Positive Psychology is probably a term you’ve heard, but perhaps haven’t had the time to investigate. It is the science and study of wellbeing and has practical applications at the individual, community and organisational levels. This article explores 5 principles and how they can support you to improve your workplace wellbeing and performance at work.
Positive psychology was formed in 1998 with Seligman’s presidential address at the American Psychological association. He highlighted the previous focus on mental illness and called for a reorientation of the field towards the positive (Seligman, 1999). Positive psychology encompasses a science that investigates what makes life meaningful, what creates flourishing organisation’s and how to improve wellbeing within the workplace.
There is still debate over how to define wellbeing, and researchers are yet to form a single definition (Delle Fave, 2011). For simplicity, we refer to the World Health Organisation’s definition, which focuses on the individual, rather than communities or organisation’s. They define wellbeing as;
“A state in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her own community.”
If your team was made up of individuals who were experiencing high levels of wellbeing, (in positive psychology, we call this flourishing), we could assume that their productivity would be improved. There are many elements that support this statement, and here we’ll explore five theories from positive psychology that can potentially improve your teams’ wellbeing and productivity. Each element also has a section where you can put the theory to work in your team.
- The Positivity ratio
Historically, there was much research into why we experience negative emotions and little work done on the role positive emotions play in our lives (Fredrickson, 2009, p. 20). Fredrickson, in response to this question developed her broaden & build theory (Fredrickson, 2001) which describes how our brains respond to positive emotions or events.
Essentially when we experience positives, our brains broaden and our perspective shifts to allow more information in. This enables a change in what Fredrickson coined our ‘thought action repertoire’ and facilitates our ability to think and act in multiple ways (Fredrickson, 2009). This broadened thought action repertoire opens us up to new opportunities, and as they are acted upon, we build lasting resources. Lasting resources could include gains in intellectual knowledge, physical strength, psychological capabilities or social skills (Fredrickson, 2009).
Imagine delivering a presentation to the board and receiving positive feedback, this creates the broaden and build effect. You will naturally feel positive on receiving the feedback, and that positivity enables you to feel a little more confident in your abilities. On leaving the meeting, another executive asks you to deliver a similar presentation to his team. With the positive feedback still ringing in your ears, not only do you respond with enthusiasm, you’re already thinking about how you can add in more relevant information, create more meaning for them and deliver an even better presentation than you just did. After the conversation you’re feeling inspired and like you can contribute at a greater level, so you work just a little harder on this new presentation… and it too is a success. The successful presentation sparks more positives which enable you to stretch a little further again. This is broaden and build effect at work and enables workplace wellbeing.
Fredrickson went further in her research and looked at high performing teams and the way they interacted with each other. Lossada and Fredrickson teamed up to identify if there was a ratio of positive interactions that could predict whether a team would perform well or not. They found that a ratio of above 2.9: 1, that is, when we experience 2.9 positive emotions to any negative, created a tipping point (Fredrickson, Positivity. Groundbreaking Research to Release You Inner Optimist and Thrive, 2009). Teams experiencing this ratio or better were mobilised upwards in Fredrickson’s positivity spiral and towards the point of flourishing.
Questions have been raised with this research. The mathematics behind the Positivity Ratio have been scrutinised and found wanting (Brown, 2013). It is argued that Lossada’s use of differential equations contained mathematical errors. These authors still concluded they are not questioning that positive emotions are more likely to build resilience than their negative counterpart, or that having a higher Positivity Ratio is preferable to a lower one. Conceptually, the theory is sound, mathematically it may require further work.
In another study, Fredrickson highlights that individuals whom experience flourishing stand out from others due to their daily, high levels of positive emotions. It’s also noted that when compared to a non-flourishing group, the levels of negativity were virtually the same (Fredrickson B. , 2013). Hence, it’s not actually in diminishing or mitigating the negatives that create flourishing, rather the deliberate and conscious reorientation toward the positive.
Within your team, how can you apply the positivity ratio practically? Try finding novel ways to create micro moments of positivity, it could be a hearty ‘good morning’ or buying a colleague a freshly ground, barrista made, coffee. Each small spark of positivity has the ability to create the broaden and build effect and improve our teams’ positivity ratio. Remember, we’re not aiming for ‘Everest’ type positives. In fact, one study by Isen, at Cornell University, found that when medical Doctors were given lolly pops before being asked to diagnose a new client, their diagnosis was both faster and more accurate than others not primed to feel positive. Isen concluded that when people experience more positive emotions, they are able to access more areas of their memory, become more creative problem solvers and are less likely to get confused or overwhelmed when dealing with challenges (Wasowicz, 1995).
TRY THIS – Start each meeting with your team with a positive whip around. Ask each attendee for one thing that has gone well since last meeting. It may be a satisfied client, a deadline met or acknowledging another staff members contribution to a project. This is going to have an immediate impact on your teams’ positivity ratio, boosting the number of positive emotions and interactions, and also help the team to develop more high quality connections.
