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 is the most burning thing you want to share with us?
We have many years of experience selecting and applying the teachings of positive psychology in business settings, and we strongly believe that outcomes can be measured in these environments, but the measurements are different from those done in academia. We do not focus on single constructs such as gratitude or hope. As we evaluate, we are interested in organizationally relevant outcomes, not whether we are making people happier. Happiness is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Our mission is to increase the population of women at high levels in organizations, particularly in our niche of financial services and professional services, by helping companies retain senior women as well as add to their ranks. We are working towards “critical mass” — the point where biases toward women are lost in awareness of the differences between individuals and where the number of women becomes self-sustaining (Kanter, Tiao). Barbara spent years studying the defection of women from senior management positions asking questions like “What created your dissatisfaction.” She now sees that she was asking the wrong questions. Today, we look for women who are staying and thriving and ask them questions about their successes in order to find ways to replicate them.
What aspects of positive psychology do you find most helpful working with senior women?
First, senior women are very drawn to the science around satisfaction and well-being, which creates interest and openness to the ideas.
We find the distinction between traits and states to be very helpful as we select and implement applications.
For traits, which tend to be very stable, we help clients leverage them to full advantage rather than trying to change them. For this, VIA strengths are particularly effective.
For states, which tend to be based on habitual thinking patterns that are more malleable, we help clients acquire tools and techniques and build habits that lead to greater satisfaction and better business outcomes. These tools and techniques are based on Hope Theory (Snyder and Lopez), Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan), Self-Efficacy research (Bandura), Psychological Capital (Luthans) as well the work of Losada and Fredrickson.
We are very pragmatic. We try various ideas with an eye on business outcomes, such as retention, promotion, and equivalent remuneration for our clients. We change our approach based on what we see works. For example, we’ve found that intrinsic motivation, self-efficacy, hope theory, and VIA strengths are particularly useful. Focusing on optimism and resilience leads to smaller positive outcomes, perhaps because this is already a very high-functioning population.
What is the single most effective tool you use?
Our approach is very grounded in appreciative inquiry; that is, that the questions we ask tend to shape the outcomes. So when we used to ask about how to fix problems and reduce frustrations, we got energy-depleting discussions of deficits. When we ask about what is already going right and how to replicate it, we see energy and confidence go up. Being careful about the questions we ask is an important aspect of everything we do.
For helping people focus on what’s right, the VIA is the most effective tool that we’ve used. People identify with their top 5 VIA strengths, they build confidence when they use them, and their VIA strengths form a lens through which they can look at themselves in new ways. We work together on how to use the VIA strengths in business, so they aren’t just inflicting their top 5 strengths on the world willy nilly. People build ongoing habits for using these strengths in their day-to-day life.
For one example, take a woman in a leadership position for whom the Leadership VIA strength was one of her bottom strengths. We helped her look at how she could shape her leadership style around her top strengths such as Curiosity and Social Intelligence.
We have created VIA strength cards that people use for playing with ideas for using their strengths more and for reminding themselves at crucial points about their strengths. The card for a particular strength includes an explanation that is very closely based on Character Strengths and Virtues — somewhat adjusted for business environments and with some of the North Americanisms toned down a little. It also includes descriptions of when people are at their best and when they are thwarted when using the strength. (Readers, click on the image below for information about ordering the VIA cards.)
There is a lot of laughter as our clients work in groups on ways to increase the use of their strengths. Over time, we see rising confidence and a greater tendency to take responsibility for their own satisfaction.
We make it very clear that VIA strengths are not skills, not talents, not specific behaviors. People see them as characterizations of what they are like when they are most like themselves, when they tend to feel great at work. Focus on strengths helps them get back to what drew them to their careers and rekindle that early energy by rediscovering their intrinsic motivations.
We are careful to explain that the VIA strengths are not intended to be the 24 characteristics of people who are happy. What they can be is a diagnostic tool to help people discover what is right about themselves.
Thank you for exploring your use of the VIA. Now to close, what is one small thing that has a big impact?
We work with our clients on simple mindfulness, meaning the ability to control where they focus their attention. We have found that a 10 to 15 minute training can have a very large impact … partly because it’s based on chocolate!We give each person in the group a piece of very fine, beautifully wrapped chocolate. Then we guide them through the process of enjoying the chocolate enjoying everything about it — the initial appearance, the feeling of the shape in the wrapper, taking the wrapper off, the scent, feeling it on the tongue…
Then we help them see that they have been able to direct their thoughts away from work worries. We tell them about work by neurologist and lecturer Craig Hassed at Monash University that practicing this kind of intentional direction of attention twice a day for 5 minutes can have a substantial impact, for example making it possible for people to let go of habitual responses and choose new behaviors.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior (Perspectives in Social Psychology). New York: Plenum.
Hassed, C. (2008). Essence of Health. Random House Australia.
Kanter, R. M. (1977, 1993). Men and Women of the Corporation: New Edition. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
Kanter (1993) proposed that women as tokens (the only one or fewer than 15% of the group) in leadership have a hard time changing the management culture. She added that once women reach a critical mass (more than 35%), the chance for them to use collaboration to increase their influence on the management culture increases. The best situation exists when women compose 40% to 60% of the leadership team and become a social group equal to men. Kanter as cited in Tiao (2006, p. 188).
Luthans, F., Youssef, C., & Avolio, B. (2007). Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge. Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Snyder, C. R. (2000). Handbook of Hope : Theory, Measures, and Applications. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Tiao, N. (2006). Senior Women Leaders in Higher Education: Overcoming Barriers to Success. University of Michigan dissertation.
From the abstract: The purpose of this study was to obtain a deeper understanding of what it takes for women to succeed as cabinet-level higher education administrators. The results confirmed Kanter’s (1993) theory about the impact of the proportion of women on management culture and on individual leaders’ experiences. Obviously, placing more women in powerful leadership positions will foster a more diversified, inclusive management culture and improve executive women leaders’ experiences at work.