Jill Smerkers is vice president of professional services at Positively Partners in Boston.
Cultivating sustained performance among employees requires paying attention to their engagement. Promoting employees’ happiness and well-being, criteria for engagement, can feel like just another burden placed on managers. But a simple framework derived from the field of positive psychology can make it happen.
Research in the field of positive psychology has identified many of the key behaviors and mindsets that can lead us toward our best lives. It has shown that mindfulness, positivity, and growth mindset are factors that promote happiness, a sense of fulfillment, reduced stress, and greater overall well-being. Far from the latest self-help fad, positive psychology offers leaders insights that can be used to drive better business outcomes by cultivating sustained peak performance in workers.
Martin Seligman, one of the pioneers in positive psychology, identified a formula for human flourishing. PERMA provides a robust, yet surprisingly simple, framework that can be applied by leaders to focus on the right things to help employees consistently do their best.
Together, the factors that constitute PERMA—positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment— have been shown to unbridle creativity, amplify employee productivity, and improve relationships between staff and their managers. Best of all, they are easy enough to implement today.
Positive emotion: Bolster employee happiness. As basic as it sounds, positive emotion is about creating opportunities for employees to feel good at work, and to savor feelings of success, happiness, and friendship when they occur. Studies have shown that employee happiness drives business outcomes such as profitability and efficiency—possibly by multiples of two or more. This makes promoting employee happiness a key strategic consideration for business leaders.
Studies have shown that employee happiness drives business outcomes such as profitability and efficiency—possibly by multiples of two or more. This makes promoting employee happiness a key strategic consideration for leaders.
Engagement: Know and leverage your employees’ strengths. Each of us is born with a unique collection of strengths. Our top strengths, known as signature strengths, are identified by both the quality of our performance in the discipline and the energy we gain when we work on tasks that draw on the strength. So, it makes sense for us to focus on work that uses our signature strengths as much as possible. Learning your own signature strengths, and those of your colleagues and direct reports, is the first step in better leveraging the innate abilities that exist in us and on our teams. Managers can promote staff engagement by matching employees’ strengths with suitable tasks and responsibilities. The free VIA Strengths Profile is a great tool that can help each of us better recognize and use our strengths to drive sustained peak performance.
Relationships: Build meaningful connections. Humans are social animals whose well-being and performance are deeply affected by the people with whom we interact. It is with our colleagues that we have the opportunity to share our successes, reflect on our failures, and ask for compassion and support. The quality of the connections we foster at work has been shown to have a profound impact on our health and the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in our bodies.
Learning how to listen, receive, and incorporate feedback is a powerful tool that fosters trust, encourages transparency, and demonstrates the power of a perspective different than your own. Similarly, the ability to have open and genuine conversations with colleagues, managers, and direct reports can have a profound impact on your performance—and that of your organization.
Meaning: Find your sense of purpose. Understanding the greater impact of our work and how it intersects with our sense of purpose can help us find meaning and greater joy in the tasks we perform each day. Helping employees to feel part of something bigger than themselves can spur them to persevere through challenges and deepen their sense of loyalty to the organization.
Associations and leaders can help employees feel a deeper connection to their work by pairing the organizational mission with aspirational imagery and then discussing it together. A good example of this type of imagery is Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote, “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.” This image can be seen in the mind's eye and is a goal that everyone can work toward. Once an image of the mission is crystallized, managers can help individual staff to recognize how their contributions promote the achievement of the mission, and how that achievement is a personal win for the employee as well as the organization.
Accomplishment: Document achievements and growth. Traditional annual or biannual reviews with forms full of checkboxes fail to nurture and accelerate employee performance and growth. We need a new process through which employees help set performance goals and then participate in an open, two-way discussion with their managers. Managers can then celebrate successes with employees and promote learning opportunities in safety by acting as a coach or facilitator of success rather than as someone judging their performance.
While some of these strategies and approaches may feel like common sense, they are often missing from managerial toolkits. Developing an approach to talent management that incorporates PERMA will help ensure that employees are giving their best—and are happy to do so.