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 about things that we do not like about our jobs? How can Positive Psychology help us be both realistic and optimistic at the same time? This is the second in a series about turning work into a source of great satisfaction, meaning, and engagement. I base my thoughts on both academic study during the MAPP program and on my experiences with friends, individual clients, and organizations ranging from 10 to 100 people.
Moving away from Learned Helplessness
Taking Positive Psychology to work means being realistic about what is going on and then taking charge of what one can control – in particular one’s own response. It does not mean glossing over the negative and pretending it does not exist.
Practically every profession or job has something for people to feel unhappy about. As Peter Minich describes in an earlier article, many clinicians feel that their hands are tied by managed care. People in information technology fields fear layoffs because they see jobs like their own going to less expensive work forces in other countries. Teachers are weighed down by paperwork and often feel that new initiatives layered on top of old ones make it difficult to be there for children. Corporations are changing pension plans and health insurance benefits. Bureaucracy, work force movements, and economic pressures aren’t going away. So what do we do about them?
The path of least resistance is to complain. People get together to vent. But collective complaining, once it goes past clarifying the reality of the situation, can start a downward spiral that makes people feel more and more helpless. The concept of Learned Helplessness came at least partially out of experiments where Martin Seligman moved dogs from a cage where they could do nothing about periodic electric shocks to another where they could jump over a low wall to escape. Unlike other dogs, the ones moved from the other cage tended not to even try to find a way out.
You may have seen learned helplessness in people around you – people who scoff at the possibility of anything getting better. Learned helplessness is endemic in our society, and the source of much unhappiness. So what can you do in the face of realities that you don’t like and can’t change to keep from learning to be helpless?
There are lots of sources about techniques that individuals can use to reframe personal thinking in more productive ways, such as Aaron Beck on cognitive therapy and Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte on resilience training. There have already been two articles on this subject in June: Senia Maymin’s APE method to get out of a bad mood and Nick Hall’s article about the ABC approach. So I’d like to focus on reframing as a group exercise, where people decide to turn the downward spiral around by working together on new ways to view shared reality. I have found that reframing is a skill that people in groups pick up pretty quickly once they’re challenged to try it.
What I’ve found works (informally – no empirical evaluation) is for the group to first clarify their instinctive negative reaction, “This is BAD because…” and then brainstorm for more empowering positive reactions, “This is GOOD because …”
For example, a group complains about turnover on the team with experienced people leaving and newcomers arriving. The instinctive reaction might be “This is BAD because it means more work for me.” The reframed reaction might be “This is GOOD because the new people are bringing fresh energy, new ideas, and optimism. Maybe the optimism will be contagious.” For another example, consider a tedious exacting chore that has to be done correctly as a condition of employment. The instinctive reaction might be “This is a booby trap where I might lose my job because of problems with the tools we use.” A reframed reaction might be “There might be an opportunity here for me to shine – if I can find a better way or build better tools.”
One of my favorite examples reflects a change of thinking around annual performance evaluations. The initial view was “This is BAD because we are being compared to each other, which is destructive to teamwork because if I help my peer, I might make him look better than I do. I work really hard and I am probably not going to get the credit or raise that I deserve. My manager isn’t strong enough to argue for a high evaluation for me.” All of these complaints may be true. Then the group reframed, not necessarily to find what was good about performance evaluations, but instead to find ways to be in control of their own responses by refocusing on what’s really important to each of them personally – money or position or family – and then taking action. Suggested actions included
- Work with your supervisor to define a job that you actually WANT to do and ENJOY doing based on your strengths and skill set and then you will not mind the hard work
- Ask for time and resources for education to build new skills. Make sure you and your supervisor agree on where growth is needed and how you are going to approach it.
- Ask for job changes that give you a chance to collaborate with other groups to build your personal networks.
- Find ways to be rewarded and recognized for helping others – as well as ways to acknowledge the help others give you. Many supervisors fail to see the many examples of collaboration that occur.
- If you want to show your creativity, look for difficult problem areas and use creative ideas to turn them around
- If position and/or money is your motivation, and you don’t mind the sacrifices it will take to get there, then work with your supervisor to focus on getting opportunities in your career path to get you where you want to be
This particular instance of reframing goes beyond finding more positive ways to think about reality. It illustrates the way people can accept that they cannot change the external reality, but they can affect their own internal reality.
These specific actions may not be useful for other professions, but perhaps there are other actions that work there, such as learning the “social political intelligence so critical to shaping our institutions” that Peter Minich describes.
Summary: Achieving Learned Optimism
Optimism can be learned, and it contributes to work performance and personal well-being. Luthans, Youseff, and Avolio (2007, pp. 99-100) describe the difference between optimistic and pessimistic employees in today’s rapidly changing work environments:
Optimistic and pessimistic employees react very differently to these turbulent times. Optimists are more likely to embrace the changes, see the opportunities the future holds, and focus on capitalizing on those opportunities…. Pessimists, on the other hand, will likely dwell on incidences of failure or poor performance and stunt their own growth opportunities as they continue to seek their lost structure and certainty in their work lives.
Learned Optimism (Seligman, 1991) contains a number of exercises for learning to dispute pessimistic thoughts. It would be interesting to experiment with these exercises in group settings.
Schneider (2001) describes 3 perspectives that are helpful for developing realistic optimism:
- Leniency toward the past: interpreting the past in ways that acknowledge the uncontrollable aspects, that consider the controllable aspects as opportunities to learn
- Appreciation for the present: See the first article in the series for some ideas.
- Opportunity seeking for the future: Looking forward to chances to employ one’s strengths as new opportunities arise.
All of these perspectives involve reframing in positive ways and liberally giving the benefit of the doubt. Face up squarely to matters of fact, but make positive choices in matters of interpretation.
Come back next month for the next installment in Taking Positive Psychology to Work. I can’t give a real cliffhanger because I’m not sure yet where inspiration will strike.
Luthans, F., Youssef, C. & Avolio, B. (2006). Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge. Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.
Seligman, M.E.P. (1994). What You Can Change . . . and What You Can’t*: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. New York: Knopf.
Schneider, S. L. (2001). In search of realistic optimism. American Psychologist, 56, 250-263.