The Role Of Positive Psychology In Leadership

  • Ezra
  • June 16th, 2020

Is positive psychology the tonic that employees need right now?

That is a top-of-mind concern now for leaders who are trying to help the people they lead manage the double-barreled challenges of COVID-19 and the turmoil surrounding the global anti-racism movement.

At first blush, positive psychology – a movement that emphasizes the positive aspects of the human experience – would certainly seem to be a solid doctrine to follow, particularly as business leaders try to ease their employees back into some sort of normalcy.

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That is a top-of-mind concern now for leaders who are trying to help the people they lead manage the double-barreled challenges of COVID-19 and the turmoil surrounding the global anti-racism movement.

At first blush, positive psychology – a movement that emphasizes the positive aspects of the human experience – would certainly seem to be a solid doctrine to follow, particularly as business leaders try to ease their employees back into some sort of normalcy.

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, has been using these troubled times to emphasize the need for leaders to be unfailingly positive while helping employees navigate the seismic change and uncertainty that has defined our current predicament.

“Over and over again in the midst of this crisis I keep hearing people say that it feels so frightening because it is unprecedented in a sense that we haven’t shut down the economy because of a pandemic within our lifetime,” Achor said in a recent interview with Human Resource Director magazine. “But as soon as we start to think that it is something unprecedented it literally freaks out the brain.

“So, we don’t want that emotional hijack to occur and I believe the way that we can help people is to remind them that while this is unprecedented, we have great precedent for how humans overcome crises.”

But what if moving too quickly to accentuate the positive creates more anxiety than it relieves?

Before going positive, leaders need to show they care
A growing number of leadership development experts believe that there is a pre-cursor to positive psychology: empathy and compassion.

“In general, we need leaders who are more genuinely empathetic and compassionate,” said Dr. Alex Vincent, Executive Client SME with Lee Hecht Harrison who has spent more than a decade advising senior leaders and executive teams.

“That has never been more important than today. Before you can start helping people see the glass as half-full, you need to let them know that you understand that their fears and anxieties are real. You need to listen to them and let them know you are there to help them get through these difficult times.”

The “Happiness Boomerang Effect”
Some psychologists have acknowledged that premature introduction of positive psychology, or the indiscriminate use of techniques designed to trigger feelings of happiness, can result in something called the “Happiness Boomerang Effect.”

This is where well-meaning efforts to get people to feel better about themselves and their circumstances results in new fears and anxieties.

For example, writing a letter of gratitude to another person is generally considered a way of prompting a feeling of happiness in the author. However, psychologists also know that so-called “gratitude exercises” can make some people susceptible to feelings of inadequacy, incompetence and even shame.

Given the range of responses to positive psychology, Vincent said it’s critical to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to motivating and supporting employees.

Some employees will possess a naturally positive outlook, greeting the pandemic and global protest movement in stride, Vincent said. Instead of retreating in fear or anxiety, these people will actually increase their commitment to work. For those employees, a positive psychological approach is definitely appropriate, he added.

“But for people who are genuinely afraid or may be suffering from a mental health challenge such as anxiety, you need to slow down and deal with those issues before talking about the positives,” Vincent said. “Sometimes, it has to be okay to feel bad about the things that are worrying you before you can work on feeling better about them.”

Can all leaders demonstrate empathy and compassion?
Unfortunately, developing genuine empathy and compassion is much more difficult for leaders than merely emphasizing the positive.

Vincent said that to be truly empathetic and compassionate, leaders must have a high degree of emotional intelligence, where they completely understand their own emotional responses. Only then can a leader provide emotional support to an employee, he added.

“Most leaders find positive psychology to be more accessible,” Vincent said. “Cultivating emotional intelligence is a much more difficult and complex endeavour.

“All leaders can become more empathetic and compassionate. But it takes intense work over a longer period of time. But when you master it, you can support all of your employees in the manner that is best for each one in their specific context.”

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