Every so often as an HR Executive I was lucky enough to attend a very special event that included dinner in a nice restaurant and a West End show. Although the food and the entertainment was always good that wasn’t what set the evening apart – it was the people. Most were from either sales, operations or logistics and all had done something significant for the organization – well beyond what was expected of them. Yes, some had saved us a lot of money by making an improvement, but many had minimized the risk of an accident, delighted a customer or built a playground in the local school. What got me every time about these people was how much they loved their work – not just because they were now being recognized for something they had done, but just because. They cared about the company, the brand and the people. They wanted to come to work – and they were good for business in so many ways. But when you asked them why they were they way they were they couldn’t tell you. I was always left wondering how you “capture” that enthusiasm, how you spread it throughout the organization and how you sustain it over time – and I never found the answer. As HR professionals, we have long since wrestled with this challenge and I believe that Positive Psychology may be able to help.
It’s not easy to take a conceptual science of “happiness” into the business world – the language we use and the nature of some of the validated interventions may seem alien to that environment, but there is enough of value to make the translation worthwhile. At the same time we’d be digging our own grave if we suggest that Positive Psychology has all the answers – partly because in my experience there is no such thing as a complete and final answer to any organizational issue – they are too broad and dynamic for that, and partly because the science itself is still emerging. But organizations can be stimulated to look at age-old problems differently and to try some new things based on good empirical evidence that they can work.
Perhaps the experience of being happy in life is not that different to the outcome we are trying to achieve as we help employees become more interested, enthusiastic and connected to their work. If you ask one half of a room to describe a time when they were happy, and the other a time when they have been engaged in their work, you hear the same language from both groups. It seems that both have similar characteristics and outcomes. Is an engaged employee just an employee who is happy at work? I know it’s not that simple, but it’s a good place to start, not least because it allows us to get pragmatic and look at the constructs of Positive Psychology and how they might help us.
Martin Seligman suggests that happiness can be achieved by focusing on three areas – the good life (pleasure and enjoyment), the engaged life (strengths and challenges) and the meaningful life (goals and purpose beyond oneself). These “Three Lives” of pleasure, engagement and meaning provide a useful framework for employee engagement, and allow us to access much of the current research and thinking in each.
Positive Engagement at work is driven, in part, by the individual’s sense of happiness at work and Seligman’s model can be modified to reflect this by focusing on experiencing positive emotions at work, playing to our strengths and values at work, and meaning in our work (see Figure 1).
You can take much of the work already being done in these three areas and apply them to individuals at work – and many of us who work as coaches are already doing just that. However, in organizations the connection with others is critical – happiness of the individual is not broad enough to capture the challenge of true engagement and satisfaction at work. As a result the model of Happiness at Work develops into one of Positive Engagement – incorporating a focus on “self” and a focus on “others”. From the foundation of “self” we might shift our attention to incorporate our relationships with others at work – the fun and positive energy that can be found in strong teams, the opportunity to reflect our own strengths and virtues in the way we lead ourselves and others and the meaning we get from our friendships (Figure 2).
For each area there are both practical and theoretical approaches that are relevant. In reality the picture is not yet complete, but pieces of the jigsaw are starting to fall into place. For those of us who work in or with organizations there’s lots to do and this model suggests that there are real, concrete, theoretically sound areas where we can focus our efforts and make a difference – and if that isn’t engagement in your work then I don’t know what is !