Positive Psychology and the Billion Dollar Question

The world of work as we’ve known it is changing. Global connectedness, new technology and the rise of the contingent workforce are blurring the boundaries between work and non-work.

With engagement at an all-time low in many developed countries, employees are increasingly looking for work that allows them to use their strengths and is aligned with their values, rather than a job for life or a way to pay the bills. Organisational development practices need to shift to reflect this new reality, particularly given today’s tough operating environment where the increased levels of discretionary effort, goal attainment and resilience associated with strengths use may mean the difference between success and failure.  This is a key reason why I’ve kicked off a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) at the University of Melbourne, one of a handful of universities worldwide to offer this cutting edge degree underpinned by up to the minute research into strengths based approaches. So what is positive psychology and what value does it offer organisations?

Positive psychology is the scientific study of optimal functioning and the things in life that make it worth living. It emerged as a discipline from growing dissatisfaction with the deficit model of human behaviour and preoccupation with the question “what’s wrong with people?” that’s dominated the science and practice of psychology for the past 60 or so years. The positive psychology movement began around 1998 when Martin Seligman (who happens to be on the steering committee of Melbourne Uni’s MAPP) chose it as the theme for his inaugural address as President of the American Psychological Society. This in itself made a strong statement, as up until then Seligman was best known for his research into learned helplessness and its links to depression. In his address he made the case for a more balanced, complete view of human functioning by investigating factors that lead individuals, groups and organisations to thrive.

This call to redress past imbalance by focusing as much on what goes right as we do on what goes wrong is also relevant to how we do business. Indeed, it was management guru Peter Drucker who said almost 40 years ago with a prophetic like quality “to make strength productive is the unique purpose of the organisation” (The Effective Executive, 1967, p. 60). More recent evidence from the Corporate Leadership Council (2002, p.69) found that that when managers emphasised performance strengths, performance increased by 36.4% but when managers emphasized performance weaknesses, performance decreased by 26.8%. Despite these findings, when you’re inside an organisation it doesn’t take long to recognise that a problem-solving mindset reigns supreme and the general consensus is that strengths take care of themselves and that weaknesses are associated with increased risk and associated costs. However, if a laser like focus on weaknesses was truly effective and led to positive results then why, despite countless post-implementation reviews, do organisations bump into the same execution problems time and again? And how come the same “areas for development” typically crop up each time the annual performance review rolls around? A sole preoccupation with plugging gaps can be likened to a developmental treadmill, running faster and faster but going nowhere because, to quote Drucker again, “one cannot build on weakness…strengths are the true opportunities”.

Which brings me back to why I’m interested in exploring the relationship between strengths based approaches and individual, team and organisational performance. I’m keen to ask (and hopefully answer!) questions like – how can positive psychology principles inform the way that leaders are selected, developed and retained to achieve competitive advantage? What return on investment (profitability, product innovation, customer satisfaction, employee engagement etc.) can be demonstrated and how does this compare with the ROI achieved by more traditional leadership development approaches that focus on closing capability gaps and mitigating weaknesses? And finally, the billion dollar question – what would be possible if organisations invested as much time and money into understanding what makes things go right as they do figuring out what went wrong?

– Justine La Roche

Like to learn more about systemically integrating positive psychology principles into your organisational development practices? We’d love to hear from you – contactus@www.curvegroup.com