languishing to Flourishing in Relationships and Teams (more info will be available on my site).

Tomorrow’s article is about a new result in work teams and the Losada line – a threshold that overcomes the barrier to flourishing by using the power of nonlinearity.

Images:
Light chaos (nonlinear optics) courtesy of KevinDooley
black-and-white from Pyramid Encoder with Nonlinear Prediction by Panu Chaichanavong at Stanford University,
Lorenz attractor courtesy of ganjalf007
Lao Tsu

References

Fredrickson, B. L. & Losada, M. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686.

Losada, M. (1999). The complex dynamics of high performance teams. Mathematical and Computer Modelling, 30(9-10), 179-192. Abstract and order information here.

Losada, M. & Heaphy, E. (2004). The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(6), 740-765. Abstract and order information here.

Tong, H. (1990). Non-linear time series: A dynamical system approach. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Tucker, W. (2002). A Rigorous ODE Solver and Smale’s 14th Problem. Foundations of Computational Mathematics, 2, 53-117.

25 Comments »

  • Senia Maymin says:

    Marcial,

    The parts of your research that most interest me are the three dimensions. I have asked you before, and from what you and Barb write in your 2005 paper together, it is clear that there are optimal lines above which the relationship is flourishing.

    It’s extremely interesting to me that for group/team dynamics the optimal ratios are:
    * P/N over 2.9:1
    * inquiry(asking)-vs-advocacy(stating) is about 1:1
    * other-vs-self is about 1:1

    Do you think there are certain situations – certain dynamics – in which either the inquiry/advocacy or the other/self need to be higher ratios?
    Also, are there theoretically upper limits on the inquiry/advocacy or other/self in groups?

    Thanks for the guest article! It’s great to see it here after your thoughtful commenting on past posts (here and here).

    Looking forward to tomorrow’s results posting also. Thank you!

    Senia

  • Senia,

    When you get to the gates of heaven, and your whole life is in front of you, then your ratio of inquiry to advocacy will probably be around 1:1. Now, it is possible that in some times and in some situations, you may find it more useful to ask more or tell more, but overall – on the whole – the ratio will likely remain around 1:1.

    Marcial

  • Doug Hensch says:

    Marcial – Thanks for your article. I really enjoyed it.

    In particular, I was wondering if you thought that this meta learning can be done online with any effectiveness. In particular, we might be interested in testing some exercises on http://www.happier.com where people may be able to learn this methodology and ‘practice’ in an online environment.

    Again, thanks for the article!

    doug@happier.com

  • Marcial,

    I was introduced to your work by Barbara Fredrickson in the MAPP program two years ago and thought your model was a huge contribution to both business and positive psychology. I often show your “losada line” model to business groups. It is wonderful to have data from real teams that show us the benefits of more positivity and a balance of advocacy/inquiry — but also to be clear that “all positive” isn’t what positive psychology is espousing either.

    What other systems dynamics would you like to see modeled — or have you seen modeled– in positive psychology? As you point out, most of us have trouble comprehending non-linear dynamics, so thank you for describing your model in a way that we can understand.

    One other question: are there any research or articles that you would recommend on non-linear learning in middle/high school? I’ve been looking at adolescent learning– and have learned that some students don’t do well with linear (verbal) learning, but can process more complex, multi-dimensional information easily. If you have any information or thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.

    Thank you,
    Christine
    http://www.positiveleaders.com

  • Doug,

    Thank you for your comment.
    [[rest is missing]]

    Marcial

  • Christine,

    Thank you very much for the comment.

    I am not currently aware of anything about non-linear dynamics and education, but I would happily let you know if I do learn of it. Thank you.

    Marcial

  • Denise Clegg says:

    Marcial, Your piece highlights such an important principle … that all flourishing is dynamic, and interrelated. And embodied! Like a dance of complexity. I’ve just come across this terrific interview with Alva Noe that has some philosophical parallels on the non-linear “dance of consciousness” in perception and creativity at the individual level. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/noe08/noe08_index.html. Thank you for your article, D.

  • Denise,

    Thank you – the dance is a wonderful analogy.
    [The rest is no longer here.]

    I wasn’t able to open the link.

    Thank you,
    Marcial

  • Denise Clegg says:

    Marcial, beautifully described! Try this link, which will link to the Edge interview: http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2008/11/the_dance_of_conscio.html

  • Editor S.M. says:

    Unfortunately, many of Marcial’s comments were lost today in a technology fluke when the spam-filter went into overdrive. We really apologize for that. The above discussion may not appear smooth.

  • geralda paulista says:

    I think your amazing propousal will help to change the bellicose relationships to love, peace, harmony of the human beings among themselves and with the nature.

    thak you for your existence

    Geralda Paulista
    Brasil

  • Marcial Losada says:

    It takes a Brazilian to touch your heart.

