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Employee Engagement

Positive psychology in the workplace: benefits & examples

Positive psychology in the workplace illustrated by happy team

Positive psychology in the workplace is an approach and method focused on building on what is working well and strengthening that, rather than focusing on “fixing” what is not working. In a workplace context, it’s an approach that can be applied to individuals, groups, and whole organisations.

What is positive psychology in the workplace?

Positive psychology is an area of psychology focusing on helping people build happy, meaningful, purposeful lives. Implementing positive psychology in the workplace is about building a positive and healthy work environment that is enjoyable, productive, and engaging. When positive psychology is applied in a workplace, it can be a powerful tool to help people thrive and perform at their best. And the boost can be quite significant. A study from the University of Oxford shows that happy employees are up to 13% more productive.

Drivers of employee engagement

The scientific field of Positive Work and Organisations (PWO)

Before diving into how you can apply Positive Psychology in the workplace, let’s have a look at what the research looks like. In fact, the studies of positive psychology at work have grown into a whole field of research, often talked about under the umbrella term Positive Work and Organizations (PWO). This is an area that encourages the cross-pollination of three research streams in positive psychology in the workplace: 

  • Positive Organisational Psychology (POP)

  • Positive Organisational Behavior (POB)

  • Positive Organisational Scholarship (POS)

Positive organisational psychology (POP)

Positive organisational psychology is “the scientific study of positive subjective experiences and traits in the workplace and positive organisations, and its application to improve the effectiveness and quality of life in organisations”, according to Donaldson and Ko. This is an approach that differs from traditional organisational behavior modification methods, in that it aims to develop and emphasize positive behaviours in organizations rather than prevent harmful ones.  

Positive Organisational Behavior (POB)

POB is an area of research that examines psychological capabilities that can be developed and measures, such as optimism, hope, self-efficacy, and resilience – both at the individual and team levels. 

Positive Organisational Scholarship (POS)

Positive Organisational Scholarship defined as the study of that which is positive, flourishing, and life-giving in organisations. This field of research is focusing on positive processes and outcomes for organisations and their employees in, for example, areas like organisational virtuousness, positive deviance, and appreciation cultures. 

How to apply positive psychology in the workplace?

Positive psychology is all about turning the attention to what is working well, in order to enforce positive behaviours. It’s about using positive reinforcement and rewards, rather than negative reinforcement and punishments. So, how can this approach be applied in the day-to-day work, in order to increase work engagement and well-being? 

There are many different ways to apply positive psychology at work, and the organisations that have the greatest success are often the ones that manage to incorporate this mindset as an integral part of their culture. Let’s have a look at a few practical examples!

Image of a female manager discussing team action plan with colleagues

10 ways to apply positive psychology in an organisation

Celebrate wins–big and small

One way to apply this approach is by celebrating everything you’d like to see more of. This means acknowledging and celebrating wins: big and small, as well as on the individual, team, and organisational levels. Emphasising that each win is a win for everyone in the organisation helps foster a collaborative, supportive, and inclusive work culture.

Acknowledge behaviours, and not only results

Make sure to acknowledge positive behaviours, as well as results. It’s important to show that it’s not only “the what” that matters, but also “the how”. This message is essential in building a positive work culture. 

Adopt a growth mindset

You’ve probably heard about the value of adopting a “growth” or “abundance” mindset, as opposed to a “fixed” or “deficit” mindset. With a fixed mindset, abilities and resources are static and cannot be changed. This way of looking at things tends to hinder both personal and team development. Focusing on opportunities is a more fruitful attitude, and managers play an important role in leading by example and showcasing this mindset. 

Build on individual strengths

Nobody is good at everything, and when people are allowed to do what they’re best at, the results often are the best. Creating a safe and transparent culture where people can be open about both strengths and weaknesses allows for the best division of responsibilities and labour. 

Invest in learning and development

Investing in learning and developing is a great way to build on people’s strengths, and help them hone them even further. Noticing an employee is good at something or enjoys something, and offering the opportunity to develop that skill, even more, is an effective way to increase both engagement and performance. 

