The Power of the Positive

Monday, May 1, 2006 - 07:53

Positive psychology has emerged as a key tool in the workplace. One of the founders of the field, Dr Martin Seligman, was recently in Australia to explain the concepts and the tools it offers. By Derek Parker

There is a story that Amanda Horne, a consultant providing advice and executive coaching within the framework of positive psychology to a range of organisations, tells of a valuable executive who was operating at less than full potential. Traditional management techniques of identifying what was wrong and working out how to "fix" the problem only had a limited effect. The turnaround came when that individual looked at the extent of meaning and engagement in her life. This led her to volunteer to coach a local youth sports team. Within a short time, her overall mood and level of engagement at work lifted, and her career returned to the fast track. The case, says Horne, illustrates the value of positive psychology to corporate managers.

One of the central figures in the field of positive psychology is Dr Martin Seligman, who recently visited Australia to address several forums organised by the Australian Institute of Management. He is the author of over 20 books on positive psychology; for business-orientated readers, the most significant are Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness. He is also the Director of the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States.

Dr Seligman says that while traditional psychological research and practice focuses on curing mental illness, positive psychology deals with life satisfaction, and how it can be assessed and enhanced.

"It's important to realise," he says, "that this area has been the subject of extensive study. Some people might think of it as feelgood, smiley-face stuff, but there is a huge base of research, supported by extensive longitudinal and comparative studies. While every person is different, life satisfaction is something that can be measured and assessed.

"For managers, understanding positive psychology is crucial," says Carolyn Barker, CEO of AIM for Queensland and the Northern Territory. "The skills that are needed most in business today are empathy, self-awareness, and vision. The contribution that Martin Seligman has made is to provide the link between the study of psychology and daily life. At the same time, he has provided a background of research, all in language that is familiar to people in business."

Dr Seligman points to research showing that optimistic people are generally more productive and creative, both in specific organisational environments as well as in other aspects of life outside of work. Contentment with life makes them more resilient to adversity, and provides personal benefits such as better health and even longer life.

Levels of satisfaction

In referring to happiness, Dr Seligman does not mean mindless thrillseeking or laughing all the time. He discerns three levels of happiness: pleasure (positive emotional responses flowing from experiences); engagement (being in tune with one's surroundings, and having positive relationships); and meaning (contributing to and being part of a larger cause).

"Positive emotions are important, but in themselves they don't last," he says. "For most people, engagement is the real key to positive psychology. Optimism and good relationships with others are the most important factors in the engaged life."

Optimism, he believes, is a skill set that can be learned. For example, he proposes that optimism can be developed by, at the end of each day, cataloguing and reviewing three good things that happened. Another method is to be able to identify "catastrophic" thoughts in oneself and oppose them, a form of mental argument that can be developed into a semi-automatic process.

A key aspect of positive psychology is awareness of one's own strengths and weaknesses. Dr Seligman provides a questionnaire* to allow people to identify their "signature strengths", a key part of building good relationships. There is a wide spectrum of "strengths", including creativity, courage, prudence, humour and an appreciation of excellence.

Barker underlines the importance of this concept. "There is a 'know thyself' aspect to this sort of test, and the results can be enlightening and empowering," she says. "But more broadly it helps you understand the nature of the strengths that other people can bring to the organisation. Those strengths might be quite different to your own but are of no less value.

"For managers involved in coaching and mentoring, the idea of signature strengths provides a framework for analysis and action. It is a means by which strengths can be identified and built upon, and possible areas of weakness can be addressed."

Amanda Horne and Jan Elsner, a fellow consultant and coach, who have both studied with Dr Seligman, agree, suggesting that the strengths-based approach can be used as an aspect of job design. "We have found that this gives managers the opportunity to build an optimal working environment and results in utilising their people more effectively, at the same time as increasing their engagement. It can also be used to re-craft work structures and opportunities according to signature strengths," Horne says.

"This has led, in some cases, to new thinking about how to undertake performance appraisals and 360-degree reviews, for example. It provides greater satisfaction to employees, which translates into improved effectiveness."

Defining strength

Dr Seligman sees good personal relationships as fundamental to happiness, although he notes that this does not mean that a person has to be a gregarious, backslapping extrovert. Introverted people, he says, can be entirely happy; it simply depends on the values of the individual.

On the importance of relationships, he cites research examining what constitutes a positive relationship, and what qualities are perceived as "strengths".

"Within this framework, the most highly valued quality is gratitude, with fairness and kindness also rating highly," he says. "This is surprisingly consistent around the world, with the exception of France. And teenagers."

Expressions of gratitude, he says, do much to create optimism and a sense of engagement - for both the person who expressed their gratitude and the person who receives it. The manager who wants to create a sense of optimism in a team should, therefore, make a point of expressing gratitude about tasks that are well done, and when targets are achieved or exceeded. Some traditionally minded executives might think that such expressions of gratitude and appreciation could undermine their authority, but Dr Seligman argues that just the opposite is true. Recognition of others, he explains, is more often seen as a sign of wisdom rather than weakness.

"What we are talking about here is, I believe, the language of respect," says Barker. "Whether it's about colleagues, reports, superiors, or customers, there must be an appreciation of their qualities. The language of disrespect, and the attitude that it signifies, can very quickly infect a whole organisation. At both the individual and corporate level, credit should be given where it is due - and made public - and should be shared. For example, a performance appraisal should not just deal with shortcomings and problems, but with successes and achievements.

"Managers have to be aware of the need to speak of and treat others with respect. It can be consciously learned, and can eventually become an implicit part of the management process."

Providing meaning

In creating an optimistic, healthy organisation those at the top have a key role to play. Dr Seligman believes that an undue emphasis by company leaders on obstacles and problems can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Equally, positive sentiments projected from the top can do much to enhance the life satisfaction of those within the organisation. At its best, vision can provide the sense of being part of something larger, which relates to the third level of life satisfaction put forward by Dr Seligman.

"The ability to provide meaning is what turns a good manager into a great leader," Barker says. "It's about communicating a vision, and inspiring others by linking their efforts to a greater objective, something more than simply turning a profit. People at every level of the organisation have to feel that they are part of it.

"You can tell the companies where the leaders have successfully communicated a vision. Those companies have less staff turnover and higher productivity. People actually want to come to work, and are optimistic about the future."

"For managers, issues like workplace stress and depression are taking an increasing toll on organisations," says Amanda Horne. "Employee satisfaction and employee engagement are concepts that managers are eager to address. There are useful tools in positive psychology. Once you start thinking about them, you realise they are not difficult or complex. But they are extremely valuable."

And as for the executive who, with positive psychology, turned her career around through coaching junior sports: she is now considered a key asset to the organisation. But she has not forgotten that meaning, like happiness in general, is what you make it, and where you find it.

* The VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire is available from, operated by the Positive Psychology Centre.