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Alex Bailey presented at our London speaker event in September about how Positive Psychology is being applied.

Alex Bailey

After training as a Business Psychologist, Alex Bailey worked as an external consultant before going on to design and deliver large-scale cultural evolution and strengths-based leadership programmes at Norwich Union, American Express and Aviva. With a passion for the practical application of Positive Psychology in the workplace, she has built a successful organisation and career as a practising Business Psychologist at Bailey & French.

Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology is a relatively new branch of Psychology that has emerged in the last 20 years. With a background in depression and learned helplessness, it’s founder (and past president of the American Psychological Association), Professor Martin Seligman, proposed that the traditional approaches to psychology were not proving useful in developing individuals, teams and organisations. He believed that a strengths-focused approach would enhance wellbeing and promote positive performance and empower people to flourish and thrive in work and beyond.

Over time, Positive Psychology has evolved from being seen as ‘happyology’, limited to mindfulness and appreciative enquiry, to a significantly impactful evidence-based approach for those working within business psychology. Psychologist, Robert Biswas – Diener proposed the following definition of Positive Psychology:

“A science that brings its many virtues – replication, controlled causal studies, peer review, representative sampling – to bear on the question of how people flourish.”

It is a hugely growing field, which is engineering a paradigm shift in the approach to people at work, focusing primarily on strengths rather than the traditional corporate approach of “fixing what’s wrong”, and it is delivering results. Whilst a significant amount of work is currently being undertaken in Australia, it is time to explore the pioneering work taking place in the UK and how Positive Psychology fits into the future of work.

What is the theory and where is the evidence?

Barbara Frederickson is dominant in the field of positive emotions. Her Broaden & Build theory concludes that positive emotions broaden our field of vision and awareness and encourage us to find solutions more easily. In turn, this builds our skills and resources and encourages new learning.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi explored aspects of work in the form of absorption in a task. Complete concentration and a feeling of being ‘in the zone’ results in greater engagement, more positive wellbeing and increased success. This development manifested itself as moments of “flow” and this is achieved when we are using our strengths- those things that we find truly energising.

What this research showed was that this immersion caused a “switching off” from distractions and provided an escape from reality and a sense of control and growth.  What was remarkable was the extent to which it was accompanied by general reduced anxiety and stress.  This provides a clue as to how business psychology can have a positive impact on the reduction of anxiety and stress in the workplace and the enhancement of organisational performance.

Jane Dutton undertook some research into building quality connections – strong social relationships built around mutual trust, task enabling, and respect. High quality connections act as revitalisers, boosting motivation and buffering the stresses and strains associated with the workplace.

Rick Snyder was responsible for the theory of Way Power. Will power refers to our ability to shape our future, whereas, way power refers to our ability to see the ways we can shape our future.

In 2017 interviews conducted by Harvard Business Review with large samples concluded that 83% of individuals have no work-related goals. Snyder postulated that we are more likely to achieve success and perform positively, when our goals are connected to our intrinsic motivators. Moreover, those who experience way power are more hopeful, more resilient and less anxious.

What does the Positive Psychology research say?

  •  Positive emotions moderate the impact of stressful events on coping ability, and in turn, psychological and physical wellbeing
  • Positivity at work leads to enhanced self-efficacy – which increases job / relationship satisfaction and mental health
  • Identifying different ways to achieve a goal can help improve people’s flexibility and ability to overcome obstacles that get in the way of achieving the goal
  • Simply learning strengths, makes people 7.8% more productive and teams that focus on strengths every day are 12-15% more productive

So, in terms of applying Positive Psychology to the organisational context, we do not have to be assessors as psychologists. We do not have to use psychometrics and categorise our people. We can introduce small changes at each stage of the employee lifecycle (from job searching, through to exiting) that can transform a deficit organisation into a strengths-based organisation. Cultural evolution does not have to take 5-7 years in a global organisation. We have a world of opportunity to apply this across the employee lifecycle in all the work we do as business psychologists.

A major application is Recruitment Advertising and Talent Management

Job descriptions should be about how people feel when they are in a job.  It should also be about attracting by “transforming” a target audience.  An example is “Call Centres” where attraction of quality candidates into unattractive roles is becoming critical. Descriptions should be inclusive and appealing to people at different stages in life.