- High Quality Connections
Within most organisations there are some people you love working with. These people will inspire you to work harder, acknowledge and share in your successes and support your efforts to learn and grow. Then, there are others who seem to be able to contaminate any meeting or conversation with negativity. These people will leave you feeling de-energised, de-motivated and disengaged with your work, team and organisation. Jane Dutton’s research on high quality connections (HQC) explores the former group and identifies factors that contribute to positive interactions in the workplace and build workplace wellbeing.
Dutton defines the benefits of HQC as having the ability to enlivening people, she explains how HQC can unleash human resourcefulness and create new insights into positive organisational behaviors (Dutton & Heaphy, 2003, p. 276). There are three core elements in her HQC theory (Dutton & Heaphy, 2003) and each must be present to create a high quality connection.
- A feeling of vitality and aliveness. Emotionally, when we really connect with someone we feel uplifted and positive. This has a powerful impact not only on our communication but our likely behavior afterwards.
- Positive regard for the other person. We feel like the other person respects us and we find ourselves in an instant state of rapport where we can trust in the relationship.
- Both parties in the relationship feel equally connected, both invest in the relationship and both are energised as a result.
To explore the concept of HQC further and relate it back to our earlier theory of the positivity ration, let’s investigate the idea of positive deviance. The term positive deviance explains people behaving in ways that deviate from the normal expectations of society, in positive ways (Lavine, 2013). For example, one customer service representative at a local store, regularly dresses up for special occasions in loud, bright and eccentric costumes. It’s not store policy, as other staff are dressed in plain uniforms, but this one lady consistently brings a moment of positivity to many shoppers. Her choice to be a positive deviant lifts the shopping experience and invokes pleasure for many consumers, young and old. This is clearly an individual who is choosing to be positively deviant in her behaviour.
In stark contrast, another assistant at the same store, recently reduced a young mother, with two rambunctious boys, to tears as she was trying to pay for her shopping. This assistants’ inability to demonstrate compassion, combined with her scathing remarks about the boys’ behaviour, was a strong example of the harm that can be done when negative connections contaminate the workplace.
TRY THIS – Each week, make time to acknowledge one staff member and openly and publicly thank them for their effort and contribution to the business (Lopez, 2015, p. 154). Not only is this a positively deviant behaviour, it has the ability to begin to nurture a new high quality connection and improve your teams positivity ratio.
Alex Linley defines a strength as a capacity to behave, think or feel in a certain way that is both energizing and authentic to the individual. He goes on state that strengths support higher performance, enable optimal functioning and enhance personal development (Collinson, 2016). Essentially, there are some things you do at work that make you feel engaged and alive, you know you perform well at, and you could do all day and still feel enthusiastic about the task at hand.
Your individual strengths are responsible for this elevated performance and increased engagement and contribute to your workplace wellbeing. There is strong evidence that indicates professionals using strengths at work experience:
- Lower levels of depression
- High levels of vitality
- Good mental health
- Less stress
- Increased confidence
- Faster growth and development
- Improved creativity and flexibility
- More pro-social behaviors
- Increased satisfaction and meaning in their work (McQuaid, 2015, pp. 29-38).
One Gallup study found that as many as 87% of American workers were either ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ at work meaning they were more likely to steal, report sick days and negatively impact both coworkers and customers (McQuaid, 2015, p. 45). They went on to find that leaders who focus on developing their employees’ strengths can “practically eliminate active disengagement and double the average number of engaged employees across the organisation (McQuaid, 2015, p. 45).”
The greatest challenge faced by companies looking to develop staff strengths is which strengths assessment tool should be used? There are three that stand out in terms of their validity and reliability. It’s important you find the strengths assessment that provides the best fit for your team. Here are the options in brief;
- The VIA Strengths assessment – This is a free online tool that works with the Values In Action (VIA) classification of strengths. There are 24 strengths broken down into 6 virtue groups. Many organisations feel this group of strengths don’t cover the complexity or unique dynamics of the workplace, however as a free option, it provides an understanding of the language and process of strengths finding.
- Realise2 Strengths assessment – This tool comes from the Centre of Applied Positive Psychology(Centre for Applied Positive Psychology, 2017) and can be purchased on line. It incorporates 60 strengths, into four different quadrants of realised strengths, learned strengths, weaknesses and unrealised strengths. The benefit of Realise 2 is the identification of an individuals’ weaknesses, which has been normalised for professionals and the strengths are defined in the language of business.
- Clifton strengths finder – This strengths assessment tool was developed by Dr Donald Clifton, who founded the strengths movement. In includes 34 strengths presented in four categories of executing, influencing, relationship building and strategic thinking. Again, this is a paid tool and speaks the language of professionals.
Providing further indication that strengths are a good business investment, the Corporate Leadership Council conducted a study of almost 20,000 staff, from 34 businesses, across 29 different countries. The study indicated that when managers gave feedback to staff based on performance strengths, their workplace performance increased on average by 36.4%. In contrast, the study found that feedback based on performance weaknesses, saw an average decline in workplace performance by 26.8% (Corporate Leadership Council, 2004).
