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Sarah Lewis

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Positive psychology – a useful tool for HR directors


This article was written by Sarah Lewis, chartered psychologist and author of ‘Positive Psychology at Work.’

What is it?
Positive psychology is the study of ‘strengths, virtues, excellence, thriving, flourishing, resilience, optimal functioning in general, and the like’ (Donaldson 2011). It was introduced as a field of study by Seligman at his inaugural address to the American Psychological Association 1999 and has grown rapidly since. Positive psychology is, at heart, the study of human excellence and flourishing, and as such has clear application to the work of HR Directors and other organisational leaders.

Implications for HR Directors
Research in this area demonstrates the difference organisational features such as social capital, positivity ratios and the utilization of individual strengths can make to an organisation’s profitability and productivity and to the well-being of its staff.

For example Gittell et al. (2006) was able to demonstrate that the authentic leadership of Jim Parker of South Western Airlines and the good will his leadership had built amongst staff was a key factor in their exceptional resilience as an organisation in the wake of 9/11, despite being in the most adversely affected category of ‘domestic airlines.’ It seems that high social capital (organisational trust and interconnectivity by other names) and relational reserves (goodwill towards leadership) positively affect the ability of organisations to bounce back from adversity e.g. organisational resilience.

Further, Hodges and Asplund (2010) demonstrated that a developmental focus on understanding and utilizing people’s strengths at work can reap dividends of reduced turnover and greater productivity. Understandably atmosphere and work culture affect wellbeing and happier people tend to have stronger immune systems and better cardio-vascular health (Diener and Biswas-Diener 2008). Positive ways of working and behaving at work appear to positively impact engagement, staff retention, sickness levels and organizational capacity.

Two key concepts
Two key concepts from positive psychology that are readily applicable in organizations and HR processes are positivity and strengths.

  • Positivity – positivity refers to the ratio of positive to negative affect experienced by people. Studies in a number of domains, including team performance (Losada and Heaphy 2004) and marital harmony (Gottman 1994) have consistently found that a ratio of at least 3:1 positive to negative interactions are needed to reach a threshold where creative ways forward can be found. At ratios below this interactions get stuck in non-productive conflict and relationships deteriorate. In more general terms positive affect is shown to positively affect our cognitive abilities, our sociability, our innovation and our resilience, all of these are important for organisational performance.
  • Strengths – essentially our natural and innate abilities, borne of physiology, hereditary endowment and environmental influences. Studies in neuroscience consistently demonstrate that although the brain has greater plasticity than once thought, we still develop patterns of ability based on repeated use of certain neural pathways. What this effectively means is that by adulthood, and certainly by our late twenties we have both well established pathways and poorly established pathways.

Research in positive psychology shows how investing in areas of existing strengths can reap dividends. For example, when we are using our strengths we are likely to be more energized, motivated, engaged and successful. We find it less tiring so our productivity is likely to be higher.

People need to learn how to use their strengths effectively and appropriately. It seems strength plus skill equals exceptional performance or talent. So the invitation is to work more to shape jobs around people and less to fit people into roles.

Practical application
Our understanding of the beneficial effects of both increasing positivity in an organisation and helping people to understand and use their particular strengths has many practical applications.

Performance management
For instance appraisals or performance management conversations are supposed to be motivating, yet often have the opposite effect. The use of enthusiasm stories, feed-forward interviews and best self 360 feedback techniques all offer alternative approaches to helping people understand when and how they are at their best and how to make that more possible. These are inherently positive and motivating processes. They also reveal a lot about a person’s particular strengths.

Management development
Management training and development can be revised to take into account these positive psychology insights, helping managers and leaders understand the importance of the ‘feel good factor’ as well as introducing ways of achieving it. They can be taught how to identify strengths, and how to address team tasks in ways that create opportunities for people to play to their strengths and complement each other. They can also be introduced to change processes that make use of positive psychology such as Appreciative Inquiry.

Recruitment and selection
Recruitment and selection can be revised to reveal natural strengths and enthusiasm rather than past experience or skill sets. While these may be important, they can also be misleading as sources of motivation. When people are recruited to do what they love doing less management energy has to go into motivating them to do it.

Positive psychology also offers help with some of the more difficult HR tasks such as downsizing. Gittell’s research has demonstrated that existing levels of social capital and relational reserves make a huge difference to the ability of an organisation to bounce back from difficult situations. High levels of social capital and relational reserves are produced by positive and appreciative leadership and organisational behaviour.

Leading through uncertainty
Finally I believe that positive psychology offers support to leaders faced, as many currently are, by the challenge of offering leadership during times of uncertainty. Pulling together what we know about motivating people using positivity, strengths, and meaningfulness with participatory processes such as Appreciative Inquiry creates ways of maintaining motivation and morale through difficult times.

Diener, E. & Diener-Biswas, R. 2008 Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing

Donaldson, S. I. 2011 Determining What Works, If Anything, In Positive Psychology in Donaldson, S. I., Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Nakamura, J. (eds.) Applied Positive Psychology: Improving Everyday Life, Health, Schools, Work and Society. Routledge.

Gittell, J., Cameron, K., and Lim, S. 2006 Relationships, layoffs and organizational resilience: airline industry responses to September 11th. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 42, No. 3, 300-329 (2006)

Gottman, J. M. 1994 What Predicts Divorce? The Relationship between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Hodges, T. D., and Asplund, J. 2010 Strengths Development in the workplace in Linley, P. A., Harrington, S. and Garcea, N. (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and work. Oxford University Press

Losada, M., and Heaphy, E. 2004 The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear model. American Behavioral Scientist. Vol. 47, No. 6 pp. 740-765

Seligman, M. 1999 Presidential address, delivered in Boston at American Psychological Association’s 107th Annual Convention on August 21, 1999.


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