We all want work to feel positive and engaging. Who doesn’t dream of waking up on a Monday excited to go to work?
Positive Psychology explores the science behind positive emotions since they linked with the benefits of improved health, well-being, longevity, and a greater quality of life.
On the flip side anger, anxiety, depression, and worry are related to poor health outcomes, often derived from systemic oppression and harsh, negative environments.
Our genes are responsible for about 50% of our happiness levels, our actions and attitudes account for 40% or our happiness. So if our choices and attitudes have a significant impact on our happiness, how do we cultivate and maintain a state of positivity and well-being in the workplace?
We hope you use this article and explore how to create meaning, as well as workplaces where staff thrive.
This article contains:
Benefits of Positive Psychology in the Workplace
Positive psychology can be used to increase happiness and satisfaction within the workforce.
We spend (on average) half of our waking hours at work, and many business leaders are starting to acknowledge that instilling these psychological techniques in the workplace is imperative. Not only might staff be more cordial and engaged in the space, but staff productivity may also increase.
As an employee, manager, or CEO you can put these ideas into practice to foster positivity and improve:
- Conflict Resolution Skills
- Original Thinking
PERMA in the Workplace
Over the last 15 years, Positive Psychology, pioneered by Professor Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania), has developed an evidence-based model for the active ingredients of well-being. For short, his model is known as PERMA: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment.
So how can the PERMA model be added to workplaces for the betterment of everyone?
People thrive when they are happier. When mood becomes brighter, we set higher goals and persist longer towards them. We experience less stress and fatigue and show better team cooperation and problem-solving.
But how do we make people happier?
Brain scans show that when subjects are instructed to list their gratitudes daily, there is increased activity in the part of the brain associated with happiness. Of course, it is difficult to force feelings of happiness, but when we cultivate a ‘grateful mindset,’ happiness sometimes comes along for the ride.
Some organizations have adopted these ideas in innovative ways. For example, by listing ‘appreciations’ as a standing agenda item at the beginning of staff meetings, individuals can nominate someone or something for which they are grateful. This culture of gratitude can also decrease stress levels, by pausing the rushed reality of work and pausing to give thanks.
An example of a shout-out or gratitude to start a meeting could be simple. Here are three:
- “My appreciation is for Sarah. Last week she stayed back to show me how to complete my spreadsheets and since then I’ve been finishing on time.”
- “I want to thank Jacob yesterday, for helping me debrief a presentation even though it wasn’t his team’s task to review it with me.”
- “Huge thanks to the kitchen staff and catering company that provided delicious food last week to our event.”
Science shows us the greatest way to influence our happiness is to invest in our relationships.
Evolution has wired us to connect with others for survival. These connections have the power to affect how we feel. According to research on happiness, our moods are literally contagious. This happens because of mirror neurons in our brains.
If our colleague starts celebrating next to us, the cells in our own brain that would fire when we are engaged in similar behavior light up. These mirror neurons, evolutionarily, have helped us understand other’s feelings and intentions.
If you watch two staff-members give each other a spirited high-five and laugh, the mirror neurons in your brain will fire as if you were directly involved.
Given that we are wired to connect with others, and that we are neurologically affected by watching others, it seems obvious that workplaces would be designed to foster connection.
A recent survey by Virgin stated that 40% of the respondents named their colleagues as the top reason they enjoy their work. Over two-thirds of respondents reported that not only did those positive relationships increase their productivity, but it helped mitigate stressful and difficult challenges at work.
The centrality of the relationship between our social connections and our internal happiness cannot be overstated. It is time to get to know the person sitting next to you a little better.
Make an effort to eat lunch in the canteen. Organize a get-together with your colleagues after work and get to know the people you are spending so much time with. One of the hurdles to this, of course, is our own concerns, embarrassment, and levels of comfort with doing this. Maybe after work, the last thing you want to do is be social.
Scott Crabtree, a renowned and experienced leader at Intel suggests that a Pecha Kucha presentation could help to break the ice, stating that:
“In Japanese, Pecha Kucha roughly means chit chat, but it’s a specific format of presentation. Usually, each person brings 20 slides with just pictures on them, and they get 20 seconds to explain each slide…but we made the rule that people could only share things about their lives outside of work. The difference was immediate and significant. We immediately started treating each other less like competitors and more like collaborators.”
Crabtree goes on to say that this is perhaps the best tool he has come across for building trust and understanding in a team quickly.
As a manager or team leader, you need to be aware of how contagious positivity or negativity can be. Be aware of the importance of managing morale because one unhappy person can make for an unhappy office. While it is unrealistic to skate on happiness alone, work environments can still encourage a work culture of supporting each other, when the work gets hard.
Help your staff come together and connect by organizing team building events that encourage people to work together and build genuine relationships. Make it clear to staff that socializing is not only tolerated, but it is also encouraged as long as it doesn’t interfere with performance.
Some people will be more positive in their outlook and disposition than others. These people are extremely valuable to organizations, especially if there is a general atmosphere of demotivation, demoralization, and mistrust.
The trick is to seek out these people. Find them, cherish them, and most importantly, spend time with them. Place them strategically in teams that could benefit from their sunnier disposition.
The formula for building staff engagement is to maximize the extent to which people are using and applying their strengths.
Most of us strive to better ourselves in one way or another, and yet are often stuck in our failings, focusing on trying to “fix” parts of ourselves, and neglecting those parts of us that are flourishing.