Investing in finding and developing your teams’ strengths are not only going to reengage your team and improve their workplace performance, it will improve the language and culture of the business and influence the teams’ wellbeing in positive ways. The best way to sum up strengths at work is with Einstein’s quote “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Perhaps there are capable, hardworking and extremely talented individuals within your team, who to date, haven’t been given the opportunity to fully express their strengths.
TRY THIS – Seligman and his team at Pennsylvania University have developed a remarkable website at https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/testcenter. Here they bring together many of the most reliable and valid assessment tools positive psychology has developed, for free. Log in and take the VIA strengths assessment and find your own top five character strengths. The VIA is a great introduction to strengths and when you receive your top five, spend a little time each day using one strength and notice how your personal positivity, relationships and productivity shift.
Multitasking became popular in the 80’s and bosses embraced the idea that staff could be asked to achieve more, with less time. Naturally, the movement took root in management circles and became normalised in the modern workplace. With the increase in technology, many staff are now able to access work 24/7, combine this with higher personal and professional expectations, and we find the damage multitasking causes to professionals is significant. Research from the University of London found that the impact of using technology while working (ie. multitasking) was a reduction of mental capability by an average of 10 IQ points, 5 points for women and 15 points for men (Rock, 2009). They likened the effect of multitasking to walking into an important meeting under the influence of marijuana or having missed an entire night’s sleep.
One Psychiatrist, Edward Hallowell, describes multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one (Hallowell, 2007).” Many organisations’ have ‘open door’ policies, which encourages leaders to be available at all times. Changing this culture is a significant challenge for any HR manager. Multitasking has been associated with increased allostatic load (Rock, 2009). This is an indication of negative wear and tear on the body occurring due to increases in both cortisol and adrenaline. Short periods of stress can be positive (McGonigal, 2013), however, prolonged periods can lead to chronic physical and mental health disorders.
In contrast, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed his theory of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Flow is described as a state in which people get ‘in the zone’, they lose focus of anything external to the immediate task and feel fully immersed and engaged in the activity at hand. Initial research was done with artists and found that the flow state eliminates distractions and places the brain in an optimal state to be productive (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Have you ever been so engaged in a project that you’ve forgotten to stop and eat and when you’ve finally looked up, found that the suns gone down long ago. This is the state of flow, and it’s where the magic happens, both at work and at play. Workplace wellbeing is enabled by staff experiencing regular periods of flow.
How often does your team get the opportunity to find flow in their work? How can we reorient the workplace culture to reduce multitasking and constant distractions and instead induce periods of both individual and collective flow experiences? By applying personal strengths to tasks you already enjoy, you’ll find your attention, engagement and productivity improve considerably. This also has a natural contagion effect within your team, creating more moments of positivity and improving the quality of relationships at work.
TRY THIS –Plan one task tomorrow that you can focus all your attention on. Block out time in your diary, shut your door, turn off your phone and give yourself the challenge to stay on task for a given period of time and work towards finding flow. Flow may not come naturally at first, but the concerted effort is certainly going to pay off in the long run, both in terms of wellbeing and productivity.
Having meaningful work is important to any professional and people who report greater meaning in their lives also experience greater wellbeing (Steger, 2007). Shawn Achor explains “the fastest way to disengage an employee is to tell him his work is meaningful only because of his paycheck (Achor, 2011, p. 81).” Meaning is both a cognitive and emotional assessment of whether one’s life has purpose and value (Beaumeister, 2013, p. 506) and contributes significantly to the wellbeing of any workplace.
Amy Wrysenzki’s research into meaning and how people function optimally at work, indicates workers all fall into three categories. Some perceive work as a job, that is a task they complete in return for payment. Some staff perceive their work as a career, an opportunity to develop critical skills, advance professionally and improve their station in life. Others see their work as a calling, stating they would do their role even if payment wasn’t received. This last group see their work as meaningful and making a significant contribution to others (Lopez, 2015). Remarkably, the distribution amongst the three groups is relatively even. For example, 1/3 of both cleaners and doctors view their work as a job, 1/3 view it as a career and 1/3 view it as a calling.
The more meaning teams have in their work the more engaged they become. The caveat however, is that higher levels of meaning has also been correlated, in one study, with increased stress, anxiety and decreased happiness (Beaumeister, 2013). Meaning is critical to your staff’s engagement levels. Too little and they don’t care, but too much and work becomes stressful. There is a delicate balance between creating an environment where staff are meaningfully connected to their work and overwhelmed by the importance of their role.
TRY THIS –If you feel like there may be an opportunity for your team connect more meaningfully to your workplace, consider B1G1, it represents Buy one Give one. Created by Paul Dunn, B1G1 is a platform that enables businesses to link any measurable aspect of their work to donations to a registered charity (Business for Good, 2017). For example, if you run a training organisation, you could link each booking to a donation towards a student’s education in Thailand. There are thousands of options, each one connecting your staff and client base to making a difference on a global scale.
Positive psychology offers many insights to support your organisation in developing higher levels of wellbeing and improving team productivity. The five strategies discussed simply provide an overview to demonstrate some of the theories and their applications in a professional workplace. As with any science, it’s beneficial to take the time to discover and trial different theories to find the best fit for your team and workplace.
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