Positive psychology: shaking up the wellbeing message


Sukhvinder Pabial, Head of OD at One Housing, is running an event on on 24 April 2015. Ahead of the event we asked Sukh some questions about positive psychology and its relevance to organisations.


You have an event in April looking at positive psychology. Where did your interest in the topic come from?

I first became interested when I heard Martin Seligman talk on the subject in London in 2008. He was talking about how we could talk about positivity and living a vibrant life and all based on research methods. Since then I’ve read a lot on the topic, interviewed other academics and practitioners, and heard a range of talks on the topics.

The more I learn about the topic, the more I realise its wider implications to improving wellbeing, resilience and cultivating hope on an individual level.

Sukh 1You mention research methods that support positive psychology. Could you tell me a bit more about the evidence base that supports it and what it tells us?

This is probably the piece which a lot of people don’t understand or completely miss. The techniques advocated are all recommended because there has been a research based approach to evaluating their effectiveness. For each different quality that the researchers were looking to develop and strengthen in individuals, they developed trial groups to understand if improvements were because of chance or because of the intervention used.

That gives confidence in understanding that reflective practise techniques like 3 good things or focusing on developing qualities like your strengths is based on results where people report results in the positive and wellbeing is improved.

Why do most people completely miss this? If it is an area of L&D or OD that has an evidence base then surely it should stand alongside other tools in the toolkit?

There are a few factors in response to that.

First, it’s a relatively young area. It’s been going as a field of study for about 20 years.

Second, a lot of people just get plain confused with thinking it’s the same as positive thinking when all they share is the word ‘positive’.

Last is that unless you’ve been exposed to it, you wouldn’t know it was a field of study that’s available outside of just being ‘psychology’.

So what is it about positive psychology that is so compelling for organisations? Why should organisations be looking into it right now?

It takes the wellbeing message, shakes it up and gives it a whole new light.

The US Army commissioned Martin Seligman (one of foremost leaders in the field) to develop positive psychology training for front line soldiers to enable them to be more emotionally resilient. He (Seligman) also worked with a private grammar school in Australia in developing a curriculum for senior school students to help them build their understanding of how to be positive contributors to society and live a life they could thrive in.

There’s two great examples right there of how it can help organisations in different ways.

For today’s world, a lot of people are feeling burnt out and it’s tough to be hopeful or optimistic about the future. Helping people build this capacity and enabling them to consider what parts of their lives are working well is an important step in supporting the performance of people. If they have the emotional resilience to be well, they’ll have the emotional resilience to perform well.

At the same time, there are interventions which are focused on inclusion and engagement as part of their methodology which for L&D/OD professionals means a different way of being able to cultivate positive, progressive ways of working with each other.

So, where and how does this fit into the organisation? And who is responsible for bringing this thinking to bear on corporate culture?

That’s a really hard question to answer.

Where does it fit best? Arguably with the L&D/OD functions. And they’re probably the ones who can introduce it to corporate culture too.

It’s a way of thinking differently about HR based processes such as recruitment and performance management. It fundamentally challenges you to not only look at whether the person has the requisite skills, and how they’re performing against those, but also about their strengths as individuals and how you build those to be expert.

For all those concerned with employee engagement, there’s a lot of insight into various aspects which are important for this topic such as how managers provide a work environment where people can excel, such as the personal coaching they provide and such as the praise and recognition of effort they cultivate.

Employee engagement continues to be a hot topic for organisations. Could you explain a bit more how positive psychology could be used to help engage employees more?

Sure. Positive psychology is all about building people’s strengths, building their resilience and learn how to appreciate those things you value in life better. At work, it starts to invite thinking about how do you enable those things to happen? Employee engagement asks a whole array of questions on the workplace, and how people feel that they are included in all manners of workplace initiatives.

Through coaching, a fundamental belief is that the person is capable of their own insights, responsible for their own actions, and find better ways to resolve work situations. By focusing on strengths, what this allows for is the person builds a natural reserve for their resilience.

Communication is the key way in which people hear about things happening at work. When comms are flat and factual, and only on noticeboards or via intranets, they aren’t engaging. When comms are focused on building energy and creating enthusiasm, that’s a good way to create a sense of engagement.

When teams need to come together and have away days for different purposes, it’s important to discuss reality as well as focus on strengths and the future. Who wants to be part of a team that moans about stuff and doesn’t progress? Who wants to be part of a team where productive discussions are had and work practices move forward?

For large corporate events, facilitation techniques such as Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry and World Café are all about trusting people to direct the conversation in the way most relevant to them. These are really powerful techniques which at their core are about inclusion and engagement of everyone concerned.

So you have an event coming up. Who do you think would benefit from attending and why?

Primarily I’d love anyone in the fields of HR, L&D, OD, and Coaching to come along.

Beyond that, anyone who has an interest in the psychology of people is very welcome to attend too.

Could you share any links to articles/videos that would be useful to anyone wanting to find out more about this topic?

There are a lot of great resources out there:

Sukh’s event, Positive Psychology in Application, is taking place on Friday 24 April 2015 in Birmingham, UK. To find out more and to buy tickets, click here.


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