Over the last three years, almost every positive psychology intervention I have piloted has gone awry. The Appreciate Inquiry summit flopped, the strengths training never got off the ground, and if you mention the Optimism seminar given to top managers I will smile nervously and change the subject. Let me explain.
After graduating from MAPP I returned to my company. I ran Employee Engagement, coaching. I had lots of autonomy and could pilot interventions across the 40 global offices and 5000 employees – sometimes I thought of it as my personal laboratory. Upon a little reflection, I think I have learned three lessons:
Change the language: No-one cared about the science of Positive Psychology and they found the language off-putting. At many meetings I would bring up some relevant PP research and watch everyone’s eyes glaze over. When I argued that we needed more Gratitude in the workplace, I might as well have been wearing a sarong and handing out flowers. Eventually I learned to say “How about we recognize our most inspiring managers and give them a shout-out at the next global meeting?” Same outcome, different language. In fact, we created a series of fast-paced two minute viral videos called “Rockstars”. The videos celebrated our best leaders and are now a regular part of the calendar. Jonathan Haidt coached me how to design the images to elicit elevation. None of my colleagues cared for my methods, they just loved the videos.
- Focus on results: the leaders were all trying to improve business outcomes. They needed to delight clients, to increase profitability, to stop their best employees from leaving. If I could use PP to help those areas, they listened. If it was Positive Psychology for its own sake, they had no interest.
For example, we simplified the monthly employee survey and changed one question from “What’s wrong with this project?” to “What’s working well on the team?” Survey response rates to that question more than tripled. Everyone was delighted and I never had to say “accentuate the positive”.
For example, at an education Non-Profit we recently changed their annual performance review form to focus on each person’s strengths as well as their development areas. It was a minor language change on the 3-page form. This quietly changed the tone of thousands of sensitive conversations that happen behind closed doors. I believe this has more impact that multiple training off-sites.
Have less training, more system tweaks: Initially I tried lots of training to help people understand Positive Psychology. I ran seminars on explanatory styles, on using your strengths, on the differences between pleasure and engagement. They were generally well received but when I reflect on their longer term impact I struggle to point to any big changes that resulted. Yet minor tweaks had the largest results.
The mistakes and flops I mention above were all too real. There were lots of things that didn’t work. But I remember what Martin Seligman told our MAPP class late one Saturday afternoon, “Each year I try to have 10 good ideas, most of them flop, a few catch on and one suddenly takes off. I never know which one that will be.” That entrepreneurial / test and adapt approach has a lot going for it.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.