The Influence of Positive Psychology on work

30th January 2023
By Marie-Claire O’Kane

How much of your working week do you spend truly motivated? Or do you find you’re counting down the days until the weekend? As human beings, we can’t be motivated all the time. Work has its natural ups and downs which is part of life. But when you are motivated at work, what do you think drives this? And how does your organisation influence your experiences at work?

On average, we spend 60% of our waking lives working. Given this, it makes sense to try and enjoy what we do. And this is important because happy, healthy, motivated employees are good for business. They are productive, they are less likely to leave and they are more adaptive to organisational changes.

It stands to reason, then, that over the last two decades, organisations have increased investment in becoming “human” centred. Whether it’s run by the Chief Happiness Officer or Head of Employee Engagement, more effort is now expended on programmes that affect positive employee experiences where employees have a greater voice in determining their role and working arrangements, as opposed to their working model being dictated from above.

Of course, the extent of this investment is dependent on job role, industry, organisation and other factors, and employees – particularly those in their early careers – will choose to work for organisations that suit their values. This seismic shift in attitudes towards choosing work and enabling work to be meaningful and fulfilling can be attributed to the Positive Psychology movement.

Positive Psychology is a catch all term for scientific research that is focussed on supporting people to get the best from their lives. It by no means implies that all other Psychology is negative, but it was founded during a period where its founder, Martin Seligman and other proponents of the movement, felt that humanity and the study of Psychology had lost sight of what makes life worth living. The 20th Century had been dominated by curing psychological pathology.

The two World Wars left soldiers mentally scarred by their experiences, and they needed psychological support to adjust back into civilian life.

As a result, funding was channelled into understanding mental health issues and fourteen disorders were successfully identified and accompanying therapies developed. These developments were ground breaking and continue to be applied today. However, the focus on “fixing” people meant there was no funding available to support research into human flourishing.

Since its launch at the turn of the Century, there has been a proliferation of theory and practical tools developed to support people to get the best from their lives in areas such as Work, Education and Healthcare.

It’s important to note that Positive Psychology is an umbrella term for a myriad of studies on areas such as optimism, hope and interpersonal skills and, in the context of work: work engagement, trust, thriving at work, organisational citizenship behaviour, organisational compassion etc.

The examples below give a flavour of areas relevant to work. You might find one or more of these tools will help you to reflect on how to improve motivation and achievement of work and career goals either for yourself or for your team.

Job Crafting is where employees proactively re-think or re-model elements of their work to both manage work demands and gain meaning from their jobs. The originators of the term, Wrzesniewski & Dutton, believe you can craft your work by changing task, relational and cognitive boundaries.

For example, shifting or combining less interesting tasks to focus on more challenging activities, proactively seeking out colleagues that can support knowledge acquisition and confidence in pursuit of the next promotion, or mentally re-framing the purpose of one’s role to bring more meaning to it. It is possible to look beyond our job descriptions to seek out opportunities to enhance our experiences at work; or conversely to reduce work demands.

Is there a particular skill you want to develop? How can you leverage colleagues or other resources at work to build these skills?

Can you use skills or knowledge you have acquired in your job to train others? Critical to job crafting is a culture where employees are empowered to seek out opportunities to grow. It requires trust, open communication and also an understanding from the employee that job crafting should enhance and not replace the contractual commitments central to their job role.

Applying our strengths. Closely aligned to Job Crafting is strengths-based goal setting. Research has shown playing to our strengths rather than expending energy on reducing our weaknesses increases productivity and is better for our well-being in the long term. A team that understands and plays to their individual strengths also leads to higher productivity. Try out a well researched strengths self-assessment here. Can you apply outcomes to your organisation?

The WOOP tool. Over 20 years of research on motivation has established that we are more likely to achieve our goals if we understand the obstacles that stand in the way of accomplishing them. Imagining ourselves achieving them is not enough.

WOOP is a self-regulation strategy and stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. The tool supports individuals to think systematically about how to break down the steps needed to reach our goals – including overcoming the obstacles. The tool is accessible online or as an app on mobile devices and can be found here.

The Positive Psychology movement has enabled widespread focus on how employees can thrive in their job roles rather than just survive the working week. At My People Group, the principles of the movement are at the core of what we do.

Using well researched scientific methods, our unique tools support individuals and teams to get the best out of work for the benefit of organisations’ productivity and individuals’ health and wellbeing. Our Recruitment tool supports open conversations between recruiter and applicant to fit individuals’ values and skills to the right team. Our Culture tool identifies how a team can perform better by understanding their strengths and how the right culture can support teams to fulfil their potential.

Learn more about how the history and theories behind Positive Psychology here.

If you would like to find out more about our products and how we build great teams, we’d love to hear from you.


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