Positive Psychology News Digest | No. 18/2017

My favorite news and blog articles covering Positive Psychology and adjacent Topics from (roughly) the last seven days.

Positive Psychology News Digest

Inc: How to Gain Strength From Your Darkest Moments (Interview with Adam Grant) by Leigh Buchanan

Inc: Pay Attention to These Surprising 6 Red Flags to Burnout. You May Be Closer Than You Think by Laura Garnett

Psychology Today: Are We Evolved for Happiness? by Glenn Geher

Psychology Today: The Problem with Measuring Happiness by Todd Kashdan

Atlantic: Why Do Americans Smile So Much by Olga Khazan

The Age: Debate on future of work needs a Focus by Alex Lavelle

Atlantic: Play Power: How to Turn Around Our Creativity Crisis by Laura Sergeant Richardson

New York Magazine: Thinking of Your Job As a Calling Isn’t Always a Good Thing by Cari Romm

New York Magazine: To Get Better at Reading People’s Feelings, Pay Attention to Your Own Body by Cari Romm

Heleo: See More, Judge Less: A Mindful Approach to Success, no author

How to Replenish Your Energy at Work? Hint: It´s Not the Caffeine

Man_Cookie_kleinMost of us know these days: You´re rushing from one meeting to another, squeezing in those important calls with the tax consultant and your child´s class teacher – while desperately trying to finish that presentation for your boss which is due at 06:00 pm. This is what days at the office look like for a lot of who earn their money as so-called knowledge workers.

To make it through days like this (and perform well!), maintaining a high level of subjective energy is paramount. In the words of Jane Dutton (Center for Positive Organizations at Ross School of Business), human energy is the “fuel” that helps organizations run successfully. Here, an interesting question arises: How do people manage – and in the case of depletion – replenish their energy while still at the office?

This issue was addressed in a paper by researchers Charlotte Fritz, Chak Fu Lam, and Gretchen Spreitzer via an article in “Academy of Management Perspectives” from 2011. In order to do so, they surveyed 214 knowledge workers across all hierarchical levels on their subjective levels of energy (separate for presence and depletion of vitality) throughout their work days – and additionally assessed what kind of (micro-)strategies these people employ to maintain their energetic balance – and how often they use certain strategies compared to others.  Here´s the key takeaway:

When trying to recharge at work, most people get it wrong most of the time!

Among the most frequently used micro-strategies to recharge were:

  • drinking water or coffee, or having a snack;
  • checking e-mails, switching to another task, or making a to-do list;
  • surfing the net or talking to a colleague about non-work issues (e.g., sports).

In the study, none of these behaviors was associated with a heightened energy level, and some were actually connected to further depletion. Instinctively, many people seem to resort to strategies that shift their attention away from the current task. Yet, the scholars show this may be a severe case of looking in the wrong direction. Those energy management strategies found to be most positively related to vitality are:

  1. learning something new;
  2. focusing on what provides joy in work;
  3. setting a new goal;
  4. doing something that will make a colleague happy;
  5. make time to show gratitude to a colleague;
  6. seeking feedback;
  7. reflecting on how to make a difference at work;
  8. reflecting on the meaning of one´s work.

It´s a mental, or sometimes, emotional shift that breeds success.

In a nutshell, all of these strategies are work-related and reflect notions of learning, relationships, and meaning at work. Accordingly, the key to fill your batteries while at work may be to see your job with different eyes without taking your mind off the tasks at hand. It´s a mental, or sometimes, emotional shift that breeds success.

By the way: The only functional non-job-related strategy in the study was taking time to meditate. What about micro-strategies like taking a short nap or going for a walk? Fritz et al. found that these activities were related neither to the presence nor the depletion of energy – they just didn´t matter all that much. The researchers conclude that these strategies may have more potent effects as sources of recovery while being away from work, e.g., during evenings or weekends.

Organizational Energy: A Whole-System Approach

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the concept of relational energy, the idea that energy is generated via positive interactions between an organization´s members – resulting in a fully charged system.

Org_Energy_BruchToday, I´d like to introduce two other approaches that aim at assessing organizational energy. In both, St. Gallen-based (Switzerland) Prof. Heike Bruch plays a major role.

In an article Bruch co-authored with Sumantra Ghoshal in the Sloan Management Review from 2003 based on several case-studies, she introduced the idea that an organization as a whole system can be described via a grid that describes the intensity and the quality of the present energy. In doing so, she also promoted the concept of “organizational burnout”, a state that may arise when an organization spends to much time in the upper left quadrant of the energy grid. I highly recommend reading the original article – as it also provides valuable ideas on how to shift an organization from one energetic state to an another (“Slaying the Dragon” and “Winning the Princess”)

In 2011, she followed up with this article: Energy at work: A measurement validation and linkage to unit effectiveness. This further explores the idea of “whole system energy” but tackles it from a more quantified point of view. The authors define

collective energy (henceforth productive energy) as affect, cognitive arousal, and agentic behavior among unit members in their joint pursuit of organizationally salient objectives.

One important notion is that the researchers view productive energy as having affective, cognitive, and behavioral components – so it´s not only about “feeling energized”:

Affective energy refers to members’ shared experience of positive feelings and emotional arousal due to their enthusiastic assessments of work‐related issues.

