By harnessing positive psychology, organisations can counter the natural human tendency to focus on the negative.
You’ve got to Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive – or something along those lines, right? Johnny Mercer penned this upbeat tune more than seven decades ago, which is proof that the human desire to push beyond our innate gloom is anything but new.
Expert in positive psychology Michel Gomberg says gloom is indeed innate. For evolutionary reasons, our brain was designed to intensify memories and emotions about negative events.
“When we were living in the caves and we saw an enemy or a dangerous animal, we developed these adaptive solutions. In order to survive, we needed a brain that could prepare us for the worst,” says Gomberg, who has a Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree with honours from Melbourne University.
In today’s parlance, says Gomberg, the brain is like velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.
“So when equal amounts of good and bad are present – say, losing $100 or finding $100, or receiving criticism or praise – negative information has more of a psychological impact and is easier to remember than positive information.”
Beyond rose-tinted glasses
The “father of positive psychology”, professor Martin Seligman, started bringing attention to the field with several books written in the 1990s before becoming president of the American Psychological Association in 1998.
In a 2004 TED Talk that’s racked up more than five million views, Seligman said positive psychology should be as concerned with human strength as it is with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and focused on making the lives of normal people fulfilling. Seligman doesn’t deserve sole praise. Gomberg says some of the principles that underpin positive psychology have been around since ancient Greek times.
So can the principles of positive psychology help businesses? Yes, says Gomberg, but you have to make sure any use of it has direction and delivers results. Firstly, forget the common misconception that positive psychology means ignoring weaknesses or shortcomings – it is not the positive visualisation promoted in books like ‘The Secret’.
“The main headwind faced by positive psychology is the misconception it’s a self-help type approach that intentionally ignores problems by wearing rose-tinted lenses. The aim of positive psychology is to rebalance the traditional focus on fixing our gaps, to paying more attention to nurturing our strengths.”
Here Gomberg explains how HR professionals can implement a strengths-based approach to performance reviews, development planning, recruitment and retention, and leadership training.
Development plans are ripe for change and a positive psychology approach, says Gomberg. “I’ve experienced many situations where the whole discussion is about the red lights [negatives], as if there was nothing to learn from excellence.”
You can bring the positives, or green lights, to the fore by asking the right kinds of questions.
“Ask what are the conditions and the behaviours that enabled this to happen? How can we amplify or magnify this positive impact somewhere else in the organisation or across our business? Where else can these initiatives be replicated?”
“The brain is like velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.”
“In development planning, the deficit approach is very common because people think they will get more out of someone if they just help them fix the gaps.
“But we have evidence that shows exactly the opposite – that we can grow exponentially out of our strengths. So as opposed to choosing training that’s essentially tailored to fix your gaps, you can instead aim at mastering your strengths – becoming a black belt in activities that you’re already good at.”
With regards to addressing weaknesses through development planning, Gomberg suggests three things:
- Aim for damage control, not mastery. “Prevent your ‘kryptonite’ from neutralising your superpowers.” Basically, accept there are some things you – or a colleague – is never going to be great at, but it’s okay to just be “good enough”.
- Be highly selective. “The problem with many development plan templates is that they ask, ‘What are the gaps you need to fix? List three or four’ and then they ask, ‘Is there something that you want to refine in terms of strengths?’ I propose we start with 80 per cent of our energy and focus on strengths. Then, with the other 20 per cent, focus on one specific weakness at a time. If you’re trying to fix all your weaknesses at once, you end up not honouring the intention to put more energy behind your strengths.”
- Build well-rounded teams. “Instead of trying to shape well-rounded individuals, form a colourful set of talents. There’s a huge debate today about diversity and we often discuss it in terms of gender and backgrounds. But one interesting angle is diversity of strengths. You need to map the strengths in your team and look for complementary skills when you’re hiring someone.”
Recruitment and retention
Gomberg points out that often in recruitment, you’re not looking for strengths, you’re looking for competencies. “Competencies are what you do well – what you excel at – but strengths are what you do well that also energises you. And there’s no small difference.
“If you just hire people to do the things that they should do well, it will eventually drain their energy and they’ll end up burned out. Whereas when you hire someone based on their strengths, it’s much more sustainable.”
One of Gomberg’s favourite techniques is ‘job crafting’, a proactive alignment between HR, managers and teams to redesign work to create more satisfaction and effectiveness.
“The job of your dreams is not something that you find. Instead, it is something that you create based on your strengths and purpose.”
When it comes to leadership training, a positive psychology approach should start with deep self-awareness, says Gomberg.
He notes sometimes we take our strengths for granted, or don’t realise they’re special, so taking a collaborative approach can help.
“In my leadership strength workshops, participants are invited to reflect on a moment when they were at their best, followed by an exploration of the strengths that enabled that event. Next, people have the opportunity to share their narratives with a partner, who helps reinforce the strengths previously identified and also shed light upon blind spots.”
The exercise wraps up with people sharing their partner’s stories. “This practice is designed to elevate consciousness, enabling leaders to make frequent and intentional use of strengths in a group setting.”
“If you’re trying to fix all your weaknesses at once, you end up not honouring the intention to put more energy behind your strengths.”
Risks to watch out for
You might be thinking this is painting a very rosy picture of positive psychology and there must be some downsides. This is something Gomberg readily admits. One such downside is that if a particular strength is used in excess, it may turn into an issue.
“Excessive confidence may become arrogance and excessive optimism can make us underestimate relevant risks.”
Another risk is that sometimes others do not praise a certain strength we have because they just don’t value it. “For example, some people see forgiveness as a sign of weakness.”
Finally, although using strengths is highly associated with positive performance, as humans we sometimes fail. “And it hurts much more when we fail using our strengths,” says Gomberg.
The opportunity to do what you love, what you do well and what energises you is more important now than ever before, says Gomberg. He supports the workplace trend that is trying to tap into intrinsic motivation.
“When people have the opportunity to do more of what they’re good at, that’s meaningful and energises them. They typically achieve better results, which boosts their confidence.
“As a result, we create an upward spiral that can be contagious when the organisation embraces other positive practices.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 edition of HRM magazine.