Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
What can we do individually and in groups to turn our work into sources of great satisfaction, meaning, and engagement? Many people are unhappy at work. Some feel under-appreciated and overworked. Some feel that they never get around to the tasks they really want to do. Some find the pace so stressful or the hours so long that they never have a chance to relax. Some think that the goals set for them are impossible. Some have contacts with other peoples that are corrosive and dispiriting. Some find that the focus is always on what they do wrong, seldom on what they do right. Many believe there is nothing they can do to make things better. A state of learned helplessness often prevails (Seligman, 1998).
It does not have to be this way. Positive Psychology suggests several ways that individuals can make work more satisfying and engaging for themselves and the people around them without waiting for those in power to make changes.
Search for the positive core
A good place to start is to seek understanding about what is most positive about your organization including your own strengths within the job. The field of Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005) calls this the positive core:
“Human systems grow in the direction of what they persistently ask questions about, … The single most important action a group can take to liberate the human spirit and consciously construct a better future is to make the positive core the common and explicit property of all.” (p. eight)
What gives life to your organization at its best? What do you most value about yourself and your organization? If you were not there, what would be missing? When do you feel most alive and vibrant on the job? What dreams do you have for your organization’s future vitality? (Some of these questions are adapted from pp 67-68 of the Cooperrider & Whitney book).
The hunt for the positive core can be a group exercise or individual introspection. I have had experiences with on-the-fly conversations with lone individuals, separate interviews with people on the same team, and group discussions. People in some groups pair off and interview each other. The act of reflecting on these questions is constructive in and of itself. People are often surprised to see how much strength their group brings together and say things like “I didn’t realize we had so much going for us!”
Concerning what people most value about themselves and their organizations, I’ve heard a variety of interesting answers. One person reflected that his presence had significantly improved customer service. In one group, people realized that they have achieved exceptional teamwork, pulling together different work cultures from multiple sites around the globe. People in another group agreed that they are very good at focusing on important issues and letting inconsequential items go. People in another group realized that they have formed an environment exceptionally open to exploration, taking risks, and encouraging contributions from every member – imagination bounded by pragmatism and business sense. People in another group concluded that they are exceptionally strong at making good use of diversity, enjoying each other’s differences, and willingly sharing chances to lead. One person said that his group had lots of arguing but no fighting.
Discussions sometimes lead to articulation of a shared and valued purpose that gives meaning to the job. Keeping such a purpose in mind can be a source of great energy.
Themes for the future are also interesting. Ones that I’ve heard recently include more realistic work schedules, clearer decision-making, and a hunger for more chances to learn from each other, to enhance skills, to work directly with customers, to meet remote team members face-to-face, and to use creativity and imagination on the job.
Reflect on ways to use strengths effectively
In world-wide surveys of more than 10 million employees, Gallup (Rath, 2007) has found that only about a third can strongly agree with the following statement:
“At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.” (p. ii)
Given that this question has a strong generalizable beneficial relationship with employee retention, customer satisfaction, productivity, and profit (Harter et al., 2003, p. 215), it is clear that there is lots of room for organizations to benefit by improving the alignment between strengths and jobs. In his wonderful chapter called Interests, Abilities, and Accomplishments, Chris Peterson describes the importance to our psychological well-being of what we do with our hope, values, and strengths of character (2006, p. 196-221). He closes the chapter with an exercise called Recrafting your work to capitalize on your interests and abilities (p. 218). Seligman argues that using strengths to better advantage “makes work more fun, transforms a job or a career into a calling, increases flow… Moreover, by filling work with gratification, it is a long stride on the road to the good life.” (2002, p. 184).
Here are some questions related to using strengths that may spur some new thinking about yourself at work. Some come out of discussion groups I’ve led about StrengthsFinder talent themes (Buckingham & Clifton, 2002; Rath, 2007), a language that Gallup offers as a way to speak about job strengths.
Do you manage time in a way that uses your strengths well? My husband has urged me for years to always work on the highest priority task that is ready to go. I am tempted to do instead the tasks that seem most fun. Recently he suggested that I add to my to-do list any task that I do just because I want to do it. Perhaps I need to refine my priorities. I have started seeing patterns. I am drawn to writing projects and can become completely engrossed in them, even when there are more urgent tasks such as setting up meetings or making business calls. I would rather meet with a protégé asking for advice than report to an executive. I now think about these preferences before I volunteer to do anything. I have found that there are others who enjoy doing some of my least favorite tasks. Marcus Buckingham (2007) suggests collecting observations about things you love and loathe doing as a way to deepen your understanding of personal strengths.
