Using Positive Psychology to Build Employee Engagement

Simon Davies of Ipsos LEAD looks at how organisations can use applied psychology to boost employee engagement.

The author(s)
  • Simon Davies Ipsos LEAD, UK
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In a time of constant change, more than ever before, clients agree that employees make the crucial difference when it comes to creativity, organisational effectiveness, and ultimately business success. But what exactly can business leaders do to ensure that their employees remain motivated and engaged? Which working conditions reliably encourage employees to give it their all, to go the extra mile and persist in the face of adversity?

Step forward, ‘Positive Psychology’ – an emergent field of Applied Psychology concerning “the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions” (Gable & Haidt, 2005).

Psychology more generally has often been criticised as being primarily dedicated to addressing ‘disorder’ or ‘problems’, of a physical and mental nature - a negative trend that has also transcended into the workplace.

In my experience, organisational structures have relied too heavily in the past on management control and the economic principles of cost reduction and efficiency to inform business decisions. However, this focus has begun to shift in more recent years to include ‘Human Capital’. The most successful businesses require their employees to show initiative, to collaborate well with others, to take responsibility and to commit to high quality performance standards. Employees need to feel enthused by the work that they do. In other words, authentic employee engagement has to come first.

Clearly, employee contribution becomes a critical business issue, because in trying to produce more output with less employee input, “companies have no choice but to try and engage not only the body but the mind and soul of every employee” (Ulrich, 1997).

This objective may seldom be achieved through the traditional work paradigm, which dictates: hard work comes first, success follows, and happiness ensues as a direct result. This formula is typically ineffective however; every time we experience success the goalposts change so that we’re continually pushing our happiness over the horizon.

Through this lens, prevailing work approaches are also limited to preventative measures to tackle and suppress poor performance and diminished motivation. Something more is needed – a radical shift, whereby positive organisational behaviour takes centre stage. And this is where Positive Psychology enters the fold.

Positive Psychology flips the switch on our traditional approach to work.  Suddenly our focus is on enhancing positivity first.  Hard work will then follow and business success will be achieved as a direct result.

Advances in Positive Psychology and Neuroscience, over the last two decades, have created a strong body of evidence to support the notion that a positive state is a precursor to success, rather than the result of such success. These findings certainly help explain why employee engagement is a true lead indicator of organisational performance.

So how can managers use positivity to build employee engagement?

Our research at Ipsos LEAD indicates that managers need only make a few slight adjustments in their approach. Specifically, by targeting the three greatest predictors of happiness as a team: Optimism (the belief that your behaviour will eventually make a difference), social connection, and how we perceive stress (as a challenge or as a threat). If we want to raise engagement through happiness we must adjust both our mind-set and our behaviour. Here’s five simple things you and your managers can do right now:

  1. Bring Gratitude – write down three new things each week that members of your team have contributed that you are grateful for, and share this with them
  2. Write – keep a record of positive experiences ready for team meetings – encourage your team to do the same
  3. Encourage - members of your team to take time away from their desk (to go for a walk or take a moment to think deeply uninterrupted)
  4. Engage - in random acts of kindness (lend assistance to a member of your team or ask if they need support)
  5. Maintain balance – research indicates that for every critical expression, three positive expressions must be made. This ratio of 3.0 – known as the Losada Line (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005) - has been highly correlated with overall engagement.

While these changes may seem slight, they have been linked with a tenfold increase in employee engagement (Achor, HBR, 2012), in some of the world’s most successful organisations, including KPMG, Nationwide and UBS.

The author(s)
  • Simon Davies Ipsos LEAD, UK