The Power of Positive Psychology – Profit from the Positive
By John McCann
Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. (Mahatma Gandhi)
In 2009, I left the corporate consulting world of Sydney to work in Port Macquarie, New South Wales, as a registered psychologist and executive coach. This proved to be a major milestone in my life. It enabled me to blend my executive coaching experience with my recent discovery of the emerging field of positive psychology to help top executives achieve their best potential. (I am now based in Brisbane).
Positive Psychology is new approaches based on helping people apply their talents (strengths) to flourish and be successful in business – and it’s turning the old ways of promoting leadership on its head!
This article will provide tips on how to get to know your own “signature strengths” (become more self-aware), how to use these in a more precise way that truly gets results, and most importantly we will explain the “brain science” that’s at the foundation of this approach.
I will give you useful tips on how to utilise positive emotions to change those around you, build positive relationships and build a more resilient team of players. You will also learn why and how negative emotions can be good for you. How an attitude of gratitude can help you flourish.
And I will describe simple processes to help you achieve well above your pre-set beliefs about yourself and give you the building blocks to succeed in all areas of your life and in any field of endeavour.
What do we mean by Positive Psychology?
Most business and executive training courses pay little heed to psychology, but if we consider that mindset – thoughts, beliefs, behavioural habits, and intentions – is the foundation for all our actions, you begin to see that having a basic understanding of psychology is essential for business success.
Traditionally psychology has focused almost exclusively on what’s going wrong in the mind. This is the medical model and spawned many treatment models that tried to explain deficits in terms of symptoms.
In 1998, Professor Martin Seligman, a renowned international expert on “learned helplessness”, took over as President of the American Psychological Association and launched a profound challenge to the world. He asked why we don’t invest in finding out what makes people succeed, and then harness this knowledge to develop interventions that go well beyond just curing symptoms to bring out the best in people, families and groups, organisations, communities and nations.
This was the launch of Positive Psychology, which is defined as the scientific study of human flourishing, what makes life most worth living, and an applied approach to optimal functioning. Since then, there has been an explosion of research across many disciplines finding out what works to make people flourish in schools, organisations, military settings, prisons, health services including rehabilitation, and in fact virtually all work settings.
What is Executive Coaching?
Executive Coaching is an emerging application of Positive Psychology that synthesises the best aspects of business, leadership, psychology, communications, organisation development, counselling, consulting, sports psychology, neurobiology, neuroscience, and Western and Eastern philosophies.
It is based on the core principle that all people have natural strengths or talents that may be used expertly, or may be lying dormant.
Coaching is an approach that helps individuals clarify objectives and goals; align values and goals to actions thereby keeping our integrity and accountability intact; and provides targeted reinforcement that helps us stay on track to change.
Executive coaching takes the core motivational aspects of coaching psychology and applies this to drawing out and nurturing the greatest talents in the key stakeholders of an organisation, which thus ensures the organisation as a whole grows its “psychological capital” (PsyCap).
Organisational Applications of Positive Psychology
Positive Psychology in the workplace is expanding rapidly as business seeks to gain a competitive edge, improve shareholder returns and provide goods, services and jobs for customers and staff respectively.
The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organisational Scholarship contains 79 chapters, over 1000 pages on issues such as Positive Individual Attributes, Positive Emotions, Strengths, Positive Relationships, Positive Human Resource Practices, Positive Organisational Practices, Positive Leadership and Change and more. Each of these areas of study are fundamentally important for business success whether this be in a small business or a major multinational.
Essentially, by harnessing the power of knowing your own and your employees’ strengths, engaging actively in fostering strong relationships, and building the capacity of the workplace to operate at its best, there can be only one outcome – sustainable success!
Creating a Profitable Business
It’s well known that business profits are directly related to people’s performance. Business studies indicate that those firms spending more on the correct type of training for their people out perform their competition (Firms of Endearment Sisodia et al., 2007; An Everyone Culture Robert Kegan & Lisa L. Lahey, 2016: Moments of Truth in Customer Service, McKinsey & Company.
In these extensive studies of business and profitability outlined in Firms of Endearmentand An Everyone Culture, Sisodia and colleagues; and Kegan & Lahey showed that firms focusing more heavily on training their people were many times more profitable than their competitors.
Changing the people has clearly been shown to be the only sustainable way to change an organisation regardless of the number of employees.
