Workplace psychology has recently undergone a revolution.
By Sara Lewis: a pioneer of transformational change through participative employee engagement, positive psychology and strengths-based approaches.
Nearly two decades of positive psychology research has made it clear that our twentieth century focus on fixing problems, reducing errors and learning from failure limits us in our efforts to improve our organisations. Positive psychology research has discovered and revealed many additional ways to help organizations move from bad to good and from good to great. There is an extensive knowledge base of how positive and strengths-based approaches can help organizations.
However new knowledge is one thing; getting it embedded in the lifeblood of organizations is quite another. Most organizations are not geared to learn from successes, excellence and the exceptionally good, and so working in this way demands a change in both thinking and behaviour. Below are five tips for helping your organization start to benefit from the workplace positive psychology revolution.
1) Start looking for strengths
We are all drawn towards noticing weaknesses and failure. We all have a tendency to think that improving performance lies in addressing our weaknesses. For example when people receive 360-degree feedback or some other performance data they tend to zoom in immediately on the low scores. Of course weaknesses need to be addressed, but we can be smarter about it. For instance, we can find people who have strengths in that area and ask them to help us. Or we can re-shape the boundaries of roles and tasks so that for each person their role calls mostly on their strengths.
Even more importantly, we can spend time really learning about our strengths and learning to use them well. We have a tendency to take our own strengths for granted, partly because the exercising of them seems easy, so it doesn’t feel like working! Instead we should recognize them as our golden assets. Like any asset we should be working out how to get the best return on them.
Encourage people to take time to notice the highest scores as well as the lowest and ask how they could use those abilities or attributes more or better to help them do a better job.
Make sure that performance conversations address how best to use strengths as well as how to overcome weaknesses.
2) Create hope in stuck problem situations
Organisational life has a tendency to revolve around problems. We spot problems, discuss problems and attempt to solve problems. Indeed organizations can sometimes feel like little more than problem-solving entities.
When we are successfully solving problems we can feel productive and energized. However there often comes a point when the problem solving gets stuck. Things don’t get resolved and conversations go around into unproductive circles or spiral down into the pit of despair where all hope of making things better is lost. The conversation becomes un-productive, repetitive and de-energizing: it’s stuck.
At this point we need to kick start some life back into the conversation. We need to start focussing on what we can do rather than what we can’t do. By re-discovering and reminding ourselves of our organisational strengths we can pick up motivation and energy and often find new ways forward. To do this we need to flip the conversation around from what we can’t do to want we can do, from what we don’t want to what we do want, from what doesn’t work to what does work. When we start to talk about these things we re-connect with emotions of hope and desire. These motivating emotions often enable us to move the conversation in new and more productive directions. They bring back life to our discussions.
Use flip questions to shift the conversation from problem talk to hope talk.
3) Use some of the great tools around
Over the last few years positive psychology practitioners have produced some great tools to help us have conversations at work that focus on supporting and expanding our strengths conversation. For instance there is now a range of sets of strengths cards suitable for groups ranging from front line staff to senior management. There are card sets to help people identify their values, emotional states, expertise and core beliefs.
Recently at least three providers have developed card sets that present positive psychology activities and behaviours that can be used to address organisational challenges. Other practitioners have developed psychometric tools that assess strengths, or performance appraisal processes that focus on identifying and utilising strengths. Skill Boosters and other training organizations are developing short learning videos that show how to coach to strengths, for example.
There are lots of great tools out there, find them and use them in existing workplace conversations like strategy development, coaching, performance appraisal, goal setting and so on.
4) Bring out the headline figures
The verdict is in. Attending to strengths and to the positive is impactful on wellbeing and on performance. For instance Gallup asserts, from its extensive research, that employees are six times more likely to be engaged at work when they have opportunities to use their strengths every day. Frequent recognition and encouragement activity has been shown to boost productivity over 40%. Investing in helping people renew their energy by taking short walks, using the company gym and disconnecting from email for a couple of hours so they can truly focus contributes to beliefs in improvements in resilience, focus and productivity. Greater motivation for a task is produced by presenting it as a learning opportunity than as a performance opportunity for example only 66% of a test group choose to engage with ‘showing us what you can really do’ while 82% choose to engage with the same task when it was presented as ‘you will probably learn a lot of new things’. Many of these pieces of data have been collated by Margaret Greenberg and are quoted from her excellent book ‘Profit from the positive.’
5) Improve the mood music
When people feel good they behave differently to when they feel neutral and to when they feel bad. In particular they tend to be: more outward looking, more interested in other people, more able to think creatively, more able to deal with novelty, more able to manage complex information, and more able in function in uncertainty. In other words they are better problem solvers, and, they are better able to work with others. These are two key requirements for most people in organisational life. So, to strengthen our organisational capability, we can invest in helping people feel better at work.
There are various ways of doing this, including: creating a culture of frequent recognition and encouragement; finding successes and celebrating them; helping people identify and use their strengths; sharing good news stories; and, creating opportunities for people to give each other authentic positive feedback.
Focus on finding ways to help people feel good to boost mood and effectiveness.
By Sarah Lewis M.Sc. C.Psychol: Sarah is an associated fellow of the British Psychological Society and a principal member of the Association of Business Psychologists.