Do you find yourself getting upset with the way other people perform? Is it possible that you are expecting them to exhibit the same strengths that you have? One woman had an Aha! moment when she understood that she had the Responsibility talent theme on the StrengthsFinder instrument, that is, a conscientious and careful ability to follow things through to conclusion. She had been distressed that people in her group were slipshod and undependable. It helped her to realize that her own behavior was founded on a particular strength that others did not all share and that they had other strengths that she lacked. It gave her ideas about rearranging work to avoid constant disappointments. It also helped her appreciate her own capabilities as more than ‘table stakes.’ I had a similar flash when I found I had the Individualization talent theme, an ability to recognize the unique qualities of individuals around me. I had been disappointed numerous times that others did not seem to care enough to see me clearly. It was liberating to interpret their behavior as lack of talent rather than lack of interest.
Do you wonder whether your strengths are important? For example, two women found they share Responsibility, Deliberative (vigilantly identifying risks and acting with great care), and Consistency (applying the same rules to everyone equally, being predictable, guarding against special interests). They were both a little disappointed because they felt their talent themes were unglamorous and dull. However, they agreed that people keep loading them with more and more work and taking it for granted that it will get done. The rest of us saw the value of their talent themes – we want them on our teams. They worked together on ways to moderate expectations and to have their contributions recognized.
Do you make your accomplishments look easy? Making work look easy does not always lead to appreciation. This is an age-old problem illustrated in the folktale of the farmer who decides to swap jobs with his wife because he thinks her job is so easy; he ends up in all sorts of trouble. So what do you do? Start by appreciating your own contribution and seeing how it is different from those made by others. When someone else is acknowledged as a hero for solving a difficult problem, perhaps you can think of times when you prevented problems from occurring by planning ahead. Take notes. Keep track of satisfied customers. Collect evidence of ways you have influenced important outcomes. It is always easier to illustrate your value with specific instances that show how you have made things run smoothly than by referring to the absence of problems.
Do you sometimes complain, “I’m so busy ‘fighting fires’ that I don’t get to accomplish anything.” (For those unfamiliar with this figure of speech, fighting fires means working on items that are unexpected, transitory, and urgent.)
Is it possible that your job is to be a fire fighter? That you are doing exactly what is needed in your role? That you are doing exactly what your strengths suit you for?
If so, can you take satisfaction from the fires you have put out and let the other items go?
If not, are there others around who might be better suited to fight fires? Who might find them exciting opportunities? Do you have to fight them all yourself, or could you help someone else learn how?
Most of this discussion of strengths rests on the StrengthsFinder talent themes. But Values-in-Action character strengths are also relevant, as are Myers-Briggs Type Indicator preferences (Myers, 1995). I have been amazed by how closely people’s descriptions of their on-the-job strengths correspond to VIA character strengths, especially social intelligence, open-mindedness, leadership, persistence, love of learning, and creativity. You can explore your character strengths with an online tool. For discussion of using VIA strengths and MBTI type information together, see a recently published article by Sulynn Choong and me.
Next month, I plan to describe some specific actions suggested by empirical positive psychology that people can take individually or in groups to make work more engaging and satisfying.
Buckingham, M (2007). Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance. NY: Free Press.
Buckingham, M. & Clifton, D.O. (2001). Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: The Free Press.
This book comes with an identifier to use the Gallup StrengthsFinder instrument, an online tool that returns a list of one’s top 5 talent themes along with ideas about how to use them effectively.
Choong, S. & Britton, K. (2007). Character strengths and Type: Exploration of covariation. International Coaching Psychology Review special issue on Positive Psychology, 2, 9-23.
Cooperrider, D. and Whitney, D. (2004) Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Harter, J. K., Schmidt, F. L., & Keyes, C. L. M. (2002). Well-being in the workplace and its relationship to business outcomes: A review of the Gallup studies. In C. L. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived, 205-224. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Myers, I. (1998). Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type. Mountain View, CA: Davies Black Publishing.
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
This book covers a wide range of topics, is scrupulously based on research, and with Chris’s inimitable style, is just plain fun to read.
Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Gallup Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
This book contains a description of the Values in Action character strengths, how they were derived, and how they can be used. I have particular fondness for this book because it started me on the path to the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program.
AMAURI courtesy of SantaRosa OLD SKOOL