There are two times I ‘fell in love’ in my professional career. The first was after a personal experience of therapy at the age of 17 where, as I discovered the world of psychology, a lightbulb went off within me, and I knew I had found my life’s calling. Almost 30 years later, I was ‘born again’, as I crossed paths with Positive Psychology, and this time I would say fireworks went off and I haven’t looked back since!

I have since crossed over from Psychologist to Coach, and I could literally eat, sleep and breathe Positive Psychology (as many friends and colleagues will attest) and am so excited to introduce it to the Maltese business community! And, if ever there was a time that it could be more relevant, more helpful and more meaningful… if ever there was a need for a positive revolution at work, well, that time is now.

‘So what is this positive psychology? It sounds rather fluffy.’

I get this a lot! Let me start by telling you what positive psychology is not. It’s not pollyannish. It’s not positive thinking or positive affirmations that you say as mantras to yourself. And it’s not just a fad. It’s actually very evidence-based, and backed by rigorous scientific research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience.

Positive psychology as a field was born at the turn of the millennium, when the then Chairman of the American Psychological Association, Professor Martin Seligman, called for psychology to move beyond what had become a fixation on pathology, disorder and the negative side of life and to broaden its lens to embrace the positive side of life, and to investigate what leads to human flourishing and fulfilment and what makes life worth living. Instead of its traditional focus on repairing weakness and healing pathology, a movement began towards also building strengths and fostering happiness and satisfaction in life.

How does this relate to the world of business?

This is where POP comes in (and no, you still haven’t guessed it, it’s not the fizzy soda variety either!) As positive psychology shifted the focus away from pathology to exploring optimal psychological states, it grabbed the attention of the business world, who was eager to explore factors such as positive deviance that enabled optimal performance of individuals and organisations. Why? Well, even prior to COVID, modern working life had become increasingly competitive, demanding and stressful, with many employees having to cope with longer hours, increased workloads and time pressures, and business leaders having to navigate the ever-changing VUCA* world we all reside in.

Often, this can have a negative impact on both leaders and employees, as well as on the wider organisation, resulting in reduced productivity, more absenteeism, higher turnover, employee dissatisfaction, diminished performance and increased conflict with co-workers. Add COVID into the mix, and one year on, we are seeing the increasing uncertainty and challenges businesses are facing, and the strain is starting to show on employees and business leaders alike – although interestingly not on all, as we will see later on.

Nonetheless, Gallup, a global analytics firm, has been tracking employee engagement levels worldwide for decades, and there had been a trend whereby they noted many employees becoming increasingly dissatisfied and burnt out at work, with up to 60 per cent of the world’s workforce describing themselves as disengaged from work to some degree. Business leaders wanted to discover how to counteract this.

So what’s the revolution?

Traditionally, the approach to tackling these stressors has been a deficit-based approach, whereby leaders have taken the role of problem-solvers and focused on ‘fixing what’s wrong’ rather than learning from and building upon ‘what’s right’. Jay Tombaugh, Associate Professor of Management at the University of Houston – Clear Lake, points out that unfortunately, the outcome of such approaches is that they create negative work environments where “defensiveness and finger-pointing are common, creativity and innovation are stifled, resistance to change is high and employee commitment and motivation are low”. He posited the need for a paradigm shift within the corporate world, to move from a negativity bias to a positivity bias.

In fact, it is my own experience with these phenomena over the years, finding myself in organisations talking to employees and teams where morale was low, frustration was plentiful due to being perpetually stuck with a sense that ‘nothing ever changes around here’, and frequent complaints abounded that leadership were quick to point out what was wrong but rarely praised what was right, that started me on my own search for effective interventions that could change this status quo. I witnessed the negative impact these work environments and interactions had on employees’ wellbeing, motivation and subsequently their performance, often resulting in detrimental business or performance outcomes for the organisation too, and thus my quest to search for effective strategies that could create sustainable positive changes in people’s workplaces began.

And that is where some eight years ago I discovered the emerging and growing field of positive psychology, and shortly thereafter its organisational arm, Positive Organizational Psychology, aka POP (ah, now you know the POP I’m talking about), which involves the application of positive psychology principles and interventions in the workplace, leading to individual and organisational flourishing. Through these developments in organisational psychology, a new era of positive, strengths-based approaches is dawning. And the results are exciting and very promising!

To get a better understanding of how POP can lead to organisational success (and a very humorous one at that), I highly recommend Shawn Achor’s TED talk on The Happy Secret to Better Work. In this brilliantly witty talk, Shawn tells us we have our formula for success backwards, and that many of us hold the philosophy that ‘If I work harder, I’ll be more successful, and if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier’, but that this is scientifically broken and backwards, and it is actually happiness that precedes success. In fact, the old adage comes to mind: ‘a happy worker is a productive worker’. And this is why it’s so important to focus on employee wellbeing and creating cultures of care.

Shawn also outlines another issue, which is the acceptance of mediocracy, and he challenges business leaders that if they are interested in developing employees’ full potential, they must “escape the cult of the average” and focus on “not just moving people up to the average in a company, but rather, moving the entire average up”.

To figure out how to do this, studies have looked at positive deviance – studying those organisations (and individuals) that are outliers, the ones that succeed and thrive, even in highly challenging times, such as during the 2008 global economic crisis, and equally so, throughout the upheaval of the current pandemic.

Research has highlighted that there are many companies and employees that are actually thriving despite the challenges. What makes the difference? Again and again, we discover that these organisations are more solution-focused, they tap into the collective intelligence, and they actively look for examples of excellence or success (currently or historically) within the organisation, or else from their particular industry or sector, to emulate and apply to their latest challenges.

What are the benefits for business leaders to adopt this positive lens and strategies in their workplaces?

Shawn Achor highlights that our brain at positive performs significantly better than our brain at neutral, negative or stressed, and results in rises in intelligence, creativity, energy, productivity and a range of important business outcomes. Sonya Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, details a list of benefits of investing in positive strategies at work, including more job security, higher retention rates, greater productivity, increased resilience, greater sales, less burnout, and lower rates of turnover.

This all provides encouragement (and hard facts) for business leaders who want to get the most out of their workforce to work on moving from:

  • a negativity bias to a positivity bias
  • a problem-focus to a solution-focus
  • degenerative conversations to generative ones
  • a focus on weakness to a focus on strengths
  • pointing out what’s going wrong, to also highlighting what’s going well
  • seeing stress as a threat to reframing it as a challenge.

And then to watch and see the magic begin to work as one’s workforce moves from pessimism to optimism, from helplessness to hopefulness, from demotivation to engagement, from uninspired to creatively innovative, from struggle to success! And in all this, it’s important to note that this is not about ignoring the challenges, problems and obstacles that leaders face, but rather reframing them as opportunities for learning and growth. It’s simply about taking a different route and lens to the challenges at work, and instead of adopting a problem and deficit-focused approach to them, taking an asset-based approach and leveraging individual, team or company strengths to move forward successfully.

Over the coming months I will be taking a deeper dive into the many areas that POP can be applied, along with useful strategies business leaders can apply to make their workplaces happier and healthier, and in the process, more productive and successful. I hope the fireworks will go off for you too and you will join in the positive revolution!

*VUCA is an acronym used to describe or to reflect on the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations.

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