Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Applying Positive Psychology

Extracts from a recent interview I did:

Tell me about the beginning of your career.

Until recently, I have had quite a typical career since joining as an analyst with a global professional services firm in London in 1998. I did a transfer to our South African office, then, after getting my MBA I transferred to New York in 2004 as project manager. I have enjoyed looking at the future of the fresh soup market, modelling the profitability of supermarket customers, going down a coal mine underground for nine months, looking at toothpaste innovations and investigating the economics of NASCAR sponsorship. Pretty standard stuff.

At the same time I have always been fascinated with people development. As a Consultant I started toying with the idea of being an Executive Coach, so I enrolled in a 3 week intensive training program. It was interesting but not my calling – so back to case work it was. I remember managing a particularly ruthless travel case doing tech strategy for a multi-national client. I was at the airport when I picked up a copy of Time magazine that had a cover story on the science of happiness. The idea of taking a data-driven approach to individuals was intriguing (what has actually been proven to make us successful and happy). There was only one academic Masters course teaching it globally - at the University of Pennsylvania. I spoke to my wife and realized I had to apply. So I walked into to our New York HR Partner’s office the following morning and offered my resignation.

What made you decide to study positive psychology and what actually is it?

Positive psychology is the empirical science of what goes right in life. Traditional psychology is more focused on mental illness not well-being. Happiness has traditionally been left to religions, philosophers and self-help authors– science has been silent on the topic. That has recently stated to change. For example, thanks to empirically-valid studies we now know:
Ø Optimistic people are much less likely to die of heart attacks than pessimists, controlling for all known physical risk factors
Ø Externalities (e.g., weather, money, health, marriage, religion) totaled together account for no more than 15% of the variance in life satisfaction.
Ø The pursuit of meaning and engagement are much more predictive of life satisfaction than the pursuit of pleasure.
Ø Self-discipline is twice as good a predictor of high school grades as IQ.
So I went to study my Masters at uPenn, learning from the academics & researchers who are at the forefront of this emerging field.

What is your role at your company now?

I thought I would have to resign, however my company had other ideas. I was very surprised how keen they were to support me. They asked me to craft a role in Global Human Capital where I could focus on helping teams be more effective with clients and have more successful experiences & outcomes. Specifically I am charged with improving our culture of apprenticeship & coaching.

So far, what change that you have driven are you most proud of?

One of the first projects I undertook was to take a data-driven approach to team outcomes. We have a database of ~17,000 project teams and over half a million data points that nobody had ever looked at. We quickly were able to establish which questions were actually predictive of high team satisfaction and which strategically important questions were missing. With the support of the global office heads we piloted and then rolled out a radically simplified team survey. It’s by no means perfect, but we think it team will be less likely to get stuck in ‘analysis-paralysis’. It will help focus their attention of what are the key drivers in our client outcomes and team satisfaction. It’s a only small change but it cost nothing and no teams were subjected to any touchy-feely training sessions.

How do you think that things you have learned will be most useful where applied to the corporate world?
Studying Positive Psychology made me appreciate how well my company already does many things. That said, one of my big learnings was that ‘success’ and ‘happiness’ are two distinct concepts. There are plenty of ‘happy’ people who achieve little and many highly visible successful people who feel empty inside. Like most people at my company, I want it all. Now I realize both these concepts have different underlying drivers and they need to be tackled with different tools. Currently there is no corporate toolkit for individuals. My vision is to help build this new toolkit over the coming years.

Another big lesson for me was how we get confused between pleasure, challenge and meaning. These are some of the main drivers of happiness. By looking at the employee survey we found that teams reporting high impact but had ‘unsustainable lifestyles’ were significantly happier than teams with ‘sustainable lifestyles’ but no impact & challenge. My colleagues love a challenge. In the moment we often want the easier option (more pleasure, less challenge) but if we get it we quickly become bored.

What are the most helpful ‘quick fixes’ that would make people feel better if they are a bit down?
Do everything you can to establish a good relationship with who you are working for. Our analysis showed it’s all about who you work. This, I realise, is not in your hands. Forget the individual project, the industry, its duration – they are pretty insignificant. At the start of the project put in extra effort to get off on the right foot. This might sound cheesy but I always tell my boss that I want to help them be successful (and actually mean it when I say that), then I tell them that I’d would really appreciate it if they give me feedback on my performance. For me just saying this seems to work. If it’s not working then I try to ask them about it, for example “Hey, I feel like we are not communicating that well. What can I do to help here?”. This acknowledges the issue but is not accusatory in tone.
Don’t trust your feelings. When we are feeling stressed or miserable it’s incredibly hard to imagine we ever felt differently or will ever feel good again. That said our moods pass much more quickly than we think. We think about resigning. Friends tell us to listen to our gut and trust our feelings. This is terrible advice as our mood completely clouds our judgment. Practically, exercise is one of the best proven ways to feel better, even just fifteen minutes.
Know what gives you energy and do more of that: this might sound trite but one of the simplest exercises you can is to write down 2 headings on a piece of paper. Column 1 write “Things I like doing” and column 2, “Things I don’t like doing”. I love being creative, and project work often didn’t provide enough of an outlet for that. So each year, even when I am underwater with work, I help to organize our summer offsite meeting. It makes a huge difference to my sense of well-being
Keep a journal of what goes well: one of the most consistent findings in positive psychology is that writing down at the end of each day what went well has large effects on happiness. It builds over time, I did this for a week and didn’t think anything of it. Then about three weeks in I started waking up feeling more energized. When I walked to work I started noticing the trees, the people on the subway, the beauty of the world. A cynical New York manager recently told me that she had done this now for two years and it was single thing that had made the biggest difference in her life.

Are you enjoying what you are doing?

All things considered, I am enjoying what I do and excited at the challenges ahead. Form time to time I get stressed and have to focus on taking a few deep breathes and going on a walk around the block.

No comments: