What is positive psychology?
Coined as a phrase by Martin Seligman as President of the American Psychological Association in 1998, positive psychology is the psychology of exceptionally good living. It embraces areas of study such as happiness; human flourishing; exceptional wellbeing; energy and vitality, meaningfulness and achievement. The switch in focus from psychology’s traditional concern with when things go wrong for people (mental or physical ill-health, poor educational performance etc.) to when things go right for people has resulted in a burst of new streams of research and new knowledge about the psychology of high performance in people.
Three things that make a difference
Three key areas of positive psychology that are relevant to the challenge of team performance are; positivity, strengths and motivation.
Research in this area can be seen as a quest to answer such questions as: ‘what good are good emotions? What purpose do they serve? Why do we have them?’ In 2004 Losada and Heaphy discovered that a high ratio of positive to negative comments amongst team members in meetings was a reliable predictor of high performance. They postulate that positive comments lead to positive emotional reactions and we know that positive emotional states are correlated with many group phenomena such as sociability and social bonding; openness to information, creativity, coping with complexity, tenacity and motivation, and virtuous behaviour (patience, generosity etc.).
All of this acts on the group dynamics in a way that enhances connectivity amongst group members, greater creative in thinking and an increased ability to act in harmony with other group members and group objectives even when not in direct contact with each other. They call this dynamic ‘synchronicity’. They found that for these effects to be produced, the ratio of positive to negative comments and experiences needs to be between 3:1 to 12:1 positive to negative. Beyond this ratio there is a danger of a lack of critical examination of ideas.
What does this mean?
This means that if we can develop the linguistic habits in our team meetings of: building on the best in the ideas of others rather than knocking them down wholesale; expressing appreciation of helpful comments or contributions; thanking people for pointing out flaws or problems with ideas; laughing together and so on, we can have a direct impact on the performance of the team over time.
It has always been recognised that people vary in their innate abilities. However our emphasis in the workplace has often been on trying to help people develop greater skill in their weaker areas. More recently a school of thought has grown up suggesting that helping people become better at what they are already good at is a more effective investment. The argument is that a natural strength plus skill in using it becomes a talent. Helping people understand their particular strengths, and then developing their skill and judgement in using it is being revealed to positively affect: performance, wellbeing, goal attainment, energy levels, authenticity, morale, motivation, fulfilment at work and meaningfulness.
What does this mean?
This means that at least some of your development effort should be focused on helping people understand their strengths profile. That consideration should be given to fitting jobs to people’s strengths profiles rather than fitting people to rigid job profiles. That teams should distribute tasks by strengths rather than necessarily by role. It seems likely that the more people are able to use their natural skills at work – a process that people find satisfying and energizing – the more likely they are to deliver dedication and high performance.
Motivation is a fascinating topic. Why are we motivated to do some things and not others? Why do we find doing some things so rewarding that we will do it for nothing, just for pleasure and other things you couldn’t pay us enough to do? The answers to these questions are many, but a key thought is that it is related to our own unique personality, physiology, history and context. In this way motivation can be understood as a relationship between people’s unique needs and values and the environments that satisfy them. Motivation is a response made to an environment that provides opportunities, invitations and incitements to do things that the individual finds motivating. It seems we are motivated to use our strengths and talents because doing so makes us feel ‘our best selves’: energised, motivated, good about our selves and so able to be at our best with others. If we can find opportunities to use our strengths and talents, we are likely to feel motivated.
What does this mean?
This highlights that motivation is an individual process. Teams have to somehow create opportunities for everyone to feel motivated. This means something in the team process, goal or environment must produce opportunities for people to achieve things desirable to them (their needs and values), and to engage their strengths (energised, committed, meaningful). Appreciative Inquiry as a process facilitates both of these aspects of team working. The discovery phase helps groups and individuals identify existing strengths. The dream phase allows all voices to contribute to the creation of desirable images of the future. While the destiny phase encourages people to volunteer to create movement and progress in areas or projects that are motivating to them.
So how can I use positive psychology to help my team deliver high performance?
- Encourage a positive atmosphere with a good ratio of positive to negative comment
- Help individuals identify their strengths and enable them to use them in the team endeavour
- Use appreciative inquiry processes to help the team develop a co-created image of the future state towards which they are working, and enable them to contribute to its achievement by using their unique strengths.
Lewis, S., Passmore, J. and Cantore, S., 2007. Appreciative Inquiry For Change Management: Using AI To Facilitate Organisational Development. Kogan Page. London
Lewis, S., 2011 Positive Psychology at Work: How Positive Leadership and Appreciative Inquiry Create Inspiring Organizations. Wiley-Blackwell. Chichester UK
Losada, M. and Heaphy, E., 2004. The Role Of Positivity And Connectivity In The Performance Of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Model, American Behavioral Scientist, 47, pp. 740-765.