Tal Ben-Shahar on workplace productivity and psychology of leadership
Tal Ben-Shahar used to teach positive psychology 1504 and the psychology of leadership at Harvard University. These sought-after courses broadly covered the psychological aspects of life fulfilment, dealing with empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, spirituality, happiness and humour. In 2011, he co-founded Potentialife, a leadership development programme that uses science to help organizations develop ideal leadership behaviours and introduce positive psychology into their daily lives. He continues to teach at Harvard as visiting faculty.
Ben-Shahar has five books to his credit, including two that became immensely popular: Being Happy and Happier. His new book, The Joy Of Leadership: How Positive Psychology Can Maximize Your Impact (And Make You Happier) In A Challenging World, launched on 30 August.
In an email interview, he speaks about how organizations can harness positive psychology—and why we must force ourselves off our smartphone addiction. Edited excerpts:
How does positive psychology correlate with ambition and risk-taking?
Positive psychology is not about avoiding setbacks, failures and disappointments, but, rather, about providing the tools to better deal with these. In fact, individuals who apply positive psychology in their lives are more likely to take risks, put themselves on the line, and be ambitious. Why? Because they’re not daunted by the possibility of failure or setback. They can deal with it.
Job dissatisfaction across the world is high, especially for those above 35. Can your research help to make their work lives happier and more fulfilling?
Employees should identify and exercise their strengths. People who know and use their strengths are happier, more motivated, and more successful in the workplace. Strengths are things that we’re both good at and passionate about. Even a few extra minutes a day of exercising our strengths can go a long way in impacting overall well-being.
Among other things, regular physical exercise is key. Workouts—as little as three weekly sessions of 30 minutes each—have the same effect as our most powerful psychiatric medication. The workplace will be a happier place, a more creative place and a less stressful place if employees start a physical exercise regime.
I also encourage employees to take regular breaks during the day. Being “on" all the time is not helpful for the individual employee, nor for the organization. We need to recharge our psychological batteries. Creativity and productivity actually go down when there is no time for recovery throughout the day (15 minutes of downtime every hour or two), week (at least one day off), and year (a real vacation once every six or 12 months).
What are the three things that management teams can do to inject positive psychology in their companies?
Organizations would benefit a great deal if they encourage their employees to take breaks, to be physically active, and to exercise their strengths. Not only will job satisfaction go up, but so will creativity, productivity and retention. In addition to the above, the following can help: Provide what Harvard professor Amy Edmondson calls psychological safety, which is the confidence that no member of the team would be embarrassed or punished if she spoke out, asked for assistance, or failed in a specific task. When team leaders create a climate of psychological safety, when members feel comfortable “failing" and then sharing and discussing their mistakes, all members of the team can learn and improve. In contrast, when mistakes are concealed, learning is less likely to take place.
Also, express gratitude on a regular basis. Companies where leaders and employees appreciate their work—the progress that they have made—rather than take it for granted, actually do better. Connect employees to a sense of purpose. Those who experience meaning and commitment at work will work harder, do better, and stay longer.
Is there ever a danger of too much positive psychology?
There is the danger, for example, of focusing too much on one’s strengths to the point of ignoring weaknesses. Positive psychology is not about ignoring parts of reality. On the contrary. For too long, strengths have been ignored, and positive psychology is saying that they shouldn’t be. At the same time, weaknesses, and working on those, shouldn’t be ignored either.
“Working too hard" has got its own kind of bad rap. But what about people who feel happiest and most valued when they are working?
That is a good thing. I personally spend a lot of time at work, and love it. Labelling all people who spend a lot of time at work as workaholics is unhelpful and misleading. If I’m at work many hours because I’m running away from other things—such as dealing with the people closest to me—then that may be unhealthy. If, on the other hand, I’m spending many hours at work because it’s my passion, then that’s usually a good thing.
You advocate incrementalism as a powerful tool: that small changes can lead to significant benefits. In what kind of unhappiness situations would you recommend more dramatic interventions?
Dealing with addiction usually requires a dramatic intervention. Today screen addiction is a huge problem. I recommend forcing oneself to be off the screen (which includes the smartphone) for extended periods during the day. For example, when you get home at night, switch off, and spend quality time with friends or family. This will not just make you happier, it will also make you more creative and productive at work.
Shreyasi Singh has recently enrolled in Potentialife, a six-month programme based on the principles of positive leadership, delivered through a blend of technology and in-touch points.