Positive Psychology is the science of thriving and flourishing. In a workplace context, it can be argued that when individuals thrive and flourish, they’re also more innovative, creative, collaborative, resilient, and ultimately, more productive. Positive organisations also attract and keep the best people so it’s a classic win-win for all involved, as Dr Tim Sharp explains in this recent interview with AIM.
Tim shares an overview of the exciting field of Positive Psychology, focusing on optimism, hope, resilience, facing up to the tough times, rewarding positives and the important of doing “the right thing”.
[My name is] Dr Timothy Sharp (aka Dr happy), I’m the Chief Happiness Officer at The Happiness Institute. I’m a clinical and coaching psychologist, organisational consultant and most of the work [I] do is with organisations around building a positive culture. We do coaching with leaders and executives and I do a lot of speaking, writing and other tasks as well.
Q. What is positive psychology?
Positive psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology. It has been around for about 15 years now, but in simple terms it’s a remedy for some of the problems that were seen to exist in more traditional approaches to psychology.
So my background is as a clinical psychologist and the criticisms that started to come out against clinical psychology is that it’s excessively focused on what was going wrong [and] where there were problems and there was an assumption that if we somehow fix these problems then everything will be fine. But what many people started to realise is that if you take something that is bad and fix it you just get ‘not bad’, you don’t necessarily get ‘good’, and although we need to help people (in the psychological sense) with depression and stress and anxiety, there’s a lot more that we can do to really help people live their best lives.
So, positive psychology came about by a couple of people asking questions like ‘what would actually happen if we started to ask what’s right with people? What’s the best in people?’ and ‘Are we actually aiming towards the right goal?’.
An absence of stress and depression is not necessarily the only thing we want to achieve in life; we do want to minimise the stresses in our lives but most of us want happiness, most of us want success.
So positive psychology is aimed at thriving and flourishing, and the simplest metaphor to use is that traditionally psychology is used to take people from minus ten to zero to eliminate or minimise problems, whereas positive psychology is saying ‘let’s go from zero to positive ten’, and that’s about health, wellbeing, happiness, success, productivity etc.
Q: What are the benefits of happiness at work?
So, there are multiple benefits to happiness at work. I know some of the people watching this might think I’m biased but there is a lot of solid research and an increasing body of research that supports the benefits to individuals and organisation and just briefly they include:
- High levels of workplace satisfaction
- High levels of engagement which goes towards discretionary efforts, that contributes to productivity and, ultimately, to profitability.
- Organisations that get this right, that have a positive culture, attract the best people, keep the best people, get the most out of their best people.
- Those people collaborate better together so you get better team work.
Ultimately, there really is no downside when it’s done right to building a positive culture.
Q: Where do we begin?
Well, the first step is to actually acknowledge that it’s a priority and make it a priority.
It sounds obvious but when I actually ask people (and I speak to lots of audiences around the country) and I say ‘How many of you would like to have a more positive culture, even if it’s already positive?’ 99 per cent of people put up their hands – why wouldn’t you?
When I then ask ‘how many of you actually have a plan or how many of you have some strategies in place?’ you might get 10 or 15 per cent [raising their hands]. So most people acknowledge that it would be beneficial but not many people are doing something about it.
So the first thing I say is make it a priority and start planning. The specifics of the strategy will vary from organisation to organisation and from team to team, but as long as you’re aiming towards something that works and that will be relevant for you, as long as you have some strategy and some plans in place and you’re chipping away at it on a day-to-day basis – just like anything else in life, just like if I want to get fit and healthy – I go to the gym every day.
You need to do the same thing in workplaces, do something every day, every week. Have short, medium, long-term goals – if you’re doing all of that you’ll probably get it right.
Q: How can we play our part?
Any and every employee can play a significant role. Every one of us when we walk in the door in the morning will have an influence over the culture; will have an influence over the people.
I encourage every person to ask themselves what sort of influence they want to have because, again, every person walking in the door, whether it’s the CEO or a middle level manager or the receptionist or the cleaner or whoever, every single person can play a part and should be playing a part. So that’s the first point I’d make, it shouldn’t just be about a title, it’s much more than that.
That being said, the reality is that more often than not, there will be a formal ambassador, or so to speak, and the best thing that person can do is lead by example. The best thing that person can do, if [they] want happy employees, is to be a happy person [themselves].
