Contributed by Alexa Thompson
The standard approach to corporate human resources has come a long way in the last half-century. Up until about World War II, employees were largely viewed as corporate assets—hired for their abilities, workers were expected to perform and achieve with very little attention paid to their personal development or individual well-being. The “positive psychology” movement of the 1960s and 70s brought the idea of subjective employee satisfaction to center stage. Many of the most successful companies today, from small start-ups to multinational business conglomerates, attribute much of their success to the happiness of their workers. More companies than ever are investing in their employees’ emotional well-being, and most are seeing tremendous results.
One application of positive psychology is in the workplace environment. An employee who feels valued and cared for by her employer is more likely to be content, which in turn can lead to increased productivity, greater interest in teamwork, and fewer sick days. The feeling is contagious. Departments that work cohesively spread to divisions, floors, and units: before long, an entire company is in step and more successful than ever before.
To many managers and executives, however, dealing with employee emotions feels a bit “soft.” Overcoming the initial hesitation to care for employees as people, not just workers, is not always an easy transition. Here’s how you can make it work.
Implementing Positive Psychology
Most of the foundational work for positive workplace psychology was laid by the late psychologist and social scientist Harry Levinson, whose teachings are still considered instrumental in most business schools and training programs.
“Dr. Levinson argued that a psychological contract existed between employees and employers, laying out the expectations each had of the other,” The New York Times wrote in Levinson’s 2012 obituary. “Employees who feel that their employers have violated that contract will feel depressed, he said, and may well become underachievers.”
Levinson’s plan for corporate psychology revolved mostly around incentives and motivation techniques. Rather than simply dangling pay raises and spots of plum assignments to spur work, use positive reinforcement, he said. Managers who take a personal interest in their employees—in their families, their hobbies, and their business strengths—can often achieve increased productivity simply by making staff members feel valued as individuals. Offering well-timed praises or remembering important dates like birthdays or workplace anniversaries can be part of this.
In most cases, implementing positive psychology does not have to be extreme. Some companies put a lot of resources towards employee happiness, including extensive perks and benefits, like gym memberships and on-site snacks and daycare. Others take long retreats or corporate getaways to show employees how much they are valued. Most research shows that even little changes can lead to big payouts, however.
Shawn Achor, founder of positive workplace training company Good Think Inc. and author of The Happiness Advantage, conducted a small experiment to measure just how much work had to go into boosting workplace morale. His test group? Tax preparers and accountants in a busy New York City finance firm in the months leading up to tax day. Achor and his team provided a three-hour training to managers about the benefits of positive psychology and how to implement it. They evaluated managers before the training, a week after the training, and three months into implementation, asking questions about general life satisfaction, stress, perceived social support, and work optimism, among other things. The results, Achor told the Harvard Business Review blog, were staggering.
“Every single positive metric improved significantly for the trained group between Time 1 (before the training) and Time 2 (a week after the training),” he wrote. Better yet, these results held. “Most significantly, the life satisfaction scores, which indicate personal and professional happiness, were significantly higher four months later as compared to how the managers were before the training, and also as compared to the managers in the control group,” Achor said. “A brief three-hour training and a non-mandatory invitation to create a positive habit for 21 days created a high ROI not only in the short-term, but in the longer term as well.”
Getting started with a positive psychology plan need not be complex, as Achor’s experiment demonstrates. In most cases, little steps can make a big difference.
“Understanding the need for feeling satisfied and contributing to that necessity in your work life will make everyone in your department and the company happier people,” psychotherapist Barton Goldsmith said in a Corporate Incentive & Travel article on the benefits of a positive workplace. Goldsmith compiled a list of ten pain-free ways to grow a supportive business environment, including recognizing coworkers for their commitments; taking responsibility for actions; balancing work and rewards; and giving coworkers regular opportunities to be their best. “You don’t need to use them all,” Goldsmith said of his tips. “Try the ones that are easiest for you and see how they work.”
Companies that embrace positive psychology as a workplace ethos tend to benefit greatly from their investments. Shifting the paradigm from a productivity-centered to a feelings-centered workplace is often the toughest hurdle. The commitment need not be extensive, however, and there is no reason that caring for employees as individuals should in any way detract from the overall corporate goals of success, profits, and outward image. When done properly, small investments in people usually lead to improved financial figures, which is a win for everybody.
Alexa Thompson is a researcher who regularly covers issues in psychology education and the latest developments in the fields of psychology, including applications of organizational psychology in the workplace. Today, Alexa discusses how positive psychology can change the culture of an office, touching on previous posts which called for employers to provide workers with the means to achieve a better work-life balance by allowing for paid parental leave and other perks.