Cognitive energy refers to the shared intellectual processes that propel members to think constructively and persist in search of solutions to work‐related problems, including the mental faculties to focus attention, shut out distractions, and have a desire to make “good things” happen.

Behavioral energy reflects members’ joint efforts designed to benefit the organization; it encompasses the pace, intensity, and volume with which members purposefully invest physical resources.

 The other important distinction is the facet of emergence:

We take a multilevel position on energy, conceptualizing it as both an individual‐level and a collective‐level phenomenon. We, therefore, recognize the need to discuss the nature of its emergence or how the lower‐level parent construct (i.e., individual‐level energy) materializes to form a collective construct (i.e., productive energy).

Accordingly, the authored have used a questionnaire to assess individual energy, but used that data to additionally compute a collective energy level, e.g., that of the whole business unit, by aggregating the individual energy levels. Here are some of the items they used:

  • Affective dimension: People in my work group feel enthusiastic in their job.
  • Cognitive dimension: In my work group, there is a collective desire to make something happen.

  • Behavioral dimension: People in my work group often work extremely long hours without complaining.

After statistical analyses, the authors conclude that

productive energy appears to be an emergent phenomenon. That is, energy referenced at the unit level considers the context or social environment in which individuals work and is distinct from the attributes of those individuals.

In a separate study, they also find that

the productive energy of firms is positively associated with firm performance.

I´m really eager to see how this stream of literature will develop in the future – and how it might inform practical interventions, e.g., in the field of human resources development.

The Rise of Positive Psychology: Linking the Movement to the 6th Kondratieff Cycle

One very interesting question about Positive Psychology is: Why now? Meaning: Why is it booming at this point in time, why is it gaining so much momentum, why is it turning into a – sort of – movement, attracting the attention of thousands of researchers (plus: institutions that fund research) and practitioners in business, education, healthcare – and elsewhere?

An easy answer could be: Because Marty Seligman chose it as the central topic of his tenure as president of the APA in 1998. Apart from being a brilliant researcher, Marty has proven to be a very good “salesman” and is also highly skilled at securing grants and other third-party funds. But I guess this response is too simple.

The core ideas of Positive Psychology (first and foremost: looking at the “positive” side of the continuum that comprises human behavior and development) have been around for a while, starting with some of the Greek philosophers – and leading all the way up to 20th century humanistic psychologists such as Viktor Frankl, Erich Fromm, and Abraham Maslow. They all do have their well-deserved spot in the psychology hall of fame – and they are widely respected for their (theoretical) contributions. But they did not really manage to turn their ideas into a widely-accepted and especially well-researched “field”, a broad and comprehensive sub-domain of the academic community.

All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come. (Victor Hugo)

Turns out it may not be their fault after all. There is a good chance that they were simply introducing their ideas to the world…too early. Positive Psychology may be booming during this era of economic development (and human development in general) because it could be the decisive force to spur growth and well-being over the next 50 years (or so…).

Positive Psychology and the sixth Kondratieff Wave

Enter Nikolai Kondratieff (1892-1938). Kondratieff devised an economic theory that today is known as Kondratieff Cycles (often called „theory of the long waves“). They are a concept in macro-economics that describes the development (expansion, stagnation, recession) of entire economies. Yet in contrast to most modern economic theories, Kondratieff did not focus on cycles that last for a few years. He tried to describe waves that last approximately 50-60 years.

A core concept of the theory is the notion of “basic innovations”: Kondratieff posited that a wave arises from the clustering of technical innovations that consecutively serve to launch technological revolutions that in turn create leading industrial or commercial sectors (please see the following graph taken from a research report created by German insurance giant Allianz for a basic overview of the first five cycles – and a projection for the upcoming sixth cycle):

Kobdratieff Waves

As you can see our economy is depicted as entering the sixth wave since the first industrial revolution. What you can also see is a list of candidates for the basic innovations that are projected to drive economic growth during the upcoming cycle (e.g. nanotechnology, biotechology, green-tech).

But there´s another important candidate on the list that is also elaborated on in the Allianz whitepaper – but was introduced to the public a lot earlier through the book The Sixth Kondratieff by Leo Nefiodow (which has recently been reissued in a 6th edition): Holistic health. This encompasses all those products and (medical) services that cater to the needs of an aging society. But it also decidedly incorporates all the services that cater to the psycho-social wellbeing of the workforces in our organizations.

This is where Positive Psychology as a growth driver may tie in. Phenomena such as the burnout syndrome have been on the rise for at least the past 15 years – resulting in billions and billions lost for corporations and society as a whole as a result of absence from work and medical costs (…and I´m not even trying to incorporate the “psychological costs”; and the “social costs” for families, friends, communities). And according to Gallup, the U.S. economy loses some 450-550 billion Dollar per year due to a disengaged workforce (for Germany, the number is depicted at around 130 billion Euro).

Positive Psychology (especially positive organizational scholarship) offers well-researched and at the same time practical solutions for (a lot of) these problems, at the individual and organizational level. For an overview, you might want to check the recently published book How to Be a Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact by editors Jane Dutton and Gretchen Spreitzer. Other valuable books can be found on this list.

To sum up: I propose Positive Psychology may be the decisive basic innovation of the 6th Kondratieff wave.

What do you think of this?