If you want to engender positivity in others, exude positivity yourself. Think optimistically, identify and lead with your strengths, express gratitude to others. Have a bit of fun sometimes in an appropriate way and if [you] do all of those sorts of things in an appropriate way and as a result there are benefits coming from that, then other people will probably want to be a part of that as well.
They’ll say ‘Well he looks like he’s having fun and he’s performing better, so how can I do a bit of that?’ That’s when we can see it start to roll out and people start to copy it or apply it in their own jobs or their own ways.
Q: What about when things are going wrong?
It won’t go right 100 per cent of the time. There’s no such thing as a person that’s happy every minute of every day [and] there’s no such thing as an organisation where every single thing goes right so stuff does go wrong – that’s life – what we need to do is keep it in perspective and focus more often on what is going right and what is going well and to savour that and to celebrate.
So part of it is actively focusing our mind on the things we want to attend to, part of it is appreciating that and savouring that, so stopping every now and then and celebrating successes.
It still amazes me how many organisations don’t do that well; they work hard on a project, for example, and more often than not they are successful and they achieve their goals.
What do they do when they’re finished? Go straight on to the next thing! Some of that is understandable and necessary to an extent but I really encourage people to think about how they can (and we know from the research there are benefits) just pause for minutes, hours, days, depending on the context and actually say ‘Well done, good on us, look what we’ve just achieved’.
Organisations and individuals that do [this] a bit better tend to be a bit more motivated, that’s what keeps them going. Those that just go straight on, at some point or another, they just get burnt out.
Q: How do you maintain positivity in the long-term?
Well that’s a really good question because long-term maintenance of any behaviour is always a challenge and a lot of organisations out there would know that.
At the risk of over-simplifying, it doesn’t need to be over-complicated! The first thing is to work out what you need to do and, as I said earlier, that will vary from organisation to organisation and team to team, but if you work out what you want to achieve, work out a plan, implement the plan, and just work away at that over weeks and months and years… that’s pretty much it.
In terms of long-term maintenance there are a few additional strategies that can help – one is to freshen it up a bit. That doesn’t mean fundamentally changing principles every day but we do know that people get used to stuff, so every now and then, whether it’s every few months or every year, again depending on the context, it is important to just make some changes to keep things interesting, to keep it novel and exciting and pleasurable.
If you do the same things over and over again, even if it’s good to start with, it can lose some of that positive value. So we also need to keep reminding each other of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it – this is where a lot of people fall short, they forget the why.
The ‘what’ is relatively easy, the ‘how’, the ‘where’, and the ‘when’ are relatively easy but we need to keep remembering why we’re doing this – because we want to be the best company in the world, because we want to attract the best people in the world – whatever it may be.
Finding ways to constantly remember that is vitally important. Even just using reminders, simple things like ‘how can we remind each other every team meeting, every month, every quarter of what we want to do, why we want to do it, the benefits of the positive culture and the benefits of the strategies we’re using to build a positive culture’.
The application of simple practical reminders [are important] and then when we are doing it just reward ourselves, give ourselves a pat on the back, give other people a pat on the back. Positive reinforcement of desirable behaviours is one of the simplest but most effective behaviour change mechanisms we can utilise and most people that do it tend to maintain those
Q: How would a positive workforce react to a crisis?
Well that’s a really good question because, again, positive cultures are realistic; they do face up to the cold hard realities and they do make mistakes. Even in the best organisations, bad things still happen.
So [positive organisations] deal with them far more constructively, so there’s a lot less anger, a lot less blame, much more focus on ‘OK what do we need to do about this?’, and a much stronger focus on finding solutions, coming together, [asking] ‘What can we all do to fix this, get over this, get through this?’
So they do acknowledge the problem; it’s not about denial and blame. [It’s about saying] ‘We’ve got a problem here, what are our options, what are the best options, who is the best person or team to implement those options and when can we start?’.
Dr Tim Sharp has three degrees in psychology and an impressive record as an academic, clinician, coach and best-selling author. He runs one of Sydney’s most respected clinical psychology practices, a highly regarded executive coaching practice and is the Founder and Chief Happiness Officer of The Happiness Institute, Australia’s largest organisation devoted solely to enhancing happiness.
Tim has taught at all the major universities in NSW and is currently an Adjunct Professor within the School of Management, Faculty of Business at UTS and also an Adjunct Professor within the School of Health Sciences at RMIT University. In 2008 Tim’s achievements were recognised by the Australian Davos Connection when he received a Future Leadership Award. As a result of his frequent appearances in the media, Tim has been read and heard by millions of people. Follow Tim on Twitter @drhappy.