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How Business Leaders Are Using Positive Psychology to Boost Employees Performance

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How to help employees achieve their full potential and boost performance using positive psychology

There’s no question about it: In today’s highly competitive business environment, companies rise and fall on the strengths of their employees.

The global marketplace is littered with the bones of enterprises whose employees never learned to reach their highest potential.

I have spent the better part of my adult life studying this phenomenon. As an executive coach, entrepreneur, and psychiatrist, I have seen incredibly talented individuals unexpectedly falter, while the most non-descript average Joe proves to be a superhero in the face of personal and professional challenges.

So what is the determining difference? What separates the superstars from the might-have-beens?

In my experience as a clinician, researcher, and mentor, I’ve learned that, at its core, that difference is the power of psychology. And there is a growing body of literature to support what I have experienced in my own work as a psychiatrist, business owner, and coach: that positive psychology, rooted in evidence-based practices, yields extraordinary results, both in terms of overall work performance and in general happiness and satisfaction.

The Strengths/Values Model

The practices of positive psychology are centered upon the cultivation of a specific set of psychological traits which have been proven through empirical research to support professional success. These six traits are wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

Granted, this is a pretty ambitious list and not even the most pious of history’s saints could have practiced all of these virtues to their fullest all of the time. Fortunately, positive psychology does not ask or even expect this.

Fundamentally, this is an aspirational model, which views the individual not as a static actor but as a dynamic agent imbricated in a constant state of evolution. This is a model that assumes that we are all growing, all changing, and because we are always already changing, the onus is upon us to ensure that that change is for the positive.

The nature of life is such that none of us ever, truly, standing still. Where we do have a choice, however, is the direction in which we are moving through our lives—ad that is either closer to or further away from our personal and professional goals. Through the power of positive psychology, we can better assure that we—and the teams we lead—are everyday moving closer to where we want to be.

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The Public and the Private

One of the most exciting aspects of positive psychology is that it values the individual both as an autonomous agent and as a member of a community. This is vital when we seek to support the success of our workers, because, as leaders, we must recognize and value our employees both as individuals and as members of a professional community.

The six core strengths and values identified above do precisely this, speaking to the power of the individual through the cultivation of personal attributes such as courage and wisdom, while also validating the rights and responsibilities which come from membership in a community through the development of such civic virtues as justice and humanity.

What this means in tangible, practical terms is that we as leaders must proactively work with our employees to identify and support their unique and specific strengths, goals, and aspirations as individuals. This includes creating safe spaces within the working environment to foster creativity and encourage innovation, which will inevitably result in a more engaged, motivated, inspired, and inspiring workforce at the individual level.

Simultaneously, however, as managers, coaches, and business owners, we must remain cognizant of the fact that the tenor of our workplace is established by us.

The civic virtues are shared attributes, but they cannot survive in a business environment that is hostile, suspicious, punitive, or apathetic.

Positive psychology, after all, is predicated upon the premise of forward movement, of positive progression—and there can be none of this is employees are always guarding against one another or against a company environment that is fundamentally threatening. Likewise, is the business environment is not one which is united in a shared sense of mission and of values, then progression and unity are equally impossible.

The HERO Paradigm

How companies are using positive psychology to boost employees performance
Source: Axero Solutions

So, how do you strike this all-important balance between cultivating each employee’s individual development and uniting the workforce as a whole in a shared sense of responsibility, accountability, and mission?

Research is increasingly demonstrating the power of the HERO paradigm in finding this golden mean. Standing for hope, efficacy, resilience, and optimism, the HERO model seeks to develop the psychological capital employees need to perform optimally both as individuals and as members of a team.

The hopeful mindset that is the first attribute of this model speaks foremost to the employee’s capacity to envision a worthwhile future for him/herself, the team, and the organization. Above all, hope is situated in the premise not only that the future is valuable but that it is also attainable.

This presumption of attainability speaks to the second attribute of the HERO model, which is efficacy. The employee must be certain of his/her ability to be a change agent in his/her own life.

More specifically, if employee performance is to be enhanced, then we as mentors and leaders must support employees’ belief in their ability to meaningfully and positively impact the future of the team and the organization.

In other words, they must not only cherish a hopeful vision of the future, but they must also believe themselves to play an indispensable role in bringing that future to bear.

Anyone who has ever worked toward any goal, especially in the workplace, knows that failure is inevitable, that disappointments are simply a part of any job description.

All too often, however, we let those failures and those disappointments define and then detail us. Resilience is instrumental in the HERO model insofar as it speaks to the ability to overcome obstacles and to recover from failure. Resilience speaks to having enough psychological capital to view failure not as an ending but as an opportunity, a lesson on how to move more effectively forward, not on why to give up.

All of this, of course, links to perhaps the most important attribute of the HERO paradigm: optimism. We’ve already seen how the most effective leadership strategies are those which honor the employee both as an individual and as a member of a team. Optimism encapsulates this duality, because it reflects the positive mindset which validates the employee’s future as valuable and attainable, supports the individual’s role in creating that future, and affirms the individual’s ability to transform the inevitability of failure into yet another tool for bringing that future into being.

At the same time, however, optimism speaks to the nature of the professional community of which the worker is a part. This mindset not only recognizes and celebrates the unique talents and contributions the employee makes to the community, but it also affirms the contributions of the community to the employee’s success.

Optimism enables employees to view their working environment, their colleagues, and their superiors more positively. It supports an environment of trust and collaboration which is fundamental to performance at all levels. By cultivating optimism, you, as a business owner, coach, or manager, will be creating an environment in which your workers can feel safe in the knowledge that the company structure, its leadership, and the employee’s peers are working not only toward a shared vision of the good of the company but toward the good of the team and every member of it, themselves included.

When your workers are able to truly embrace this idea as a given, they will almost inevitably be more satisfied, secure, and successful. They will likely feel safer in taking risks and venturing beyond what is merely required. They will be both inspired and motivated to pursue the superlative, to innovate and to dare—because you will have given them the confidence, the reason, and the safety net to do so.

And in this world of cut-throat competition and terminal stasis, isn’t this kind of creative, dynamic, and aspirational workforce exactly what modern businesses need to survive? In a marketplace of wasted potential and unfulfilled promise, the tenets of positive psychology can equip you with precisely the tools you need to bring your team to heights you may once have only dreamed of.

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Visit Michiel’s company site at Open Forest Executive Coaching to learn more.

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