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How Positive Psychology Can Be Used to Boost Performance in the Workplace

One of the most significant challenges facing organizations today is how to continually grow performance in the age of global competition, artificial intelligence, political unrest and an increasing skill gap.

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Positive psychology, when used as part of continuous performance management and a comprehensive talent strategy, has been shown to address many of these challenges.

Positive psychology focuses on building positive emotions, enabling people to innovate, grow and inspire others. What are the concrete tools an organization can use to leverage this powerful framework within performance development and the employee experience? Here are some examples.

Build Gratitude into Check-ins
According to Martin Seligman of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, gratitude is the positive emotion “felt after being the beneficiary of some sort of gift. It is also a social emotion often directed towards the person (the giver of a gift).” 

Expressing gratitude during manager/employee check-ins builds positive connections and establishes a strong frame of reference for the rest of the meeting. Here are some tips for building gratitude into check-ins: 

  • Allocate a few minutes within each check-in to discuss positive outcomes and behaviors. Even simple questions like, “What went well this week?” or “What are we celebrating today?” can set a positive tone.
  • Discuss how teams have collaborated to move projects along and encourage employees to give their peers recognition.

Inspire Peer-to-Peer Gratitude to Build Connection
The check-in is not the only place to create gratitude moments. Showing gratitude should be encouraged up and down the organization, whether peer-to-peer or manager-to-employee. It must be sincere and authentic to create a sense of positivity for both the giver and the receiver. Some things to consider when giving gratitude:

  • Leverage storytelling to fuel positivity. Instead of saying, “That was a great presentation,” you may want to elaborate and say, “When you presented the product strategy today, I was able to fully understand why we are changing direction based on the customer insight you provided. When you were describing the customer, I felt like I was there with the customer experiencing the same issues.”
  • Avoid lengthy processes for an employee to express their gratitude. Make expressing gratitude simple, easy and inspirational, without unnecessary overhead.

Drive Learning with Feedback
Although positive emotions are less intense, they play an essential role in building resilience and regulating negative emotions. One way to use positive emotions is in the process of giving and receiving constructive feedback. If not provided correctly, constructive feedback can have a detrimental impact on productivity and morale. Positive psychology researchers recommend the number of positive moments to negative moments should be three-to-one to build trust and connection. Here are some ways positive psychology can improve the process:

  • Start from a place of positivity and goodwill. Implement a well-funded social recognition program that allows everyone to give and receive recognition for good work in the moment, as it happens.
  • Feedback should be actionable, future-focused, and something an employee can immediately put to use. For example, instead of saying, “You did a terrible job connecting with the audience at last week’s presentation,” try, “­Next time you present, try connecting with the audience throughout the presentation. I have several tools I can send you that may help.”

Build Connections with Empathy
We’ve all heard the saying, “Put yourself in their shoes.” This is essentially a call for empathy — the ability to relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experience of others. When leaders display empathy, they reinforce a personal interest, reassurance and acceptance of their employees. Here are some ways people leaders can use empathy in their check-ins:

  • Focus on the discussion as well as the emotional response of the employee. 80% of communication is non-verbal, so pay attention to tone and body language.
  • Before responding to questions and comments, pause to think about the other person’s perspective. For example, when an employee says they are frustrated about a particular situation, try to see the challenge from their point of view, instead of immediately perceiving it as a complaint.

Embrace Strengths
Positive psychology research shows when people leverage their strengths they are more engaged and energized by their work. Martin Seligman and other researchers have found “when work demands our engagement, such as using our strengths in new and innovative ways, we experience higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression.” Consider the following tips to help employees leverage their strengths and increase positivity and engagement:

  • Give each person a strengths-based assessment and review the results to collaborate on how those strengths can be leveraged to meet business goals.
  • Create a safe environment for openly discussing both strengths and weaknesses. In this type of environment, someone could say, “Mike, could I ask for your input on creating some good questions? Curiosity is not one of my strengths.”

Ensure Employees Have Focus Time
Flow is a mental state of focused attention so intense that a person nearly loses their sense of time. Being in flow amplifies performance, according to Steven Kotler, benefiting both the employee and the organization. It has also been shown to increase positivity and engagement.

A person is more likely to enter a flow state when they are working on tasks that both challenge them and leverage their skillset. Here are some ways to help employees increase their productivity through flow:

  • Give employees focused time each day where they are not interrupted. Research indicates that switching between tasks costs an individual as much as 40% of their productivity. Try blocking particular hours of the day as focus timed when meetings cannot be scheduled.
  • When creating goals, balance challenge and skill. As people rise to manageable challenges, they gain the confidence to accomplish increasingly more difficult goals.

Embed a Growth Mindset into HR and Talent Processes
Gallup has found that one of the top benefits employees want from their employer is the opportunity to learn and grow. Here is where growth mindset, a key concept from positive psychology, can help. According to researcher Carol Dwick, growth mindset is when a person believes that their abilities and skills and those of others can be improved with effort. To embed a growth mindset within your organization, consider the following:

  • Human resources and talent processes should be evaluated to ensure they focus on learning and growth. For example, in the interview process, ask questions to understand if a candidate has a growth mindset. A former Starbucks executive said she asks candidates about challenging work experiences to help discern whether a candidate is willing to learn from their mistakes.
  • Have leaders add “yet” to statements of limitation. For example, “We can’t do this — yet.” Just adding this one word helps overcome the perception of negativity in the face of challenges.
  • Leaders should be encouraged to use inclusive language such as “we” and “us” to create a sense of shared purpose and community when speaking with their teams.

Trigger Resilience and Grit During Goal Setting
Angela Duckworth, noted researcher from the University of Pennsylvania and TEDx speaker, defines grit as the “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Resilience is the optimism to continue even when you’ve experienced failure. Both resilience and grit can be used to facilitate organizational and employee growth.

  • Goals should be reviewed continuously throughout the year and adjusted as needed. Short-term, achievable goals tied to the longer-term corporate strategy help employees foster grit and motivation. For example, one goal could be to focus on three new marketing campaigns for new customer acquisition, which is tied to a corporate goal of increasing revenue by 10%.
  • When you experience challenges in meeting a goal, consider bringing the key players together for collaboration, reflection, and an open discussion to dig into what happened and how to keep things moving forward.

About the Author

Lynne Levy is a master storyteller at Workhuman.


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