Martin Seligman and other researchers have noted that when work demands our engagement, such as using our strengths in new and innovative ways, we experience higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression.
Another influential study suggests that up to 70% of professionals who utilize their strengths on a daily basis reported feeling more engaged and energized by their work.
Many work cultures have a fear-culture grounded in criticism; while feedback is important for growth and reflection, it is also important to praise staff. Start meetings with an opportunity to share success stories—big and small. Give people the opportunity to share their successes, achievements, and accomplishment with you, as well as sharing your own.
Don’t assume that everyone knows their own strengths or that they are the same as yours.
Playing to your staff’s strengths rather than their weaknesses not only impacts their intrinsic motivation, but also the company and organization at large. To identify a person’s strengths Professor Seligman’s team developed the VIA Inventory of Strengths.
In this context, meaning refers to a purposeful existence. In the work environment, when there is a shared sense of purpose, staff are more likely to feel satisfied with their job.
Organizational psychologist and author Adam Grant devised an innovative experiment into team productivity. His three New York Times bestselling books have shaped organizations around the world.
As one example of creating meaning in a workspace, Grant explains his work with call center staff. The call center staff were employed to canvass donations for university scholarship funds, so Grant arranged for staff to meet with an actual beneficiary of a scholarship.
The meeting was only five minutes long—just enough to ask some questions and put a face to a name.
This team went on to raise three times more money, and record consistently longer and more engaged conversations with potential donors, compared with a control group.
When people see how their efforts have a genuine impact on the lives of others, even mundane work becomes more rewarding.
If you want to learn more about Grant’s thoughts on work culture, check out his podcast WorkLife.
Accomplishment is often the result of realistic goals that are supported by specific actions. Having accomplishments at work is critical to push ourselves to thrive and flourish.
Leaders can build achievement in their people by involving a person’s strengths in future discussions about organizational goals. For example, asking strengths-based questions can help staff feel respected and valued.
These questions include:
- Tell me about a previous achievement of which you are genuinely proud. It may or may not be work-related. A time when you really outdid yourself?
- Which top strengths do you think helped you achieve this impressive outcome? Which talents did you demonstrate at the time? (The VIA is useful here).
Coaching your staff can be as simple as taking an interest in their strengths and exploring more ways to apply them toward agreed goals or professional development challenges. It helps build trust between you and your employees and promotes a collaborative culture of sharing experiences and learning.
Like so many other ideas emerging from Positive Psychology, this is a genuine win-win.
Push Beyond Your Goals
Setting goals at an individual, team and organizational level are key for productivity and happiness. But there is no point in setting goals without a way to measure them, or minimally, develop specific action items to guide staff to their success.
Goals can provide us with an intrinsic sense of engagement, motivation, and connection. In other words, meeting our goals might help us achieve happiness, but we cannot rely on goal-achievement alone.
A more sustainable source of happiness is enjoying each step that propels you towards the finish line. Research shows that while goal achievement creates an initial boost in positivity, the effects do not last long. The trick lies in learning to enjoy each aspect of the journey towards your goals. Otherwise, you may be propelling yourself towards burnout instead of accomplishment.
To apply this, first structure your goals to follow the acronym SMART.
This means S for specific, M for measurable, A for attainable, R for Relevant to your interests, and T for Time-bound.
Second, stretch beyond being SMART and make your goals meaningful. Can you connect your goals with your values and strengths?
If so, you are more likely to feel happier and perform better. As a manager keep this in mind when assigning projects to your staff. Do the projects assigned align with company and staff values and goals?
If you can find the intersection between skills, interests, values, and strengths, you are likely to build a team rich with internal motivation, engagement, and connection.
After all, when people thrive on their own motivations and energy, there is a tangible sense of workplace pride and accomplishment.
Our ability to celebrate our own accomplishments, as well as those of our colleagues, is another important element for enjoying and remaining at any workplace.
Rewards activate the pleasure pathways in our brain, even when they are self-induced.
Effective rewards do not have to be anything big or expensive or even financial but can be as simple as taking a break, going for a short walk, or enjoying a snack.
A number of studies have found that small rewards can make people more generous, friendly, and happy, as well as more productive and accurate in their work.
At Google, employee satisfaction rose an impressive 37% when a small rewards scheme was put in place. This suggests that financial rewards are not the only thing happy, productive employees are looking for.
While working hard matters, skipping all your breaks is detrimental to your happiness and long-term productivity. Refresh your focus and step away from the screen for a few minutes, take a walk around the office, or challenge someone to ten jumping-jacks. It will actually increase your productivity, and replenish your brain with oxygen, if you do something active.
As a company, you can also offer your staff a reward program of incentives, such as flexible working hours to show that you genuinely care about their needs.
Just make sure that the rewards you are offering are in line with what your staff wants.
It might be helpful to issue a company-wide survey or put together an employee committee to get feedback about what benefits and resources would help your staff feel cared for and considered, both in their work and personal lives.
Whilst these strategies and ideas may sound like common sense, they are widely unrecognized in many workspaces, which is a deficit to the staff and the organization itself.
A Take-home Message
By offering positivity, engagement, connection, meaning, and acknowledgment, you can create a motivated workforce where people want to be there, and want to improve the company bit-by-bit.
In the words of Shawn Achor,
“The better your brain is at using its energy to focus on the positives, the greater your chances at success.”
Do you think it is worth CEOs and leaders to invest more in their work culture? What are other ways to create positive work environments that we did not include in this article?
Please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.
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