When we think of psychology, we tend to think of the distressed patient lying on the couch discussing their neuroses as the psychologist takes notes. Generally, this psycho-therapeutic process attempts to reduce suffering by objectively bringing the individual from a -7 to a -2 on a validated inventory or instrument. This is fantastic for the 1 in 5 that suffer from a psychiatric condition, but what about the rest of us?
And thus positive psychology was born.
Well okay, not exactly. But you get the picture – Positive psychology was founded on the acknowledgement that more can be done – both on an individual level and on a wider sociocultural level.
Let me be clear.
Positive psychology is not about positive thinking or about how a well-timed inspirational quote or platitude can substantially improve our mood.
It’s much more than that. So much more.
Positive psychology is the acknowledgement of the fact that, contrary to Freud’s earliest theories, we can strive to hope to have a mental life that goes beyond minimising our misery and towards a state of flourishing or well-being. Simply put, it’s the notion that we can thrive, rather than just survive. Accordingly, Martin Seligman – a pre-eminent psychologist, and his colleagues propose that there are five measurable elements (PERMA) that contribute to this state:
Positive emotions. Research shows that positive emotions, though fleeting in nature, can be markers of flourishing. For instance, when we regularly experience positive emotions such as joy and awe, these positive states trickle down and to increase our capacity to be more creative and cooperative, and productive.
Engagement. In the context of positive psychology, engagement is synonymous with the concept of flow – or a state of “optimal experience” in which we feel alert, in control, and operating at a peak level of performance. It’s a transient state of absolute concentration where we simply lose track of time or feel “in the moment”.
Relationships. The idea of humans as a social creature isn’t just a philosophical proposition, it’s a scientifically backed claim. The acknowledgement that we are hardwired to connect with others comes at an obvious cost – that at least on some level, our happiness and well-being is affected by those we associate ourselves with.
Meaning and purpose. Research shows that the self or individual is an impoverished source of meaning – that we are at our best when we dedicate our time to something greater than ourselves. It essentially comes down to the pursuit of causes that are congruent with our own values and in the process, it provides us with the motivation to go one step further.
Accomplishment. Whether it be learning a new instrument or clearing an achievement within a video game, people often strive to find activities that are intrinsically rewarding. Our need to feel accomplishment explains why we engage in activities that have no demonstrable financial benefit or immediate gain.
So how does this model fit within innovation?
It is no secret that the workplace of the 21st century is vastly different. On top of globalisation, the advent of new technologies has paved the way for a number of changes including the rise of the knowledge economy, hyper competition, and the ever increasing demand to meet a triple bottom line. To keep up with these changes, companies now place a premium on creativity and innovation in order to gain a competitive edge. Since innovation and creativity is uniquely a human endeavour, strategic talent management practices must be part of the equation when coming up with a plan to adapt to these changes.
Although innovation and growth is commonly cited as a core strategic objective, organisations generally only go as far as hiring innovative or entrepreneurial individuals. This is simply not enough. Research shows that the innovative organisation is one that, at a cultural and team level, is open and inclusive – where social interactions are positive and ideas are encouraged, shared, and incubated. Innovative organisations are also marked by engaged employees – employees that are frequently in a state of flow, accomplish tasks regularly, and are properly rewarded for their efforts (financially and otherwise).
If it’s starting to sound familiar….it should. A flourishing individual does not substantially differ from a flourishing or innovative organisation. Indeed, just as the effects of well-being cascades into other domains of the individual’s life, a flourishing organisation tends to be more innovative, profitable, and socially conscious. It is not a coincidence that, Google – an undisputed paragon of innovation, has the most happy and satisfied workforce, is one of the most charitable, and is one of the most socially conscious organisations in the world.
I submit that, in the same way that psychology has gone from focusing on just minimising suffering, organisations need to go above ticking boxes or doing the absolute minimum, towards a more sustainable practice in which human potential and well-being is maximised. Thus, the most pertinent question in management has shifted from “how do we get our employees to do their work” to “how do we empower our talent pool to in a way that promotes their well-being so that they can reciprocate by creating more value?”
And it’s a tough question – I wont pretend to have the answer. However, I think that with the help of business psychologists/industrial-organisational psychologists, work design, leadership, the physical work-space, organisational processes, and everything else in between can redesigned and engineered to create a flourishing organisation. I also believe that understanding culture and the way it influences values, social norms, and behaviours is the key to success. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have to realise that organisations, for better or worse, are the co-architects of our well-being. And under this paradigm, organisations are simply not doing enough.
It’s time to take ownership and flourish.