Make space for relationships and teambuilding 

Relationships in the workplace are important drivers of employee well-being and employee engagement. Strong relationships can also help reduce stress, increase employee retention, and improve overall performance. By monitoring the state of relationships and continuously working to facilitate them, organizations can create the foundation for strong teams and positive work culture. 

Avoid micro-managing

Managers play a crucial part in building positive work cultures and in applying positive psychology in the workplace. Micro-managing is the very opposite of positive reinforcement, and it's one of the quickest ways to undermine and eventually destroy job engagement and job well-being. 

Measure employee engagement 

Employee engagement surveys are a powerful tool for measuring what can be improved in the organisation, but also what is working well. When looking at the results from employee surveys, it’s essential to not only focus on areas of improvement, but also on the success factors and areas where things are going great. By shining the light on those behaviors and trends, you will see more of them.

Use 360 feedback reviews for managers and employees

360-degree feedback surveys are a great tool for generating peer feedback on behaviours, and highlighting what employees and managers are doing well. When implementing 360-degree feedback surveys, it’s 

Picture of female manager working in front of co-workers, leading the work

Gamify work performance

Gamification can be an efficient way to automate positive reinforcement in the workplace. A typical example can be using screens in a sales office to show progress, and where high performance is celebrated and highlighted. 

Positive psychology interventions at work

Positive psychology interventions, also known as PPIs, aim to help bring about positive changes like increased work engagement, improved job performance, and reduced stress. A large number of studies in recent years verify the effects that Positive psychology interventions can have. 

There are two aspects to positive psychology interventions at work:

  • Enhancing job happiness through positive emotions and thoughts 

  • Sustaining the positive effects for the long-term

Mindfulness practices,  sensory awareness practices, social communication practices, and gratitude practices are all examples of positive psychology that can be helpful in a work context.

Examples of positive psychology interventions in the workplace

Kindness boosters

Kindness is an infectious trait and behaviour closely connected to job happiness and job well-being, both for the person being kind and for the person experiencing kindness. There are many ways to make kindness an integral part of the work culture. For example.  be simple acts of kindness can be buying someone a symbolic token of appreciation, letting the team volunteer for a good cause, donating money or things, or participating in different types of CSR activities. 

Prosocial spending

Prosocial spending is a term describing the act of buying something as a gesture of goodwill. Outside of work, it can be things like taking your partner out for dinner or buying someone a present.  Prosocial spending in the workplace can be giving each team a budget for social team activities, or getting Christmas gifts for the staff. These are all tokens of appreciation that can go a long way, without breaking the bank. 

Empathy-building exercises

Exercises that help build empathy focus on reducing the gap between the self and others, to create greater understanding and compassion. Many people have been conditioned to think that work is work and that nothing is personal during work hours, but the fact is we’re all human beings, no matter the time of day. Fostering empathy through communication exercises paves the way for compassionate, kind, and positive work culture. 

Focusing on purpose and meaning

If we look at Maslow’s Theory of Need Hierarchy, we find self-enhancement and self-esteem at the highest level of human needs. These are intertwined with finding true meaning in life, and if we apply that to work, people are happier, more content, and more productive when they feel that the work they do contributes to something they find meaningful. Having clarity of goals and expectations also ties into this, and makes work more enjoyable and less stressful. 

Positive psychology and employee engagement surveys

Using employee surveys to collect employee feedback in a structured way will help you know in what areas positive psychology exercises would have the greatest impact. Let’s say for example that a team ranks low on relationships with colleagues. Perhaps they’ve had a high workload, and haven’t found the time to bond as a team. Then the manager could initiate a teambuilding activity, to improve the relationships. With regular surveys, both the manager, the team, and HR will be able to follow the progress and see if the actions taken bring the desired outcome. Are relationships with colleagues improved? What else might need attention?

Employee engagement surveys allow for an agile and data-driven approach, where the outcome of initiatives and interventions can easily be tracked and measured.

Key takeaways

Applying positive psychology and a growth mindset in an organization is a powerful way to improve employee engagement and employee well-being as well as retention and eNPS. There are many ways to go about it, and the best foundation for any people strategy is employee feedback. This allows you to focus on the areas where initiatives will have the highest impact, and to measure and track the impact of all initiatives.

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