Customer Support | Leadership Paper

Positive Psychology: Engaged employees are good for business

19th January 2023
By Marie-Claire O’Kane


Have you ever stopped to reflect on what factors impact your motivation (or lack of) at work? And how much importance does your organisation place on employees’ experience while working? Over the last 20 years, a proliferation of research has evidenced that engaged and motivated employees are good for business. They are more productive, less likely to leave for a competitor and are happier and healthier. As a result, it is becoming increasingly common for organisations to appoint an individual responsible for oversight of employee engagement and experience to the Executive Board or Senior Leadership Team. The challenge of delivering an effective Employee Engagement programme and embedding a culture where employees thrive cannot be underestimated, but this recent focus on human-centred organisations owes its roots to the Positive Psychology movement, which applies scientific research to how people get the best from their lives. Since the advent of the movement at the turn of the century its principles have been applied to various settings such as Work, Education and Health Care. From a work perspective, Fred Luthans, a venerable voice in Organisational Psychology captures the importance of its influence:

“More attention has been given to negative as opposed to positive emotion, stress and burnout as opposed to eustress [stress that leads to a positive response], resistance to change as opposed to acceptance/celebration of change, and the deficiencies, problems and dysfunctions of managers and employees rather than their strengths and psychological capacities for development and performance improvement”.

Indeed, in the work climate of the 21st Century, characterised by fierce global competition, political unrest and constant organisational change due to the necessity to adapt to ever changing market conditions, many proponents of Positive Psychology in the work domain believe a Positive Psychology approach is critical.

After providing a historical grounding for the significance of the movement, this article provides an introduction to some of the main Positive Psychology concepts and interventions that can be useful in encouraging employee flourishing and engagement.

A brief history

Positive Psychology does not claim to be a new movement but a catch all field that focuses on human flourishing. It’s worth touching on how the Positive Psychology movement came to be, as its outlook was quite a contrast from the status quo at the time. Before the World Wars, the field of Psychology was still in its infancy. The focus then was on research into how our behaviour was impacted by basic stimuli, (see literature on Pavlov, B.F. Skinner and Operant Conditioning for further details), and was criticised by emerging Positive psychologists for suggesting our behaviour is merely passive, assuming we have no autonomy or capacity to make our own decisions. A small number of psychologists focussed on how Psychology could be applied in society, categorised by “curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing high talent” (Martin Seligman). But when World War II broke out, soldiers were returning with severe physical and psychological scars and needed support. The Veterans Administration trained thousands of psychologists to support soldiers to acclimatise to civilian life. It signalled the birth of Clinical Psychology and throughout the latter half of the 20th Century funding shifted solely to addressing human pathology, leading to research that identified 14 psychological disorders and how to manage or cure them. Whilst this was an immense achievement, funding dried up on areas of Psychology that did not focus on a disease model. “We have become a nation of self-identified victims, and our heroes and heroines are called survivors and nothing more” (Petersen and Seligman).

During this period, a leading Clinical Psychologist, Martin Seligman, became frustrated that Psychology was focussed on “victimology”. A conversation with his daughter whilst weeding his garden resulted in an epiphany that switched his calling.

“Daddy, I want to talk to you.”

“Yes, Nikki?”

“Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? From the time I was three to the time I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore.

That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.”

Aside from persuading him to try not to be “such a grouch”, it struck him that his daughter’s strengths had reduced her predisposition to whine and, as a result, he realised humanity’s ability – and mission – to nurture our strengths to either protect us from life’s difficulties or to leverage life’s opportunities. For Seligman, Psychology since Work War II had belittled the very essence of humanity that supports us to reach potential – such as optimism, interpersonal skill, hope, work ethic, perseverance and honesty. And he was not the first to acknowledge this. For instance, in the 1950s, Humanists such as Abraham Maslow are seen as the original Positive Psychologists – you might have heard of “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” – however much of their research was criticised for having little scientific backing. Instead, Seligman sought to apply scientific rigour to Positive Psychology research. In 1998, he was appointed President of the American Psychological Society and established the sub-field of Positive Psychology to draw attention to human experiences that make life good. Its aims were to be a “science of positive subjective experience, positive individual traits, and positive institutions” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi).

Practical application of Positive Psychology is based on key theories

In scientific research, theories are critical for determining the direction of new research and as a basis for validating – or disproving – new evidence. Seligman’s PERMA model of well-being, and Ryan, Kuhl and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory are key bases for the application of Positive Psychology tools to the workplace.

Seligman’s PERMA Model. Do you ever notice that hours have passed because you’ve been so absorbed in an activity that you love? Are there days when you can’t wait to throw yourself into work? Conversely, are you demotivated or struggling to enjoy your work because you are not progressing, or do you work in an environment where you don’t feel valued? Seligman’s mission was to develop a robust scientific model that could be used to measure people’s levels of well-being such as their engagement, motivation and zest for life. And, in the last ten years, he has captured this in his PERMA model; a model comprised of five components that contribute to well-being that can be measured and therefore nurtured:

  1. Positive Emotion. These entail subjective in-the-moment feelings such as pleasure, ecstasy, comfort, warmth, happiness and life satisfaction.
  2. Engagement. This involves focus, absorption and keen interest in an activity. The concept of “Flow” is central to this and the embodiment of absolute engagement. Coined by one of the forefathers of Positive Psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow is the mental state of being completely immersed in an activity to the extent one loses all self-awareness.
  3. Positive Relationships. Seligman attributes this component to Christopher Petersen, another founder of Positive Psychology. It’s the theory that other people are critical to our well-being. “Other People are the best antidote to the downs in life and the single most reliable up” (Martin Seligman).
  4. Meaning. This is doing something as part of a bigger purpose beyond your own needs: for example, contributing to a work-related Diversity and Inclusion campaign; being an advocate for parents at work; voluntarily taking on someone else’s work while they are absent.
  5. Accomplishment, or achieving, or winning, is distinct because some can “win ugly”. People can gain a sense of well-being by striving to achieve for the sake of achieving and within a vacuum of positive emotion or meaning. But individuals can win while later finding meaning from their achievements, such as tycoons who earn billions but later give away their fortune to greater causes.

