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Q&A | Sarah Lewis

The state of mind of the people who make up an organization decides the well-being of the organization. Grounded in psychology and management research, Sarah Lewis’ new book Positive Psychology at Work offers insights on creating appreciative and positive cultures at work. Lewis is an associated fellow of the British Psychological Society and the managing director of Appreciating Change, a business psychology change consultancy in the UK, where she works as a facilitator and consultant.

Feel-good: Some people are able to energize and inspire others in even the briefest of interactions.

At face value, positive psychology can be taken to mean positive thinking. How are they different?

Positive thinking has a different and separate history to positive psychology and it is unfortunate that they are sometimes confused. Positive thinking, at heart, believes that positive affirmations, “I am a millionaire", “I am beautiful", “I am successful", and so on will cause that state to come to pass. Presently this set of beliefs is reflected in the “ask the universe" movement. There is some unarticulated psychology present in this form of superstitious thinking but essentially positive thinking is highly unscientific; worse, it can be dangerous to health and well-being. The most obvious pernicious effect of this thinking is when those unfortunate enough to suffer from fatal diseases are instructed to “think their way to health" through only thinking positive thoughts. When this advice leads people to neglect seeking out medical advice, it slips from “alternative" to highly unethical, in my view.

Positive Psychology at Work:Wiley-Blackwell,246 pages, $39.95 (around 1,970).

Positive psychology is a science-based approach interested in understanding how people and institutions achieve a state of flourishing. Among the things we have learnt as various researchers have got to grips with questions such as “What are good emotions good for?" is that the factors that contribute to success, enjoyment, excellence, vitality, well-being, etc., are not the absence of, or the polar opposite of, the factors that contribute to poor states. In other words, we need to do different things, behave differently, to be able to flourish in our lives rather than just escape languishing in life.

Appreciative Inquiry has come to be recognized as development methodology. What does it mean?

Appreciative Inquiry is an organizational development approach developed by David Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University, US. Based on an understanding of the organization as a living human system, it takes a social dynamics approach to achieving change, recognizing that both stability and change are properties of how we talk and relate to each other on a daily basis. Appreciative Inquiry emphasizes people as emotional, imaginative, and relational and works with these features of our common humanity. In this it stands in contrast to most change management approaches that perceive the organization to be essentially a rational problem to be solved. Appreciative Inquiry shares with positive psychology an interest in the effect on people and groups of positivity—feeling good—and of playing to strengths. They share an interest in creating abundance as well as reducing deficit.

There seems to be a direct relation between positive psychology and performance at work.

A number of features have been identified through positive psychology research as positively affecting work performance. Feeling good is a key one. When we experience positive emotions—excitement, amusement, awe, passion—our brains are flooded with serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters. What this means, in effect, is that our brains are able to work better, faster, deeper. We are able to deal with more complexity and ambiguity. We are more creative, we learn faster. In addition, we become more sociable. Generally these states are assets at work.

Understanding and using our strengths is another. When people are using their strengths, they are more energized, they find things easier to do: They are engaged. Experiencing states of flow means that people are working at their full capacity. Using positive psychology we can also affect general health and well-being and resilience, these are also key to performance in challenging environments and times.

It’s scientific: Sarah Lewis.

If you can leave everyone who works with you feeling better after their interaction with you than before, you are well on the way. Research in this area has tracked the energy networks of organizations, and also explored high-quality interactions. It is clear that some people have the ability to energize and inspire others in even the briefest of interactions. Use your micro-moments to build relationships. In general, it is good advice to be helpful, generous and supportive. Behaving like this is good for you and for the recipient.

We are often told to separate our personal and professional lives. But our emotions tend to reflect in everything we do. How does positive psychology help in channelling emotions?

Most of the time, we can operate as if work and home were separate spheres, and this is the way both our partners and our bosses tend to like it. But as we all know, events in one sphere regularly spill over into the other, particularly in their emotional effects. Positive psychology offers the observation that negative emotions —anger, despair, fear, frustration—are important as they tell us something is wrong and needs attending to. However, they are a poor fuel for producing anything much other than fight, flight, or freeze behaviour. Learning how to get ourselves into a more positive emotional state allows us to access a whole load of other behaviours and resources to help us work creatively and productively with the situation. So yes, emotions are an important fuel for our energy and motivation, and different emotions produce a different kind of fuel.


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