Positive Psychology in Business - [website] Email Print
Published: 10th of Jun 2013 by: Matt Wood

For the past 15 years positive psychology has provided a framework for us to better understand happiness, productivity, and life in general, but does it have any practical application in the workplace and if so, how can this be applied?

Positive psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology (established in 1998 by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, although Abraham Maslow certainly referred to it in the Maslow's hierarchy of needs in 1943), which seeks to nurture positive traits in individuals to foster more productive, fulfilling and meaningful lives.

Whereas traditional psychology focuses more on mental disorder or illness, the main concern of positive psychology is threefold, namely:

· The matter of positive emotions, referring to a level of contentment with one's past and present and hope for the future;
· The matter of positive individual traits, such as our capacity for courage, love, integrity, and finally;
· The matter of positive institutions, such as justice, parenting, team work and work ethics.

It should be noted, however, that positive psychology differs greatly to positive thinking, which simply urges positive thought and visualisation. Positive psychology recognises that unbridled optimism can lead to an underestimation of risks and that negative or realistic thoughts are sometimes more beneficial in terms of real life situations.

To sum it up in the words of S. Lyubomirsky et al. in their article The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?:

"The cross-sectional evidence reveals that happy workers enjoy multiple advantages over their less happy peers. Individuals high in subjective well being are more likely to secure job interviews, to be evaluated more positively by supervisors once they obtain a job, to show superior performance and productivity, and to handle managerial jobs better. They are also less likely to show counter-productive workplace behaviour and job burnout."

But how does positive psychology benefit workers and companies?

One of the many aims of positive psychology is to facilitate workplaces that foster a higher level of satisfaction among workers. This invariably leads to higher productivity, better staff morale, lower absenteeism, the embracing of diversity and an overall more fulfilled workforce. As companies continually strive to increase productivity and retain skilled staff, it makes sense to foster these attitudes from within.

To help understand how positive psychology can be of benefit to us in the workplace it is wise to look at what we already know:

Research conducted by psychologist Daniel Gilbert found that wealth, at least from a middle class perspective, is not strongly related to happiness. He found that while money played a big factor in the happiness levels of the poor (in order for basic needs to be met), the effect of money on happiness greatly declined once one reached the middle class. What this may suggest is that companies could benefit from making a shift away from monetary incentives to a remuneration system more fulfilling and intrinsically rewarding, leading to happier, more productive employees.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi provided the research on a phenomenon called flow - a state of high productivity which in itself is intrinsically rewarding. Flow occurs when an individual is challenged at an equal or slightly higher level than his or her own competencies or skills, resulting in intense concentration, loss of sense of time and reduced susceptibility to distractions. According to Csikszentmihalyi there are nine criteria that define flow:

1. Clear steps exist during each step of the process
2. Immediate feedback is available to guide one's actions
3. Level of challenge is matched with level of skill
4. Action and awareness are merged
5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness
6. Fear of failure disappears
7. Loss of sense of self (self-awareness disappears)
8. Loss of sense of time
9. The task becomes autotelic (done for the sake of doing it, an end in itself)

Research conducted by Seligman in 1991 and later by Lyubomirsky, King & Diener in 2005 showed that optimistic or happy workers on average displayed better performance in their jobs, experienced depression less, were physically healthier, and had better personal relationships than less happy workers.

With this information we are able to clearly see the link between happiness and productive, satisfied workers; all that remains is to simply understand how to take this forward.

What makes workers happy and what can we do to foster this kind of environment within our organisations?

There are many things that make employees happier and more comfortable, including open communication, flexible work hours and a sense of job security. By looking at what employees really want in their jobs, what they find most rewarding and what makes them happiest we are able to encourage these activities for the greater benefit of both individual and company.

What follows are examples of where positive psychology principles have been implemented with success in the workplace. As well as possible ideas for your own organisation.


In terms of recruitment, some companies have adopted the approach of hiring people based on their strengths and natural inclinations (what they are happy doing and what energises them) as opposed to simply for possessing the correct skill set for the job. Companies who have implemented this policy include Standard Chartered Bank, Starbucks and Aviva.

Team Building

Many companies also involve staff in team building activities with the intention of fostering better relationships and more open communication between employees. Some of the short term benefits of team building include improved communication between staff and between staff and management, more clearly defined team roles, and also the identification of new skills. The long term benefits of team building include teams who are better able to combine their skills, are better equipped to meet cross functional challenges, are quicker to respond to change, and are provided with a sense of belonging, involvement and purpose.


If we consider the positive effects of "flow" on workers and the work they produce, it should naturally follow that we attempt to enable our employees to reach this state. What this entails is an analysis of each individual's skill level so tasks with an appropriate level of difficulty can be assigned, encouraging workers to apply themselves fully. This also helps avoid unnecessary stress caused by work too complex for the individual, or boredom caused by work too simple.

Leading by Motivation

In their book The One Minute Manager, Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson advocate the effectiveness of leadership through motivation. According to The One Minute Manager organisations should focus more on "catching people doing something right", and then praising it and building on it, instead of leaving positive feedback until annual performance reviews. What this achieves is workers who become more motivated to perform (knowing they are doing the right thing) and who are happier in their everyday roles within the company.

Flexible HR Policies

In addition to these examples companies are able to look at developing more flexible HR policies, which help create a more meaningful sense of belonging and value within the employee. Areas to consider paying attention to include more flexible working hour policies (with wi-fi, video conferencing and remote offices available to employees it is almost always possible for workers to perform at least some of their tasks away from the office), and training (learning for the employee) rather than remuneration - or in other words, a direct investment in the employee through skills development.

It also bears remembering that with four different generations in the workplace a one-size-fits-all approach may not be the best. Several HR policies may need to be developed to cater to the various different needs within the organisation.

Fulfillment of Workers' Needs

To foster happy working environments companies need to encourage happy, relatively stress-free workers. One way companies can go about this is to implement programmes that help meet the needs of its workers (which form part of Cost To Company), such as staff transport, cooked meals from the canteen served as take-aways, or crèche/daycare facilities for babies and children.

An example of a company that has implemented a subsidised crèche facility is the internet powerhouse Google, who in the early 2000s unveiled Kinderplex.

20% Policies

Another positive innovation from Google is the concept of 20% time, which in essence allows employees to spend 20% of their company time working on projects that fall outside of their general workload, i.e. on whatever projects interest them the most. Other companies that have implemented similar policies include Apple, 3M and LinkedIn.

From a South African perspective in 2013, it may be wise for us to conclude that the time has come for more of our employers to look at their HR policies in an attempt to retain skills. It is becoming increasingly difficult for our workforce to remain hopeful and positive in the light of continual political and economic negativity, notwithstanding the daily drudge of inadequate public transport, schooling, and failing judicial systems.

It is our experience from the interaction at our own management workshops that more and more middle managers are struggling with issues of alcoholism and drug abuse in their teams. Add to this the number of single parent families and we suddenly realise that a large number of our workforce do not have a tremendously high quality of life.

In our thinking this is exactly why and where our HR professionals can step in and hugely influence the organisation's human capital ROI via implementation of modern and progressive HR policies.

Staff Training is a South African soft skills training company with more than 40 workshops on offer, ranging from Assertiveness and Customer Care through to Management and Communication Skills. Staff Training presents its workshops at four venues across South Africa (open hosted) and will also travel nationally when requested (inhouse). Workshops are also customisable for specific company requirements.

Email: info@StaffTraining.co.za
Phone: (021) 839 3021
Web: www.StaffTraining.co.za
Blog: www.StaffTraining.co.za/blog.php

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