So it makes sense to argue that bringing out the best in the people will inevitably bring out the best in the organisation.
Another key attribute of sustainable success in business is being principle centered. An essential characteristic of this value centeredness is integrity. Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway said “when hiring people I look for 3 things ‘integrity, energy and intelligence’ but if you don’t get the first one right the other two will screw you”.
In his book “Authentic Happiness” (2004), Martin Seligman also argues for integrity as a central element for success. He proposed that operating from our highest virtues and using them in ways we haven’t yet considered opens an upward spiral of positive emotions such as curiosity, love of learning, creativity, broadened perspectives, appreciation and more, all of which set off a deep sense of satisfaction with life and discovery of one’s real purpose, so that life has meaning and value. This is the term we now refer to as “flourishing”.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs; who comes short again and again; because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.
But who does actually strive to do the deeds;
who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of
high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails,
at least fails while daring greatly …..”
(Theodore Roosevelt, 1910)
“Being effective as individuals and organisations is no longer optional in today’s world – it’s the price of entry to the playing field. But surviving, thriving, innovating, excelling [flourishing] in this new reality will require us to build on and reach beyond effectiveness.
The call and need of a new era is for greatness. It’s for fulfilment, passionate execution, and significant contribution”. (Stephen Covey, the 8th Habit).
Corey Keyes, in his book “Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well Lived” (2003) identified the key elements for attaining this state – character, habits, life stories, supportive parenting (or positive attachments), environment, and brain development.
Recent evidence from the brain sciences now clearly supports this model. That is, by living a life based on building character, engaging in healthy habits, forging strong attachments with other people, focusing attention on “good” stories that make us feel upbeat, and making our environments as good as they can be, we literally change brain structure and function. In simple terms, we change the brain by the way we think.
Know thyself (Socrates)
Self-awareness is the foundation for personal and professional development. Until we know who we really are we are not in a position to accurately say this is who I want to be.
Self-awareness can be achieved through introspection, which is the examination of one’s own conscious thoughts and feelings. We can also gain insight or self-awareness with a number of psychological assessment tools such as Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), to help us understand our personality and preferences. These preferences affect our communication style and thus the quality of our relationships.
One of the most successful Airlines established in 1967, Southwest Airlines, uses the MBTI extensively to help staff with self-discovery, as well as for helping supervisors understand differences with their co-workers (CPP 2007). The MBTI helped Southwest staff understand themselves and others and the reasoning behind co-workers behaviour which in turn helped build trust and empathy. As individuals and teams develop these key attributes, their performance and productivity improved.
Another method of finding out who we are is the VIA Character Strengths Survey (VIA). This is available free at https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu, (Pennsylvania University).
After taking the online survey, a report lists your 24 Signature Strengths in rank order from strongest to least activated. The VIA is widely used by large corporations such as IBM and major banks to enhance individual and team performance. We excel by amplifying strengths, never simply by fixing weaknesses (The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organisational Scholarship, 2013).
However, it’s also useful to understand one’s “lesser strengths” as these may prove useful to apply in specific situations. Basically we all have varying degrees of all 24 character strengths but we tend to use our “favourites”, and like any over-used habit this tendency can have its shortcomings.
A business client in our executive development program developed her gratitude strength from being ranked 15, to become one of her top 5 strengths over a 12 month period. This happened as a result of her focusing on writing three (3) good things daily and thank you letters to people who had helped her along her journey.
The strength of Appreciation can be enhanced in the same way, by writing each day about an experience that has brought deep meaning and satisfaction into your life.
Curiosity can be built up by setting a daily target to learn one new thing. Citizenship can be nurtured by doing something helpful for another person without being asked.
These are just some examples of ways character strengths can be built, and one of the most meaningful exercises is to work together with your team to generate other examples of ways each of the character strengths can be grown as a way to build positive emotions and strengthen the business.
Negative and Positive Emotion
Negative emotions have a survival purpose – they alert us to danger and thus ensure our survival. Typically negative emotions activate the “fight or flight” response, a hard-wired reaction to any perceived danger, triggered by activation of the amygdala (a tiny cluster of neurons deep in the limbic system in the brain).
Negative emotions are absolutely necessary for full life functioning. In fact, we are now learning that negative emotions, as uncomfortable as they are, get us activated much more powerfully than positive emotions.
