Positive organizations for a brighter future

We experience challenging, accelerating times. Fortunately, the book “Creating The World We Want To Live In – How Positive Psychology can build a Brighter Future” offers research-based advice on what individuals, governments and organizations can do to develop a better world. That is super useful in this era of transition. Let’s see why wellbeing is not a luxury, but a corporate social responsibility (#CSR) and how to enhance it with a positive culture.

As the authors of the book (Grenville-Cleave, Guðmundsdóttir, Huppert, King, Roffey, Roffey, and De Vries) summarize our predicament: “New and emerging technologies; the multiple impacts of globalization, demographic shifts; increasing polarization; the challenge of discrimination and racism, pandemics and the ramifications of climate change all impact on our wellbeing, our societal structures, peace among nations and the viability of our planet. How we respond to these changes will determine our own wellbeing and importantly that of future generations. Based on a growing body of research, we can together create a flourishing future for humanity and the planet we share. We have a choice.”

Wellbeing or flourishing is a sustainable state that combines feeling good and functioning well. Wellbeing grows on five nutrients: having positive relationships, feeling valued, regarding yourself as competent, developing your potential and having a sense of meaning and autonomy.

That is not a luxury amidst the current turmoil. Is it selfish to take care of your wellbeing while the planet is in jeopardy? No, it is a priority. You cannot pour from an empty cup. You can’t achieve much when feeling anxious, tired, negative. As Barbara Fredrickson’s research showed: feeling well boosts creativity and performance. Moreover, a recent study found that happy people are more likely to take action about social, political and environmental issues!

Wellbeing isn’t a private matter, either. Wellbeing is a corporate social responsibility (CSR), according to the authors. Beyond the impact on workers, wellbeing impacts families and communities. Many organizations have CSR programs that contribute to charity or offer volunteer opportunities but maintain stressful work environments – with negative ripple effects.

All schools, workplaces, institutions, and community groups can play a role in enhancing wellbeing. Developing positive resilience skills across populations would provide a solid foundation for creating a flourishing world. So, what can organizations do?

Wellbeing is a corporate social responsibility

Work and workplaces impact on the communities they serve. For individuals, work provides income but often so much more. Work can shape our identity, provide social connection, opportunities for growth and can be a source of meaning and purpose: all important ingredients for wellbeing. That’s in it for you and me.

But what’s in it for the organization? Beyond simply reducing absenteeism, wellbeing is related to higher individual and organizational performance, productivity, collaboration, cognitive flexibility and creativity. Organizational psychologist Wilmar Schaufeli argues that increasingly work will require innovation, creativity, continuous learning and adaptation. Therefore, wellbeing is vital.
London Business School professor Alex Edmans tracked the earnings per share of organizations that prioritize employee engagement and wellbeing. Over a 26-year period he found that those organizations outperformed their stock market peers by an average of 3.2 % a year.

Our daily experience at work impacts our happiness and causes a ripple effect in our lives. If generally we enjoy what we do and where we do it, this effect is positive. Yet, too often, work environments are toxic and seriously undermine our wellbeing.

Studies show that only a small proportion of employees are engaged or motivated at work. The “always on” culture driven by technology means employees feel less able to switch off outside of working hours. In the UK, 2 in 5 employees report experiencing work-related mental health difficulties. 52 % say this is due to pressures such as too many priorities and targets. In the USA, 65 % of employees cite work as a significant source of stress.
People need to be treated as human beings and valued as individuals rather than as resources or assets.

Positive interactions

The thousands of daily interactions at work (not just in formal meetings) can convey respect, care, belonging, and give people a voice – or not . These moments may be overlooked, yet if positive, can contribute to sustained performance and higher employee engagement. Such no-cost moments boost wellbeing. They benefit individual, team, and organization performance through enhanced trust, greater cooperation, creativity and higher loyalty of employees, customers, and suppliers. This is what a positive culture entails. You don’t need a huge program. Your daily interactions are crucial and you can start right now. Check out my book Developing a Positive Culture for more easy practices. A quick tip: Mindfulness practice can underpin more positive interactions at work, as well as gratefulness.

