Leading experts from the Positive Psychology movement tell how organizations can boost employee productivity and engagement
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That old adage is good advice -- but if "it" is the human psyche, you should definitely try to understand it. That's the impetus that brings hundreds of psychologists, students, and other interested parties from around the world to The Gallup Organization's Washington, D.C., headquarters every year to talk about what's right with people.
The Third International Positive Psychology Summit convened this fall for three days of presentations and workshops on how to foster positive emotions and psychological wellbeing. The event was rich in management insights from executives and researchers who discussed how to apply Positive Psychology principles to the workplace.
The Positive Psychology movement has enjoyed strong growth since its origin in the mid-1990s. It was then that a group of prominent psychologists, including Martin Seligman, Ph.D., and conference organizer Ed Diener, Ph.D., began lamenting that the field of psychology had become heavily preoccupied with pathology -- that is, with the idea that its predominant mission was to figure out why people were so screwed up.
Seligman and Diener -- along with Gallup's late chairman Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D., and a growing corps of other social scientists -- committed themselves to the idea that the scientific foundations of happiness and wellbeing must also be studied in order to promote human potential. Seligman, who was presented with an award at the conference recognizing his leadership in advancing Positive Psychology research, described a number of successful "happiness interventions" that he and his colleagues have now validated empirically. (See "Authentic Happiness" in the "See Also" area on this page.)
This two-part article relates the first three of six management insights from this event.
Optimism and idealism are good for innovation
Vinton Cerf, Ph.D., the summit's keynote speaker, isn't an expert on psychology -- but he knows a lot about using a new idea to transform the world. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cerf played a key role on a U.S. Department of Defense project that led to the development of the Internet and Internet-related data-packet and security technologies. Cerf said that persistence in the face of skepticism characterized the process every step of the way; its adherents never stopped believing that the process could change everything.
"If you can provide a core belief that [a new idea] will work and grow and adapt, other people will come along who believe it, too," Cerf said. "It also requires a certain amount of initiative to do things even if people think you're crazy -- they might be right, but doing it anyway is what's important."
Mike Morrison, Ph.D., knows all about the hurdles that innovators face. As dean of the University of Toyota, it's his mission to create an environment in which those hurdles are lowered as much as possible. Morrison has used the Positive Psychology movement's insights to foster innovative problem solving in the service side of Toyota's business. (See "Toyota Applies Quality Management to People" in the "See Also" area on this page.)
Morrison said that one key is to develop a set of broad guiding principles, encouraging employees to think in terms of what "should be." Those principles should trigger emotional responses in employees by giving them a sense of purpose; they should be elevating, timeless -- and positive.
Want to keep employees healthy? Treat them with respect.
Do companies really need to concern themselves with the psychological wellbeing of their employees? Thomas Wright, Ph.D., of the University of Nevada, offered evidence that feelings of wellbeing at work go straight to the bottom line. In fact, Wright's study suggests that companies that measure employee satisfaction may do well to look first at wellbeing. Satisfaction predicted productivity only among those employees whose psychological wellbeing at work was high -- and low psychological wellbeing predicted high turnover regardless of job satisfaction.
So what are some things to keep in mind about psychological wellbeing? David Spiegel, M.D., of the Stanford University School of Medicine, described his decades-long study of people coping with advancing cancer, as well as Internet-based studies of responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. His work provides insights into the types of coping strategies, emotion management, and social support needed to help therapy group participants build bonds and express their emotions.
His research showed that after taking part in a series of "expressive" groups, participants -- whether cancer patients or people simply trying to make sense of a tragedy like 9/11 -- were less likely to suppress their emotions, but better able to manage them. Spiegel also noted that those who suppress emotions have abnormal patterns of cortisol release, a hormonal stress response. The bottom line: Encouraging employees to express concerns or grievances rather than letting them fester makes for a healthier employee -- and a healthier workplace.
So will removing threats to their sense of dignity. Norbert Semmer, Ph.D., of the University of Berne in Switzerland, related his work on the effect of disrespect in the workplace. He noted that if employees perceive that the amount of effort they're exerting is out of balance with the reward they're receiving, they have increased risk of cardiovascular disease and psychological disorders. Semmer also discussed the importance of the perceived legitimacy of task assignments: If employees view their work as unreasonable or unnecessary (for example, they feel their tasks would need less effort if organized in a better way), their work becomes threatening rather than affirming, and their health and wellbeing are at risk.
Many employees may be suffering from "meaning want"
Gregg Easterbrook, The Brookings Institution fellow and senior editor of The New Republic, drew from Positive Psychology research for his 2003 book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Discussing the book at the summit, Easterbrook declared that in American society, "The incidence of clinical melancholy has been rising in eerie synchronization with social gains and improvements in quality of life." In other words, money really can't buy happiness -- and may in fact make true fulfillment harder to come by.
Since humans have had to struggle for survival for most of our history, our brains may be evolutionally calibrated to find fulfillment in overcoming threats to that survival. Take those threats away, and many of us feel adrift, purposeless. The upshot, Easterbrook says, is that "We've gone from material want to meaning want."
What does that mean for employers and managers? Providing employees with a proxy for the struggle for survival -- a sense that their work challenges them to use their personal attributes to accomplish a goal that's important to them -- is key to keeping them engaged.
In his presentation "Engaging the Human Spirit at Work," Douglas May, D.B.A., of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, used a workplace survey to test the impact of three conditions: psychological meaningfulness, psychological safety, and psychological availability. May found that meaningfulness -- workers' feelings that their job is important and highly relevant to them -- had by far the strongest influence on engagement.Next month's article will discuss three more management insights from this event.