The Power of Positive Thinking in the Workplace

By Adrienne Fox Apr 23, 2008
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LONDON—“Happiness gets trashed. It’s considered too pink and fluffy for the workplace,” Alex Linley, founder of the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) in Coventry, England, told attendees at the 2008 World Federation of Personnel Management Associations World Congress here April 15. Linley, a psychologist and management consultant, founded the nonprofit CAPP to help companies find the happy, positive sides of employees in order to attract, retain and develop them.

“Neurological research shows that when people are happy, they learn things better, are more receptive to [manager direction] and are more engaged,” Linley said.

A positive, or “strengths-based,” organization seeks to buoy what is right in people rather than correct what is wrong. It’s an ingredient that is missing in the workplace, Linley said, noting that only 17 percent of U.S. workers use their strengths at work, according to Gallup Poll research that was first compiled in Marcus Buckingham’s bestselling book, First, Break All the Rules (Simon & Schuster, 1999.)

Building on Buckingham’s concept, Linley helps companies such as the U.K.’s largest insurer, Norwich Union, and U.K.-based aerospace company BAE Systems implement strength-based approaches to their recruitment, performance management and leadership development programs. He notes that successful global companies such as Yahoo!, Toyota, Microsoft, Best Buy and Wells Fargo have strengths-based cultures.

Strengths, Linley said, are defined as “a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking or feeling that is authentic and energizing to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance.”

Strengths-Based Recruiting

Norwich Union (NU) has been using strengths as a central focus of its recruiting for claims advisers—a pivotal role that interfaces with its customer base—for the past two years. CAPP worked with NU’s HR teams to conduct focus groups and in-depth interviews to identify the strengths that differentiate between high- and low-performing claims advisers. NU then redefined the role from competencies into strengths, such as “good listener,” “good talker” and “good investigator,” and created advertisements calling for applicants with these traits. CAPP trained the HR recruitment team in strengths-based interviewing and assessment.

The new recruitment campaign led to a higher quality of candidates, Linley said. All new recruits have since scored above 90 percent in performance appraisals, attrition has halved and employee engagement scores have soared. “It’s helped Norwich Union find people who love to do the job, not just those who simply can do the job,” said Linley.

Strengths-Based Performance Management

Ignoring strengths in favor of weaknesses has a profound effect on individual performance, according to a 2002 Corporate Leadership Council survey of nearly 20,000 employees in 29 countries. Emphasis on performance strengths was linked to a 36 percent improvement in performance while emphasis on performance weaknesses was linked to a 27 percent decline in performance.

What’s the difference between strengths-based performance management and traditional performance management that focuses on employees’ weaknesses? According to Linley, in the traditional system, feedback is saved as part of a periodic review. Data are collected and performance is rated on the past. Strengths are accepted as a given, and the focus is on developing the weak areas. Goal-setting is based on improving those weaknesses, and little if any attempt is made to build on strengths.

By contrast, Linley said, strengths-based performance management recognizes good work and strengths. Managers offer regular feedback in real time and hold honest performance management conversations. The system differentiates between tolerable and business-critical weaknesses and manages performance expectations. Finally, it seeks to build employees’ strengths and to get feedback from employees on their own performance.

Strengths-Based Development

Development has its place in a strengths-based culture as with any organization. Strengths-based organizations don’t ignore weaknesses, said Linley, but they make weaknesses nearly irrelevant. HR can achieve this in three ways:

  • Redefine the role so that it plays better to the person’s strengths.
  • Have that person partner with someone who compensates for the weaknesses.
  • Assemble teams from the start based on everyone’s strengths.

“If all of the above fails to get the employee to perform, then HR would begin the process of the more traditional performance improvement that may ultimately lead to separation,” said Linley.

Getting Started on Strengths

If you want to embed strengths in your organization, follow these steps outlined by Linley:

  • Define strengths needed in the organization and make sure they are tied to the business strategy.
  • Start at the top by having leaders assess their strengths to get support for the concept.
  • Decide whether to roll out the program beyond top leaders by department, location or level based on what makes sense for your organization.
  • Start with recruitment, performance management or leadership development and master one process before moving to another.
  • Be patient and continue to evaluate your approach and refine as necessary.

“It’s not a steamroller process; it’s more of a quiet revolution,” said Linley. “Once people start talking about strengths and relating to others based on these defined traits, you will see improvements in decision making, teamwork, supervisor-employee relationships and employee authenticity and engagement.”

Adrienne Fox, a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va., is former managing editor of HR Magazine.

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