By Jonathan Burman, organizational psychologist
Alright, it’s not as easy as that. And no, I don’t believe that thoughts of glittery unicorns will save the world – but research shows that being positive will make you and your workplace more productive and fulfilled.
What is positive psychology?
Paraphrasing from the pioneers of positive psychology, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, positive psychology means focusing on those aspects of life that provide you the most satisfaction. Previous to positive psychology, the focus of mental health was to heal those with dysfunctions; now we are looking to shift the focus to increasing productivity and fulfillment for everyone.
Why is this important?
In the U.S., we spend about 70 percent of our waking lives working or at work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than half of us are unsatisfied with our work, according to a 2014 survey published on The Conference Board. We are spending an enormous amount of resources – about $300 billion a year, according to the World Health Organization – on stress-related problems, and approximately 41 percent of us “feel tense or stressed out during the workday,” says a 2012 article in Forbes.
How can we bring positive psychology to the workplace?
As leaders in an organization, we have a choice: Encourage positive thoughts and behaviors and energize our people, or encourage negative thoughts and behaviors that depress and demotivate our people.
I once heard a manager say, “The problem I have with all this optimism stuff is it is unrealistic, because bad stuff does happen.” True – and I would say that pessimism is as equally “wrong” in this context as optimism. No one, pessimist or optimist, has a monopoly on reality. Positive psychology does not say bad stuff does not happen. The difference is, even if bad stuff happens, we have a choice in how we look at it. Leaders have a responsibility to help their people be productive and fulfilled – and emphasizing the bad stuff does not help.
To help people transition from negativity to positivity, here are five tactics you can employ at your workplace:
When discussing projects, strategies, tactics and people, we have a tendency to show a “negativity bias,” which means we pay more attention to the possible negative outcomes or perspectives (this is why news organizations serve up so much negative news). To combat this, make employees aware of the negativity bias and for every negative assertion (e.g., “He always does that”, “That never works”) challenge them on their absolutes by asking, “You said he always does that. Can you give me an example?”
Mizuta Masahide once said, “Barn’s burnt down; now I can see the moon.” Reframing means looking at things in a different way. This can be in the form of asking, “What’s another way of looking at this?” or “What was learned?” Even if a project or process has failed, there is most likely something you have learned from it.
Realistic optimism means acknowledging a challenge in a positive way. If you are describing an organizational change, it sounds like this: “This change will be difficult and I am confident that we can succeed by working together.” Another way to articulate this is, “This project is going to require hard work, long hours, and some stress. By working together and being patient with each other, I feel we will be successful and have some fun along the way.”
Helping others to explore options can be a great way to pull them out of negativity. This can be done by asking, “What’s the worst and best-case scenario?” If you can imaginatively explore possibilities and not just focus on doom and gloom, you can most likely find a more optimistically realistic outcome.
Instead of focusing on what can go wrong or all of the mistakes in the past, encourage people to look at what has worked or is currently working. This can be done by asking things like, “What is working well in our department?” or “What is a best practice we can try?” This is an organizational version of the “Gratitude list” (listing or discussing the things we are grateful for).
To clarify, these tactics can be used in all aspects of your life. Whether you are a leader of an organization, a parent or trying to change yourself, you have a choice on how to view things – negatively or positively. If you spend your time focusing on the negative, you are limiting your options, reducing energy and in general demotivating yourself. Since we spend the majority of our lives at work, organizational leaders have a unique responsibility to help guide their employees towards a more positive, productive and fulfilled workplace.