Self -Determination Theory suggests that, to achieve optimal well-being, our psychological needs must be met. These needs are Autonomy, Relatedness and Competency and their impact on motivation have been well researched.

  1. You are more likely to flourish if you have some control over decision-making at work, for instance where and when you work to maintain a work life balance.
  2. We are social beings and cannot thrive without interactions with others; we learn through others; we are guided by others and share problems with others. Humans need to feel a sense of belonging to a group or groups and laughter with friends is critical for our happiness.
  3. Our need to achieve mastery of a skill or talent. If we have studied hard at university, move to a job and never feel we are learning or being asked to go beyond unchallenging tasks, we are likely to feel demotivated.

Applying Positive Psychology to the work domain

Leading Organisational Psychologists, Stewart Donaldson and Ia Ko devised an umbrella term, Positive Organizational Psychology, to capture all the movements that have evolved to apply Positive Psychology to the work domain. Below we touch on just a few areas that have come out of this field:

Psychological Capital. Psychological Capital is a construct made up of confidence, hope, optimism, and resilience. It expresses “who we are” and measurement of it can be used to predict work performance. It is built on the premise that, in today’s working world, human capital is as important as economic capital in differentiating a business from its competitors and attaining sustainable human performance. Hope, optimism and resilience have been linked to higher job satisfaction, work happiness, and organizational commitment (Youssef & Luthans, 2007).

Job Crafting. Did you know, we spend 60% of our waking lives at work? Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton, two prominent advocates of Positive Psychology believe that, whatever job you do, you have an opportunity to “craft” it to gain meaning from it, and therefore get the best out of work. They developed the term “job crafting” after observing how hundreds of people proactively adapt their job to suit their circumstances. There is now a strong evidence base of how to measure and foster job crafting in organisations in order to improve employees’ experiences of work.

Job crafting is defined as “the physical and cognitive [mental] changes individuals make in the task or relational boundaries [building relationships] of their work”. Examples might include consolidating administrative tasks into a couple of hours to make time for more demanding and fulfilling tasks; passing on a unique piece of knowledge to others by developing training materials for colleagues or carving out regular time to meet new people in the organisation to learn from in order to strive for promotion.

Some practical tools to try

Here are a few tools to consider using at work, which have their roots in Positive Psychology.

Strength Based Goal Setting is a Positive Psychology intervention that replaces the traditional approach to performance reviews which, some argue, only fill employee deficits or weaknesses. In contrast, this approach focuses on goal setting based on strengths and talents. Concentrating on our strengths is one of the main foundations of Positive Psychology. Autonomy is handed over to employees to set their own work goals according to what they believe is achievable within their work domain, therefore motivating them to succeed in attaining them.

Seligman has a well evidenced model of identifying our strengths. You can access the VIA Survey of Character Strengths via his website here. You will need to register first. If you’re interested in pursuing this area further, Michelle McQuaid and Erin Lawn do a great job of weighing up other strengths assessment tools as well.

Getting motivated to succeed: WOOP. Did you know that an understanding of the obstacles that stand in your way of achieving your goals may actually help you to achieve them? Based on 20 years of research on motivation, scientists have established that achieving our goals takes more than just imagining what a positive future might look like, for instance achieving that promotion, completing that degree course, or doing more exercise.

WOOP is a self-regulation strategy and stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle and Plan. It supports individuals to perceive a mental picture of the path needed to reach a goal, which enables these steps to become more achievable. It is built on years of research around Hope and what supports individuals to attain their wishes, suggesting that imagining ourselves merely achieving our goals is not enough.  Critically, we also need to acknowledge the obstacles we need to overcome, and how to overcome them, before reaching our goals. Research tells us that understanding the challenges we will face en route to meeting our goals makes us more likely to persevere with the often-challenging steps towards achieving them.

The tool is accessible online and can be found here.

In Conclusion

Ultimately, the Positive Psychology movement has forced a shift in focus to recognising and nurturing what gives us enjoyment across the various aspects of our lives. Given the time we spend working, application of this to our jobs is critical. Research tells us that happy employees are good for business, so it makes sense for businesses to invest in applying the scientific research on work engagement and flourishing to their policies and culture in order to affect positive team performance, gain competitive advantage and support employee health and well-being.

At My People Group, the ethos behind the Positive Psychology movement is at the heart of what we do. Our aim is to bridge the gap between scientific research and business to affect positive work experiences which lead to a healthy team culture and ultimately to high performance. Through over 20 years of cultivating high performance in sport and business, we have developed unique Recruitment and Culture software tools for our clients grounded in Positive Psychology research around employee experience and engagement. Our Recruitment platform enables clients to recruit candidates whose values and experience match their prospective team. Our Culture product draws on Work Engagement research to identify team strengths and limitations and where to close the gaps to achieve team goals and a healthy work environment in which employees can thrive.

If you would like to learn more about how we build great teams, we’d love to hear from you.


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