    I do believe that if people of all nations would meta learn; i.e. transcend from the current me first, no questions, just listen to me, and prevailing negativity, to let’s consider you and me so that we move to WE, I am fascinated by you, I want to know more, let me ask some questions, there are so many things you do right than wrong, then we could truly connect with each other.

    Even the Atacama desert in Chile, the driest in the world, flourishes once a year. One day, let’s hope, this world of ours, so many times dark and dry, world of ours may flourish.

    Marcial

  • Marcial,

    Have you been able to clearly define and quantify “viscosity” and “negativity bias” in your work? These concepts feel intuitively right to me, yet sound difficult to pin down. Any luck yet?

    Thanks so much for the article!

    Nick

  • Yes, I have been, Nick.

    It wasn’t easy because I had to find the answer in fluid dynamics. I have said in my 1999 paper that for the social sciences to make progress they need to move from the physics of solids to the physics of fluids. My model has the same mathematical structure as the famous Lorenz model, which is fluid dynamics model. In that model, one of the parameters is precisely viscosity. Some of the ancient Greek philosophers saw the world in terms of a few elements: earth, water, air. The parameter viscosity is in essence a way to see things from more solid (earth) to more ethereal (air). The ideal level of viscosity is that of water. The Tao says that “the highest excellence is that of water, because it occupies without striking.” If a team operates in an organization that has the fluidity of water, things can be accomplished without striking. But if the organization has the viscosity of earth, then in order to accomplish things, you have to strike. There might be a few organizations that have the viscosity of air, where things might be “up in the air” and nothing of substance gets done.

    I have developed a table that shows the P/N values necessary to face different levels of organizational viscosity. It will be published in my forthcoming book.

  • Sorry, Nick, I forgot negativity bias. As you know, there is extensive literature that talks about negativity bias. I came upon a study done at Penn State by researchers in linguistics that show that independent of culture and age, we all have a 2.667 bias towards recalling more negative than positive emotions. Eckman well known basic 6 emotions comprise 1 positive (happiness) 4 negatives and one neutral (surprise–can be either positive or negative). I use the Penn State value in my research. It coincides exactly with the parameter value that the Lorenz model assigns to the variable that corresponds with P/N in my model.

  • Hi Marcial,

    I really like updates on the Meta Learning model. Low performing and medium performing has changed into languishing types one and two. Have you come a cross a lot of teams with type 2? Has it been that while positivity is high other variables are twisted towards self and advocating? Also I like Flourishing more than high performing, it is more holistic.
    Good job.

  • Dear Tapio, how nice to hear from you again. And to have you present here, in this forum. Welcome!

    I still have some of that wonderful Salmiako you guys brought from Finland when you visited me in Brazil. As a matter of fact, I just took a sip of it. Delicious and it gets you going! I recommend it to everybody at PPND.

    Agree Tapio. Flourishing is more holistic, more of what we need nowadays. Excellent question about type II languishing. No, I haven’t found teams in that category. I know people who are there, and they are not doing so well. Fixed points of languishing type 1, drain your energy. Limit cycles of languishing type 2, make your energy stale, it doesn’t renew itself. Too much positivity tires you. At least it tires me. I need to be told “you are wrong”, “if you continue that way, it’s not going to work”, “you are too self-centered,” “give me a break,” etc. Of course I’ll need three positives for each one of those or a sip of Salmiako (puts you right there in the Losada line, doesn’t it?).

  • simon says:

    Hi there Dr.L

    I thought i would just says cheers for the intresting viewpoint on modeling, teams, and psych.

    All the best

    Simon

  • Yan Song says:

    Observe in governments for type I and liberal churches (e.g., Unitarian) for type II behaviors

    Cheers,

    Yan

  • Fatima Benefeldt South Africa says:

    Dear Mr Losada

    I am intrigued by your scientific writings that stand out clearly as daylight logic and fact but yet it is cushioned almost completely by an almost invisible sense of, spiritualism, wisdom and lovingness.

    I truly enjoy reading your publications,

    Best Regards

    Fatima

  • Thanks, Dr.Marcial F. for your Losada Line, were I know when am flourhishing !

  • Bala Kishore says:

    Dear Dr. Losada,

    can you please let me know if your book ” Meta Learning: The Nonlinear Path from Languishing to Flourishing in Relationships and Teams ” got published ? I dont find it on Amazon.

    If not, can you please let me know when will it be published.

    ThankYou,
    bala

    Bala Kishore
    Vice President,
    United Online (India) Inc.

  • The book will be posted in my site http://www.losadalineconsulting.com in the near future

  • The book will be posted in my site http://www.losadalineconsulting.net in the near future

  • Jorge otto says:

    Estimado Marcial
    Me encantaría poder medir la losada en mi organización, en específico, la taza de P/N. Existe alguna herramienta que este disponible en linea para poder realizar mi proyecto?

    (From Google translate):

    Estimated Marcial
    I’d love to measure losada in my organization, specifically, the rate of P / N. Is there a tool that is available online to make my project?

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