Putting positive psychology to work

by 16 Oct 2007

WHETHER IT is a report about a failing business, falling share prices or rising interest rates the focus is often on the negative. However, employers can benefit by using positive psychology in the workplace through the art of storytelling, according to a UK expert.

“Psychology has a tendency to focus on the negative – exploring depression rather than happiness; what is wrong rather than what is right; disengagement rather than engaged. So too do many individuals and organisations,” said Kevin Money, associate professor and director of the School of Reputation and Relationships at Henley ManagementCollege in the UK.

“But focusing on the negative things when we go to work will leave us feeling negative. If employers want to engage and motivate their staff, and improve performance they should focus more attention on what people are doing well.”

Speaking at the recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development conference in the UK, Money said everyone experiences emotion at work, so the challenge for employers is to get their people to think more positively and learn from what others do well.

“It is up to those at the top to create a positive culture where employees take time out to reflect and share experiences in terms of what is working well and why.”

Also speaking at the conference was Nic Marks, head of the centre for wellbeing at The New Economics Foundation. He said feeling good at work is not only a signal of good functioning, but will actually enhance an organisation’s performance.

“Employee wellbeing is becoming increasingly important as organisations realise the link between happy, healthy staff and their long-term success,”he said.

Research shows that challenge and interest are key drivers of wellbeing in the workplace, according to Marks, and if jobs aren’t challenging or interesting enough this will be reflected in lack of commitment, underperformance and satisfaction.

“By measuring and focusing on wellbeing at work we can create good jobs – and good jobs not only benefit employees, but also employers,” he said.

“Organisations are likely to get greater impact by fostering positive emotions rather than simply dealing with problems as they occur. Employers should focus on wellbeing at work by identifying and sharing good practice, and should implement wellbeing audits.”

Marks cited the work of Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada, who have studied relationships between line managers and their teams and the impact positive and negative comments can have on performance.

Their research has found that high-performing business units had an average of almost six positive comments to one negative one, while low performing units had an average ratio of three negative comments to every positive one.

Positive emotions are particularly important in relationship to several key performance indicators such as job satisfaction, engagement, loyalty and job meaning. CIPD research has found that happy and engaged employees perform better than others, are more likely to recommend their organisation to others, take less sick leave, and are less likely to quit.

Lucy Bolton, head of enterprise HR at Microsoft in the UK, said the company has many wellbeing initiatives, including a wellbeing centre which provides employees with an open door to a calm tranquil environment, focused solely on the employee.

“At Microsoft our wellbeing strategy is an important element of Microsoft culture helping to promote our image and reputation as an employer of choice, whilst simultaneously improving employee engagement and reducing absence and work-related stress,” she said.

Bolton said that wellbeing and occupational health are not the same, and noted that there was sometimes a conflict of interest between what the employer and the employee wanted or needed. As such, it is important to be clear on the goals of a wellbeing strategy when devising one.

However, Bolton said that taking a more creative approach to wellbeing strategies will also pay dividends.

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