For example, disappointment motivates us to keep on trying (that is, it activates perseverance). Fear motivates us to find solutions to problems we interpret as serious. Jealousy motivates us to re-examine the quality of our relationships.
We shouldn’t try to suppress negative emotions, rather we should dig more deeply to find out what they are telling us.
Positive emotions have been shown to provide us with the capacity to cope with negative emotions when they happen. Someone you love will die, creating grief, sadness, anger and the like. To enable us to “bounce back” our body uses our stored bank of positive emotions to help re-balance our nervous system after we’ve experienced a negative emotion. This phenomenon is called psychological capacity.
Studies by Barbara Fredrickson have shown that positive emotion has the potential to make us more resilient, to help us flourish (self-actualise), be who we were meant to be, live our life to the fullest, use our gifts and strengths to make a difference and to help make the world a better place.
We crave this, we want to know that we matter. But at the same time, taking action triggered by negative emotions is just as important, if not more so.
Finally, being sensitive to the ebbing and flowing of emotions – a state we call mindfulness – is essential for our brains to work effectively.
Savouring is being in a state of complete awareness of an experience in the moment. For example, we all know the experience of sniffing a fine wine or perfume, tasting an exquisite piece of chocolate, or hearing a piece of music that strikes us to the core.
Savouring is defined as generating, maintaining, or enhancing positive emotions by attending to positive experiences. We still don’t understand the neuropsychology of positive emotions but it is clear that activating the experience of savouring releases some pretty powerful chemicals in the brain – dopamine for the sense of pleasure, oxytocin for the sense of connection with another person, and endorphins for the sense of achievement and satisfaction.
These outcomes – feeling pleasure, feeling strongly connected, and feeling a sense of achievement – are all essential for work teams to remain strong and functional. So one way this can be enhanced is to set up a board at work where people can write up each day the experiences they had that activated a “good feeling” such as amusement, gratitude, pride, or hope, and by taking the time to reflect on these ourselves, we’re savouring those precious moments.
The following is an example of how we can benefit from savouring and reliving positive experiences and the associated emotion: “Think of the most wonderful experience or experiences in your life, happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music, or suddenly ‘being hit’ by a book or painting or from some great creative moment. Choose one such experience or moment. Try to imagine yourself at that moment, including all the feelings and emotions associated with the experience. Now write about the experience in as much detail as possible trying to include the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that were present at the time. Please try your best to re-experience the emotions involved.” James Pennebaker (PhD).
As a parent and grandparent, I believe one of the greatest gifts we can give our children and grandchildren is to help them build resilience. Life is inevitably going to throw us tough times. People, family, friends or colleagues are going to disappoint us. People are going to make promises to do things by a certain time and not keep the promise. We are going to experience negative emotions such as grief, frustration, disappointment and anger. And we also know that negative emotions tend to take much longer to erode than positive emotions, which tend to be much more short-lived. So building our resilience – the capacity to “bounce back” after the tough times, is basic to having a meaningful life and achieving success.
Years of scientific study of the effects of positive emotion on our bodies by eminent psychologists such as Barbara Fredrickson (Positivity), Ellen Langer (Counterclockwise) and others, is helping us understand the role of positive emotion in enabling us to be more resilient and flourish.
To cope with the array of essential life experience which generates these powerful Velcro-like negative emotions, we need positive emotions to provide a balance.
According to Fredrickson’s research on positive emotion we need three times more positive emotions over time than negative emotions. Business studies where the dialogue in meetings of executives and staff have been analysed and graded from really positive to neutral to negative, shows that where positive dialogue outweighs negativity, profitability and many other indicators of business success are higher. Companies with better that 2.9 to 1 ratio of positive to negative are flourishing. Below that ratio, companies are not doing well.
But don’t go overboard with positivity. Life is a ship with sails and a rudder. Above 13:1 ratio, without a negative rudder, the positive sails flap aimlessly and you lose credibility. (Fredrickson)
Returning to the core idea at the heart of this article, building our strengths and using these actively can be an easy starting point for change. Once you have identified your strengths then you can begin to develop them.
Begin by reflecting on a strength and think of new ways of using that strength. For example, let’s take gratitude. Create a gratitude journal, then at least five nights a week just before sleep, write three things that happened that day for which you are grateful and why you feel this way. Write a letter detailing all the things you like about your spouse, partner, colleague, child or any others. If feasible, read it to them in person, then give it to them.
