Positive Psychology at Work

Psychology, along with medicine and other “health” related occupations, has traditionally (since the end of World War II) been focused on disease and disorder.  Recently, Dr. Martin Seligman used his term as president of the American Psychological Association to call for researchers to focus efforts on understanding positive psychology.  Positive psychology broadens the mission of psychologists to include making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling and identifying and nurturing their highest talents.  These two areas of endeavor are promoted alongside the traditional efforts of psychologists to reduce or eliminate mental illness.  Increasing productivity and fulfillment alongside the task of nurturing talents are efforts that should be of great interest to the business community. Since World War II, the discipline of psychology began to ally itself with the professions of medicine. It was a common assumption made by many in health related occupations, including by many psychologists that the eradication of disease would result in healthy functioning.  If only the world would function so simply!   It does not. What we have discovered is that there are human strengths that act as buffers against mental illness.  These strengths are more than non-disease and often exist alongside the elements of the personality that are most problematic. What we have discovered in the workplace is that human strengths (rather than the absence of human weaknesses) are the keys to productivity, to resistance to the negative effects of stress, to increased job satisfaction, lower turnover and absenteeism, and to increased customer satisfaction. What do we know about nurturing human strengths in the workplace?  Researchers have investigated three areas of work life that contribute to greater productivity and fuller expression of talent:  Job Design; Teamwork; and Transformational Leadership. Job Design Two factors surface in the research of industrial psychologists as critical factors for eliciting the strengths of an employee:  1) adequate control and 2) a challenging work environment. The most difficult situation for workers is one in which there is a high level of challenge but little control.  When an employee is expected to perform at a high level but does not have much say about how the work is completed,  is given too little time to complete it, or is not given the necessary material and support, the result is a very high level of stress.  Placing workers under this kind of stress in the workplace is very expensive to the organization.  Health care costs will rise by an estimated 70%.  Absenteeism will increase by three fold.  Customer satisfaction will fall an estimated 44% If there is little control but the work assignment is not challenging, the result is a job that is boring.  While almost anyone can complete the job, the boring nature of the assignment will often lead to careless (and perhaps expensive) mistakes.  These jobs also have high turnover rates. Employees who work for an extended time in these environments tend to develop attitudes of helplessness.  Even when the wages for a boring job are higher than a job that offers more control and more challenge it is difficult to find enough workers to meet the need.  These jobs are not very attractive. When a job offers good levels of control but contains little or no challenge for the individual, there is little intrinsic motivation.  This is usually bad news for employers.  It means that external rewards (higher wages or benefits) are the primary motivators for performance.  When bonuses are near, projects get a lot of attention.  If bonuses fall or are perceived to be far off, there is little effort and even less creativity applied to the job.  Employees are ready to leave these jobs whenever they identify a position that will pay more. The ideal situation will challenge the employee to work at or near his or her capacity while allowing that individual or team the authority to make decisions about how to reach the goal.  This kind of work environment sparks maximum effort and maximum creativity.  People love to come to work in these environments.  When employees love their jobs they work very hard to do the very best job they can. The goal arising from positive psychology for employers is to match the employee with a job that allows them to be challenged without being overwhelmed, and to give them the support and flexibility they need to reach their goals and the goals of the organization.  Not all employees will be challenged in the same way or at the same level.  It is essential for the employer to be accurate in assessing the workforce if these benefits are to be realized. Psychological assessments are a powerful tool available to business for the task of matching the right individual with the right job. They can be useful during the hiring process but also are effective when considering promotions or forming teams. Teamwork                                                                                       
A second tool for enhancing the strengths of individuals in the workplace occurs when employers use a team strategy in their work design. In the past decade, American business has seen an explosion of productivity in the workforce.  Even in the current recession, the levels of work efficiency have remained unusually high.  Most commentators have attributed these gains to computerization, “just in time” production, etc.  These factors undoubtedly play a role in the gains of the last decade. It is easy for us to believe in a “mechanical” change that accounts for the increased economic effectiveness.  Since the advent of the industrial revolution we have learned  that machines can be a major force in progress.  The human element is frequently overlooked and yet another change, a human change, has swept across business and taken hold in the past 10 years: the development of work teams. Working in teams is a naturally efficient and effective way for humans to accomplish goals.  It is as old as the earliest tribes.  Western society lost sight of the power of teamwork during the industrial revolution.  We did not seriously consider it again until the Japanese, changed the way automobiles were built. The second major wave of teamwork took place at the heart of the computer revolution.  The development of the technology that business relies on today was created in an environment that utilized teams at every stage of the process.  Most businesses have followed suit. In a team, the individual’s weaknesses do not matter, only his or her strengths are important when the team is functioning effectively.  A great team is designed to maximize different strengths in different individuals.  These strengths are combined in a synergistic way by the team to produce at a higher level than any individual member. Creating and nurturing teams is a very specialized and complex skill.  Team leaders often need coaching to be effective.  Some experienced coaches work with entire teams to maximize effectiveness. Transformational Leadership
What has the most direct impact on productivity in the workplace?  Employee Morale.  What has the most direct impact on employee morale?  The Mood of the Leadership. With all this talk about job design and teamwork, the role of the leader is even more important in a positive work environment than ever before.  Leadership is essential in bringing out the strengths of the workforce. There are several qualities that set leaders apart in this endeavor:  The willingness to do the right thing (rather than what is expedient at the moment); challenging employees to work at a high level of professionalism; encouragement for employees to think for themselves and be creative; and development of employee skills and abilities to enable them to fully utilize their inborn talents.
Leaders who demonstrate these qualities are found in workplaces that demonstrate superior performance.  These leaders create, nurture and sustain the positive workplace environment.  Great leaders have highly developed “soft skills.”  Leadership is primarily a social endeavor. These are skills that can be learned.  This knowledge can be acquired at any time in a person’s career.  At its best, executive coaching is directed toward learning and refining these critical abilities.  Recently, the term used to describe these skills is “emotional intelligence,” and it has been shown to be even more important in success than native intelligence.