Expert in positive psychology Michel Gomberg shares his perspective on adopting a strengths-based approach.
Think of your last performance review or feedback session. What memories stand out: the compliments or the “opportunities for improvement”? Most likely, the negative aspects tend to emerge first, even if you had an overall favourable assessment.
Now, describe your workplace – would you start commenting on organisational challenges and relationship issues or reporting achievements and positive stories? Probably the former, right? Finally, what is the first thing that you see in the picture below?
Negative vs positive
If the fly caught your attention, this is because we are programmed to see the dirt in the glass. For evolutionary reasons, our brains were designed to intensify the memories and emotions surrounding negative events. This is because, in the past, they represented the situations when our lives were threatened by animals, enemies, hunger or weather. So, in order to survive, we needed a brain that could prepare us for the worst. This phenomenon is defined as “negativity bias”, simply meaning that ‘bad’ is stronger than ‘good’.
While the negativity bias has had an important evolutionary impact (and is still crucial in modern life), the 21st century has seen unprecedented improvement in nearly every objective indicator concerning wellbeing: lifespan, access to education, appropriate nutrition, potable water, etc. However, the human brain still operates in a way that suits a highly adverse context, resulting in some undesirable effects in our lives and work environment.
Over time, this natural inclination to focus on issues of individuals and corporations, rather than virtues, creates a deficit approach that tends to drain self-confidence and engagement. As a result, job satisfaction and productivity can be negatively impacted. According to Gallup, 85 per cent of employees worldwide are not actively engaged at work. These individuals are not necessarily performing poorly, but they are indifferent about their workplace. In other words, they give their time but are not involved in, enthusiastic about or committed to their work.
That’s precisely where the emerging field of positive psychology can make a valuable contribution, investigating the conditions that make individuals, communities and organisations thrive.
The last two decades have seen the rise of positive psychology, which seeks to rebalance the emphasis of mainstream psychology on fixing the gaps and treating people through the lens of their pathologies. This relatively new science complements the traditional efforts towards healing emotional pain. Positive psychology endeavours to identify what makes life worth living through solid theory and evidence-based interventions. Positive psychology explores how to nurture positive emotions and human strengths to realise human potential.
Positive psychology and strengths-based approach
The most important perspective that positive psychology brings to the workplace is the strengths-based approach; the continuous discipline to start with and focus on what is going well. Building on strengths can be a powerful antidote to negativity bias, as it shifts the mindset to a different direction by applying a positive and realistic lens to the world around us. While there is valuable criticism that neglecting one’s gaps could cause serious derails, the call is not for an exclusive emphasis on the positive aspect, but rather a greater focus on it.
Strengths can be defined as potentials for excellence, as they are associated with consistent high performance. Also, we feel highly energised when using them. Evidence shows that return on investment is significantly higher when people are encouraged to develop their talents: productivity increases one and a half times and engagement enhances six times, significantly reducing employee turnover. Conversely, when managers primarily focus on weaknesses, chances to perform poorly soar by 20 times. We grow the most out of our strengths, not weaknesses.
A classic study on the speed of reading provides some very interesting insights about the benefits of identifying and nurturing strengths. During the research, a group of people were randomly selected and measured in terms of how many words per minute they could read. On average, people read approximately 90 words per minute. However, researchers identified a group with a natural talent to read four times as much. This demonstrates the huge opportunity to increase productivity if tasks are allocated according to strengths. Also, the study revealed amazing results after participants took training to improve their speed of reading. While the average group increased from 90 to 150 words per minute (approximately a 70 per cent increase), gifted readers skyrocketed eight times, from 350 to 2,900.
Encouraging this approach at work
Storytelling, in which participants are invited to reflect on their best selves, is a great way to encourage positive psychology at work. This approach is designed to elevate consciousness, enabling a more frequent and intentional use of strengths in a group environment. The exercise starts with an individual description of a “moment of glory”, 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. This complementary perspective is particularly valuable because we sometimes take our strengths for granted and simply do not perceive them as distinguishing characteristics. Finally, participants have the opportunity to share their partners’ stories with a larger group (with the author’s permission) as a way to cultivate an appreciative mindset and a more collaborative attitude.
While leadership training can be a good starting point, embedding a strengths-based approach in an organisational culture requires a set of converging practices. This is because strengths are like seeds, which require fertile soil to grow. A generative environment typically comprises of metrics, processes and routines that stimulate employees to investigate what is right and learn from excellence, not just from mistakes.
Performance review meetings provide a rich example of how the deficit approach usually prevails. Generally, most of the energy is devoted to the “red lights” in the scorecards, neglecting the powerful insights that might emerge when the “green lights” are investigated: what drove outstanding results? How can those conditions be replicated? What organisational strengths were in place?
Development planning sessions also deserve special attention. Frequently, the templates, discussion and action plans prioritise what needs to be done to fix the gaps. However, managers and employees clearly benefit from choosing more strengths than weaknesses to develop.
Despite its significant upsides, adopting a strengths-based approach involves some risks. Overusing a strength is one of them. This is when confidence in excess becomes arrogance, or too much optimism leads to under-estimate relevant threats. Another aspect to consider is that each individual values certain strengths differently from others. For instance, some may consider forgiveness a virtue but their peers might see it as a sign of vulnerability. Finally, although the use of strengths is often associated with high performance, when a person fails using their strengths, it’s usually a more painful experience.
Michel Gomberg is a change catalyst with extensive business and leadership experience. He graduated with Honours from a Master of Positive Psychology from Melbourne University and is currently an associate of The Oranges Toolkit, a social enterprise specialised in corporate training that reverts all profits to help kids with cancer.
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