If someone endorses you on LinkedIn, or accepts an invitation to connect, send them a thank you note. Write more thank you notes. Keep a track of how many times you say “thank you” during the day and increase the number every day for a week.
Building the strength of hope: Think of a past disappointment and the opportunities it made possible. Write down your goals for next week, the next month and then next year. Now make concrete plans for accomplishing these goals (Christopher Peterson). Spend time imagining how life will be once you have achieved this goal, and make the “picture” rich with detail.
As mentioned earlier, the value of integrity is essential for building a successful individual and business. Integrity starts with being your “authentic self”, keeping commitments and promises to yourself, acknowledging those qualities that make you unique and reflecting on ways to continue building this strength.
Integrity is doing the ‘right’ thing when no one is watching. According to Henry Cloud it is essential to build character.
Two of the 24 strengths in the VIA classification are authenticity and bravery. It takes courage to tell someone what you know they don’t want to hear. Using the two strengths of bravery and authenticity it is possible to build the character of integrity.
For example to build bravery (courage) – speak up for an unpopular idea and/or do something you would not ordinarily do because of fear. Then to build authenticity – refrain from telling white lies (including insincere compliments) and when explaining your motives to someone, do so in a genuine and honest way.
Journaling – The Key to Brain Changes
The benefits of journaling have been supported by extensive research over many years. The most effective way to journal is to write, as this slows down the neurological processes to enable us to capture our subconscious and conscious thoughts, whilst also reflecting as we read back what we’ve written. In fact, we see significantly increased blood flow to the frontal cortex (the “thinking brain”) when people are journaling.
A study was undertaken where MRI scans of people’s brains who were suffering with anxiety and depression were taken, before and after 6 weeks of writing for 5 minutes every day. The participants wrote about whatever came to mind. The MRI scans before the 6 weeks of writing were blocked causing confusion, memory loss, anxiety and depression. The MRI scans after 6 weeks showed that most participants neural pathways were unblocked (Utah University ‘Change using Positive Psychology’, 2010). This is a shortened version of the practice called morning pages outlined in “The Artists Way” by Julia Cameron in 1992.
When writing, if it helps, draw pictures or make a mind map. Writing is a very complex cognitive process requiring deep thinking (Dr Caroline Leaf) involving the Basal Ganglia, Cerebellum, and Motor Cortex.
Building Positive Relationships
In his book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey’s “Habit 5” refers to “Seek first to understand, and then be understood”. Carl Rogers found over a lifetime of helping people improve their well-being, that there are three essential qualities required to enable people to connect.
These core characteristics are unconditional positive regard (acceptance of an individual ‘warts and all’), genuineness (being who you truly are, no games, no duplicity, totally transparent), and empathy (this value when applied is Empathic Listening, the pinnacle of great listening). (“A Way of Being”, Rogers).
Studies into why companies are successful over long periods of time and how to win business are showing that empathy and integrity are essential in building trust (Firms of Endearment and Clients For Life, Sheth et al.).
Trust is not a personality trait, it only exists in a relationship. Trust is a result of integrity and is the one thing that changes everything according to Covey. When trust increases, the cost of doing business goes down and profit goes up (The Speed of Trust, Covey).
Generating working alliances with colleagues to ensure their goals and the organisation’s goals are met is, in essence, establishing a collaborative relationship. The extent to which you can portray attitudes of unconditional positive regard (acceptance – precedes empathy), genuineness (your thinking, feeling and behaviour have to be consistent), respect, trustworthiness and accurate empathy will have a major bearing on your ability to generate such a relationship. Attitudes are based on values.
There are basically two fundamental relationships that can exist between you and another entity in this world. First there is the I-It relation. This is a way of relating to something as a thing, or object, whose only value is extrinsic, or instrumental. When you stand in the I-It relation to something, you value it only insofar as it serves your purposes. This is the relationship you have toward a cup whose only value consists in its ability to hold the water you’re drinking and to convey that drink in an efficient way into your mouth. This is the relationship you have with a copy machine whose only value is to duplicate documents, or to a computer that is no more than what it does, or rather, allows you to do.
The second basic relationship, Buber calls the I-Thou relation. This is the fundamental stance that one human being ought always to take toward another person, a relationship of respect in which the other individual is viewed as having intrinsic value, value in and of himself or herself, regardless of whether that individual can produce any further value for you.
