Thursday, 17 April 2008

Is positive psychology the answer to employee engagement and improved performance?

Positive psychology suggests that by focusing on people’s strenghths rather than on their development needs we can transform wellness at work and as a consequence improve organisational performance.

Positive Psychology is the emerging field of the study of optimal human functioning. It is a term first used by Martin Seligman in his presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1998 where he attempted to encourage his fellow psychologists to think beyond relieving people of their problems to helping them live the best life they can.

The notion behind the work that is being done under the banner of Positive Psychology is to enhance our experiences of love, work and play and by doing so encourage wellbeing. This is in contrast to the traditional ways of thinking in both psychology and business where the focus is on finding what isn't working and trying to fix it.

Techniques such as Appreciative Enquiry and Strength finders (Gallup) as well as writers such as Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience have been extolling the value of adopting this approach for some time. In Gallup’s case they have produced some strong statistical evidence that it works.

There are, however, some challenges to this compelling notion. Obviously, people's jobs don't always correlate with what they're good at, development may be needed in key areas of a person’s role and if ignored this may lead to issues. Further, managing people fairly without clear structures such as competency frameworks could be a potential problem if positive psychology is fully adopted.

I am drawn to this approach for a couple of reasons. It seems to make sense to let people do what they are good at regardless of what is says in their Job Description (or Job Restriction). Also, anything that challenges the status quo in HR is a good thing for me. If HR is to develop into HR 2.0 it must seek new ways of creating meaning in the workplace and positive psychology might just be one of the key leavers supporting this change.


Jo said...

Good to have you on board! And I like the picture.

To try to go to "yes and", I think we can work out positive HR procedures. And then figure out later when the positive applies and when the conventional applies.

Terrence Seamon said...

I agree, Scott. Positive Psychology (along with Appreciative Inquiry, Strengths Based Management, Employee Engagement etc) is one of the signs that we are experiencing a paradigm shift in our thinking about work, about managing, and about organizations.

Hopefully HR will come along and ride this wave too.


Anonymous said...

This psychology trends applied to HR management are nothing but "means" to justify a budget and the reason to be of HR it self

Personally I just hate to feel observed all the time and knowing that there is someone measuring and evaluating every smile I make or every coffee I have!

But yeah...people should be free to do whatever they want even if this it not stated in their job description.

BTW...do this posity psychology thing...provides any "device" to measure its own efficiency in economic terms?

mstallard said...

Great post! Positive psychology has identified the 24 values that create a culture conducive to meeting human needs for respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth and meaning. When these needs are met, people thrive, individually and collectively. A manifesto I wrote about it was published on changethis.com. Here's a link to it: http://changethis.com/44.06.ConnectionCulture

Scott, I would be grateful to hear your reaction to my "Connection Culture" thesis.

David Zinger said...

I came to this post late and see the other comments. Two of the commenters belong to the employee engagement network. You might be interested in joining us at www.employeeengagement.ning.com.

Tim Wright said...

Scott -

The concept is great. The challenge is not, I think, in HR but at the supervisor level. These are the people who will shift their thought/behavior to commenting positively and focusing on development rather than correction. It will require a change in language and a change in concept.


Anonymous said...

Sounds good, but the devil is in the execution.

Scott said...

Thanks for all the comments on this topic folks. It does appear that things are changing and that as Terry suggests I agree that there are strong signs of a shift in HR thinking. I'm especially excited about this as, for the first time, there is also a suite of technologies which can help support this - web 2.0 is clearly a key enabler.

The issue of measurement is one that I struggle with sometimes. I agree with the notion that we should measure wether or not positive psychology works and the likes of Gallup have vast data banks doing just that. I do worry, however, that we concentrate too much on measurement at the expense of the workforce.

Thanks for the link to your manifesto Michael - I'd be delighted to have a look. Watch this space.

This is going to be a fun ride I suspect!

Rob Robson said...

Yes and no.

No one psychology "is the answer".

Positive psychology has some good ideas and some good constructs, but like the psychologies that it attempts to be the anitdote, it is incomplete.

You need a true and accurate picture to really address performance and engagement, in my view (although engagement as a construct is very much a product of the positive psychology movement).

I'm not completely comfortable with "employee engagement" on the whole, not because it isn't laudable and important, but because it is pretty poorly defined and measured.

As a practitioner that uses Reversal Theory as a framework, I've never seen an engagement survey or framework that is motivationally complete - they all tell a partial story of satisfaction etc. For example, Schaufeli's construct only really measures 2/8 motivational dimensions. So, employee engagement surveys usually miss out on possible sources of satisfaction and 'engagagement'.

Second, engagement is a concept that doesn't, in my experience, have a point of reference. Engaged with what, and how? Employees in different organisations need to be engaged in different ways, and not just to different levels, to be successful. We need to link engagement to the strategic requirement of the organisation - we need to be able to create creativity, innovation, safety etc.

Without that point of reference, it is just a floaty concept. Who cares if we score more or less than organisation X? What does that really mean for OUR performance (especially if our survey only tells a tiny part of the story).

I'm also unsure about positive psychology. It just seems to me to be a reaction to other psychologies which overemphasised the pathological model.

Reversal Theory, as a framework, says that every motive/value has poth positive and negative implications, in different situations. If you choose to ignore one side in favour of the other, in my view, you are again only telling part of the story.

I think that Positive Psychology has fallen into the same trap as the psychologies that it tries to remedy.

Chris Morgan said...

I had a consultant coming to work on a project for me a few months ago.

A colleague of mine told how this person can be really disruptive and generally is bit of a trouble maker. I found myself looking out for all of the signs that reinforced this view - and found a lot of them! Things didn't go too well.

I then tried really hard to look out for all of the positive things that they did - and there were also a lot of them too....but I just hadn't noticed them.

If you look for the positive then that's what you will see. If you look for the negative then that is all you will see.

Scott said...

Thanks Rob and Chris - Rob what is is about Reversal theory that makes it different from all of the other constructs in psychology? Chris that is soooo true - I think we are all given and give labels to people which are very hard to break. These can of course be positive and negative.

Rob said...


Reversal Theory is different for a number of reasons.

For one, it is a general theory of human experience - using the connections between motivational states and emotional states as the 'map' for doing so. This integrative quality is important. The theory also integrates the intrapersonal, interpersonal and organisational dimensions of experience.

Another is that it can be considered a state theory of personality. It emphasises our changeability, inconsistency and even paradoxical nature. This dynamic view of human nature is important in today's fast-changing business context.

It tells us that we can't read too much into behaviour. We have to find out what the behaviour means to someone.

In the context of this debate, it emphasises neither the positive or the negative. All motivational states can have positive and negative consequences at work and in life. This has important implications for diagnosis - the same theory can explain both positive and negative situations or behaviours equally effectively. It is not blind to one or the other.

For more, try the Reversal Theory Society



Scott said...

Rob - thanks for the comments - however what you said went so far over the top of my head that I'm more confused than I was before. Can reversal theory be explained in simple English? As is stands it sounds like a cover all mish mash. Sorry to be blunt but I don't get it as described! I'd be delighted to carry a guest post on this from you as this topic is clearly interesting to our community?

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