How to Apply Positive Psychology in Workplaces

I sometimes get asked if I am a Psychologist since I have studied Positive Psychology. The answer is no, while Positive Psychology is an area of Psychology, it does not mean that all practitioners would be Psychologists, or that therapy would be the only area where Positive Psychology could be applied. Positive Psychology has successfully been applied in various contexts such as schools and workplaces. Every practitioner applies the tools and research in their own field to support the well-being of their students, employees, patients, clients, community members, and so on.

When I explain that I apply Positive Psychology in workplaces, people are often curious about what this means in practice. I decided to explain in this blog post two ways Positive Psychology could be applied in workplaces. Hope they give you ideas for your team!

HelpING People TO Find Meaning in theIR Work

One very interesting research topic in Positive Psychology is meaning. It is actually such an important part of the discipline that it is one of the five components of Professor Martin Seligman’s PERMA model. The PERMA model is a key concept in Positive Psychology, and it suggests that people’s well-being, or flourishment, consists of positive emotions (P), engagement (E), positive relationships (R), meaning (M), and accomplishment (A). People can find meaning from different areas of their lives, and meaning can also change throughout our lives (Joylla Positive Psychology Practitioner lectures, 2020). For example work, hobbies, family, spirituality, or volunteering work can bring us the sense of meaning.

In the workplace context, there is a good amount of research on meaning. Some of the benefits of feeling that our work has a meaning include better job performance, organizational commitment and occupational identification, and better customer satisfaction (Michaelson et al. 2014). It seems that meaning can be found in any job. Amy Wrzesniewski has studied the subject, and she has found in her studies that regardless of the type of the job, approximately 1/3 of people see their job as something to pay their bills with, 1/3 of people see it as a career, and 1/3 of people see their job as a calling, something with a bigger meaning. For example, a number of hospital cleaners in one of her studies felt that their job was to help patients heal faster. They went out of their way to make the patients’ stay at the hospital as comfortable as possible.

So how can you increase the sense of meaning at work for your employees? Or do some people just magically have it while others don’t? Perhaps it is naturally easier for some people to find meaning in their work. However, having the right tools, we can all increase the sense of meaning at work, no matter our job description. Such organizational practices as autonomy, regular feedback, variety of tasks, and motivating challenges can support the sense of meaning at work (Joylla Positive Psychology Practitioner lectures, 2020). But the one thing that seems to bring people more meaning than anything else, is when they see the positive impact that their work has on others.

Adam Grant studied a university call center, where the employees were calling alumni to donate money for student scholarships. The call center was struggling, 90% of the calls were getting rejected and employees were burning out. The callers were not seeing the impact of their work and they felt unappreciated. Grant had the employees read letters from students who were able to attend the university thanks to a scholarship funded by the donation calls. Employees also met these students face-to-face. Seeing the positive impact of their work totally changed the results of the callers. They were more motivated and doubled their calls. Grant concludes that 5 minutes interacting with a scholarship recipient led to the team getting $38,451 more in donations in one week. This only worked when the callers heard it directly from the scholarship recipient, getting the message from their manager didn’t bring these results. (The full story can be found in Grant’s brilliant book, Give and Take. Highly recommended!)

Adam Grant’s work at the call center was no rocket science nor did it require a huge budget. Yet it completely changed the call center’s performance. What kind of activities would help your employees see the positive impact of their work? It could be anywhere between interacting with the end users of your product or learning about the impact of their work on the environment. Meaning can also be different to different people, so understanding what motivates each employee and gives them the sense of meaning can be helpful.

FocusING on People’s Strengths

Another powerful tool that Positive Psychology offers to workplaces is the classification of the 24 character strengths. The character strengths are sometimes referred to as the backbone of Positive Psychology. The classification was build in the early 2000’s, a few years after the discipline emerged. The 24 character strengths are based on rigorous research and there is an ongoing peer reviewed research on the topic. The character strengths classification is such a crucial part of Positive Psychology because it gives us a way to measure what is best about people. Identifying, appreciating, and using one’s character strengths has been linked to better individual well-being and better performance. Strengths researcher Ryan Niemiec suggests that using our top strengths more at work increases our energy levels and engagement at work. Cultivating our strengths at work also increases meaning and the feeling that our work is a calling to us.

Sometimes when I speak about focusing on strengths, people get concerned that it would mean ignoring weaknesses or not getting out of one’s comfort zone. This is not the case at all. Focusing on strengths means that we learn how to use our best qualities more. When we learn to use them more, we can also harness them in situations that would otherwise be uncomfortable or difficult to us. I recently wrote about using strengths in a public speaking situation, which many people find nerve-wracking. Read the article here.

But what concrete steps can you take to focus on strengths in a workplace? A good place to start is to take the VIA Character Strengths Survey together with your team and discover everyone’s strengths profile. The Survey is available for free on the VIA Institute’s website, here. Once you have taken the test, it is useful to spend some time discovering your results and learning to appreciate the diverse strengths in your team. At this point, you will probably find it helpful to bring in a practitioner who can guide you through the results and help your team to understand them. After discovering the results, consider how they can be applied to drive engagement and performance in your team. How could everyone use their top strengths more in their work? Can you have people craft their jobs based on their strengths? How can the team members appreciate each other’s strengths and work more efficiently together?

Again, focusing on strengths is no rocket science but can change the engagement and performance of the team. If you would like to implement a strengths-approach in a guided way, take a look at my team workshops. They are designed for this very purpose.

What do you think about these Positive Psychology tools for your workplace? I’d love to hear! Leave me message here, or email me at anni@annieline.com.

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash.

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