When we do not create an environment in which trust is respected, we do not have a working environment in which people are being respected. The only way to enter a truly I-Thou relationship with those around us is to seek from them, and give to them, the truth about what we are doing together. This is the only way to treat co-workers. And this is the way to treat both suppliers and vendors on one side, and all our customers or potential customers on the other.
To the extent that you are genuine with another person, you show that individual respect. When you sincerely ask the other person what she thinks, you show respect as well. Any time you genuinely seek a customer’s input, and really listen, you treat that customer as a Thou. This is at the heart of a morally sound relationship. And, done in the right spirit, it is always appreciated. Given and received properly, a concern with sharing truth inevitably helps to generate a spirit of cooperation crucial to good working relations over the long run.
Empathy wins Business
A key skill in this process of building trust, connecting with people and winning the business is Empathic Listening. When engaging in empathic listening, you listen deeply, actively observe, interpret non-verbal cues, and sense the underlying messages behind the words.
To create high quality connections, you let the speaker know you have heard them by putting into your own words what they said and how they feel. For example: A client is telling you about how their marketing team got everything wrong sounding angry, you say “You feel angry that your marketing team didn’t understand what you wanted?” According to Henry Cloud, unless you complete the circle by repeating what was said, you won’t close the loop between you and the other person. When you do close the loop, then your hearts connect (Integrity, Henry Cloud 2006).
Cloud tells a story in his book of how Michael Dell saved his company Dell Corporation, by becoming more self-aware and developing empathy. Michael Dell, the founder of Dell, came across as an aloof introvert disconnected from his leadership team. When he understood his introversion, and was able to accept it and make changes to the way he allowed this characteristic to influence his behaviour, his perceived arrogance and lack of understanding was turned around.
Somewhat the sine qua non of empathy is the ability to listen in a way that communicates understanding. When we listen, we hear. And it may be that we understand. But, if we cannot communicate our listening in a way that lets the other person know we have truly understood, empathy has not occurred. There is no connection. The skills of empathic listening involve four stages.
Mimic content, rephrasing content, reflecting feelings and reflecting feeling and content. These skills are generic. They are appropriate not only for psychologists but also accountants, skilled negotiators, trusted advisors and good leaders.
There are four ways to identify a person’s feelings:
- They will tell you how they feel
- You listen for content
- You note non-verbal behaviour
- You listen to the tone of his/her voice
The basic empathy formula is you feel (happy or sad etc) because of experience or behaviour.
Sue: I like being busy but I have so much to do. There is government paper work that needs to be done. I have to call a client. Then there is the monthly report, it’s due by Friday and I have to have a meeting with my mentee. Is it any wonder I am tired and run down.
John: Even though you like the job you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed lately.
Notice that the responses are short and not wordy.
“’Mm’, ‘Mm-hmm’, ‘A-ha’, ‘I see’, ‘Yes’, ‘OK’, ‘Really’, ‘Sure’, ‘Right’, ‘Oh’, and ‘Really’” are powerful non-judgemental ways of responding empathically to let the other know you are listening.
The power of not yet – the power of believing that you can improve.
Believing in ‘not yet’ means we know we are on a learning curve, it gives us a path into the future. If we accept that failure is an opportunity to learn and grow we have what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. If we see failure as the end and give up we have what she terms a fixed mindset.
Brain scans showing the electrical activity of students trying to overcome problems were taken and showed remarkable differences. In the brains of students who embraced problems as an opportunity to learn, a growth mindset, the brains were on fire with electrical impulses. They were engaged with the problem trying to solve it. These students were able to cope with challenge and difficulty. They said they believed their ability could be developed. They hoped the exercise would be informative. Brain scans for those with a fixed mindset who ran away from problems showed virtually no brain activity.
Children are learners. They fall when learning to walk and just get back up and keep going. Children are not ashamed, they are not afraid of failing, they are un-inhibited, they are curious, they search through drawers, pull out pots and pans, go through garbage bins, they are in awe of birds, machines, the moon, dogs, cats and more. We are all born with growth mindsets.
My wish for you is that you develop a growth mindset, that you have the curiosity of a child and you are willing to be a lifelong learner. There are many stories of 80 and 100 year old dancers and people obtaining doctorates in their 90’s. We have so much untapped potential.
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
By John McCann with Dr Kate Lemerle (Editor) – first published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/power-positive-psychology-john-mccann/ on 15 May 2017
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