Positive leadership is crucial. Poor management style is one of the top contributors to stress-related sickness absence. For example, one of the reasons for people leaving is being micro-managed.
Traditional carrot and stick-approaches may achieve short-term performance goals but are ultimately disengaging and detrimental to long-term positive outcomes.
Positive organizations also check on people in lower ranking roles as they are significantly more likely to experience ill health – as research shows. Across a range of workplace and lifestyle factors, perceived lack of control is the factor most impacting health.

Supportive management behaviors include :

  • Finding ways to involve the team in decisions, problem solving and idea generation.
  • Offering people a choice in what they do or how they do it (or both) and when choice isn’t possible, provide meaningful explanations why.
  • Facilitating feelings of effectiveness and helping team members see how what they do matters.
  • Positioning negative feedback as a ‘problem to be solved’ together.

Strengths, a growth mindset and moods

People naturally want to feel competent at work and experience a sense of progress. It is important to identify and nurture strengths and cultivate a growth mindset (instead of a fixed mindset). If we have a growth mindset, we see failure as an inevitable part of the process and are more likely to experiment, persist, and learn. But if we feel we struggle because we lack sufficient capability in a particular area (a fixed mindset) we either don’t try in the first place or give up sooner. As organizations need to innovate and adapt, the ability to try new approaches and learn from mistakes is crucial.

Giving and receiving regular strengths-based feedback to colleagues also builds a sense of competence. Evidence suggests that a strengths-focus in the workplace can lead to reduced employee turnover, higher productivity and sales and higher profitability.

Studies by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler show that mood states ripple out across social groups suggesting that everyone matters in cultivating a positive climate. It’s important to be aware of our moods and their potential to affect those around us and to manage our emotions well. This includes noticing and acknowledging how others are feeling .

If you spend time at the end of the day reflecting on what has gone well, you help employees detach from work and they report fewer physical and mental symptoms. How about doing a quick day-reflection with the team? And, don’t forget: what went well and what are you grateful for?

Creating environments where people feel safe to share more difficult feelings ideas and concerns is also a key to team performance and innovation. Google’s research into effective teams found a sense of psychological safety to be the number one factor in high performance.

Meaningful work

Meaning at work is when you see your effort making some form of meaningful contribution whether inside the organisation or for the greater good or both. It’s also the sense that what you do has personal significance and is broadly aligned with what is meaningful for you. It leads to
higher engagement, higher perseverance, lower hostility, better teamwork and more frequent organizational citizenship behaviors (helpful behaviors beyond role requirements) .

Meaningful work is so important to workers that surveys suggest that a significant number of employees would take a pay cut to have it. Millennials and Gen Z look for work to provide meaning as well as money. They want their organizations to make a difference in the world such as taking action on climate change or improving people’s lives.

Leaders and managers are central to this. If they are seen as authentic, ethical, have energy and passion, articulate a clear vision, help people see how their work matters and is appreciated, leaders are likely to facilitate their team experiencing meaning.

Beware of the bonus

Beware of outdated organizational systems and processes, while we transition to a new era. One example: the more pay is contingent on individual performance, the greater the likelihood of it negatively impacting engagement, wellbeing, collaboration, and performance in the longer term.

Performance rewards focus on key performance indicators often to the detriment of behaviors that build a positive work culture. This increases the likelihood of people gaming the system to achieve personal targets rather than acting in the best interests of the organization and those it serves.

For example, an airport wanted to reduce customer waiting time at the baggage carousel so introduced an incentive scheme based on the shortest times between the plane landing and the first bags arriving in the baggage hall . It wasn’t long before the baggage handlers figured out who was the fastest runner and had them run with two bags to the carousel without the overall passenger wait time being improved. Instead of focusing on how they could contribute to a great customer experience they were maximizing their pay.

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci advise strong caution at the top of organizations where senior executive reward is linked to increases in company stock price. This can fuel motivation to “take the shortest route to the end often with considerable collateral damage” – citing Enron as a notable example.

As jobs become more complex and their context ambiguous, organizations should focus reward systems on behaviors that support autonomy, innovation, and collaboration.

We need to re-think the way we think – and change our actions. We’re approaching a huge transition.
Are you preparing yourself and your organization? Focus on wellbeing. It’s not a luxury. It starts small – with interactions, and it works! Let’s create that world we want to live in.

© Marcella Bremer, 2022

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