The hiring process should be about empowering managers to go with their gut feel. But really validating this with highly specific strengths identification. Traditionally managers have recruited in their own image: a new approach is changing emphasis to spot emerging strengths rather than glaring weaknesses and try to see whether candidates would be likely to flourish in the company environment and in high performing teams.

Additionally, the competency framework is still commonly used across organisations, however these fail to take account of what people are really passionate about. Their one-size-fits-all approach fails to nurture individual strengths and undermines positive energy. In comparison, Strengths Based Recruitment is attracting, selecting and promoting those people who are more likely to flourish and thrive in their role.

Organisations are often so siloed.  Positive psychology advocates facility to move within organisations (horizontally as well as vertically). Everyone has some transferable skills: they just need to be analysed appropriately and tapped into.  All organisations have scope to be more innovative about how they identify skills but some need to adopt root and branch reform.  For example those who are analytical could use their strength equally well in HR as they could in a Finance role.

Positive Psychology has a huge impact on motivating others

Traditional performance management processes have been shown to be ineffective.   Some organisations have spent millions of pounds on special systems which either waste more time and resources or are abandoned and never used! There is a strong need to change the tone of conversation and focus on identifying and recognising our people’s strengths. We can tell our managers to have regular ‘reviews’ and tell our people to take accountability for scheduling them, but why would they do that with reviews they don’t want to have once a year?

It’s time to transform ‘performance management’ – which is heavily focused on weaknesses, underperformance and relationship imbalance – into ‘performance motivation’. The latter strengths-focused approach does not ignore people’s weaknesses, but it helps create more positive, open and honest conversations. In doing so, it creates a much more trusting relationship that can withstand much higher levels of challenge. Knowing someone at their best, and working from that, removes underlying negative assumptions and results in motivation much more quickly.

This approach gives people the scope to gather feedback and define their strengths and empowers them to set realistic goals and take personal responsibility for their own performance and development.

Positive Psychology can introduce a climate of Trust in People to Self Manage

There have been swings from fully managed organisations with multiple layers, all the way to the other end of the spectrum where companies (such as Zappos) promote full autonomy of their people in holocratic models. Self-managing teams fall nicely in the middle and benefit from both sides of the coin.

When organisations analyse degrees of stress in employees it is fascinating that middle managers are almost invariably the most anxious as they have little control over performance evaluations but are responsible for delivering positive results. Handing them more autonomy has a huge effect on stress reduction in teams.

Trends in the future of work show that innovating our people strategies to support open and honest adult/empowered conversations and subsequently trust-based relationships will positively impact performance and wellbeing.  These practices are also important foundations for supporting self-managing teams.

Positive Psychology Empowers People to Flourish and Thrive at Work

Positive Psychology supports Seligman’s five-pillar PERMA Model of Wellbeing. By having a culture of Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment (PERMA), people can be more resilient at work.

Many wellbeing programmes focus simply on physical health and mental illness- meaning that no one really gains the knowledge and skills to manage their own day-to-day psychological wellbeing. Positive wellbeing approaches offer a strategic alternative giving people the platforms to take accountability for their own and others’ wellbeing in a positive way.

It’s no longer about EAP’s, rewards/benefits and gym memberships- i.e. treating the symptoms. It’s about tackling the causes and building resilience to achieve true wellbeing and help people thrive and flourish at work. It’s no longer reactive, positive wellbeing advocates a proactive, preventative approach- getting people from -5 up to +5.

Bailey & French are pioneering the largest-scale practical application of PERMA by delivering ‘Wellbeing Confident Leaders’ training to 90% of Senior Civil Servants across all Civil Service Departments. This programme is helping senior leaders develop a more confident approach to their work and relationships with others in their teams, to support positive psychological wellbeing across the Service.

In short, Positive Psychology is a human approach. It is about openness and sharing, and learning from each other.  It is about how can we modify our view on work and how we can apply our strengths to enhance our performance, increase our collaboration and empower flourishing in work and beyond.

To close

We asked ourselves at the end of the session:

*          Let’s share …….  What are you currently doing?

*          How will positive psychology affect your practice as a business psychologist?

*          How is positive psychology relevant to your work?

The ABP can be used as a vehicle for our sharing of knowledge.  Let’s use this session as the starting block for an ongoing conversation about how we can be positive about our profession and our focus on improving the effectiveness of people and organisations.


11 Sept 18

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