Research Paper By David Braun
(Executive Coach, CANADA)
As a consultant who intervened and helped other leaders regularly, I had been intrigued by Positive Psychology Interventions (PPI). In 2000, when I first discovered PPI related readings, I was studying Psychology at university. I was drawn to the positive, humanistic approach to helping people perform better and live happier lives. Unfortunately, at the time I was informed by professors that Positive Psychology was fringe science and not reliable in helping people. Things have changed a lot in the last 20 years for me professionally and for the field of Psychology. In certifying as an ICF coach, I am expanding my ability to use PPIs in a coaching context in ways I could not do as a consultant. As well, in the Psychology field, there is a considerably more academic research and field application of Positive Psychology in diverse settings such as schools, clinical environments, with managers, leadership development, and the workplace. These are great developments in light of the massive changes leaders and organizations have experienced in the past two decades.
Today’s workplace is dynamic, stressful, conflict-ridden, and constantly changing. With new technologies, increased uncertainty and more diversity, managers and leader’s ability is being stretched to deal with ever-increasing stressful challenges. Although organizations have invested in restructuring, cutting edge technologies, and increased incentive strategies, pressures continue to rise while performance levels haven’t changed. What can leaders do to deal with this challenge? An adage relates to the problem, “You can’t take people where you haven’t been yourself.” Similarly, a leader’s ability to effectively and sustainably manage the well-being of their team members’ performance and greater organizational performance is linked to how well they can manage their performance and ultimately their well-being. When personal well-being is flourishing, a leader’s resilience, optimism, problem-solving, and creativity is optimized.
Individual well-being has been explored and researched in the Positive Psychology field. This field of study focuses on well-being and happiness versus the traditional Psychology focus of pathology and pain. Consequently, PPI has grown in popularity among practitioners and leadership/ life coaches because it claims to help individuals develop personal capacities for increases in well-being. PPI includes a variety of techniques and tools for helping individuals develop their own positive emotions, experiences, and character strengths. This approach allows leaders to expand their personalized spectrum of abilities through the ongoing influence of happiness and purpose.
I believe the PP interventions allow coaches to help leaders with customized exercises to develop their internal capacity, therefore increasing their effectiveness and performance at work. This is possible with many types of PPI’s available to a coach. Some popular interventions include humor, gratitude, building character strengths, optimism, mindfulness, kindness, and active-constructive responding. Because PPI is client-centered, solution-focused, it fits well with the coaching philosophy of being client-centered with a focus on supporting a client to move forward in their discoveries of solutions that work for them. PPI’s are tools available to coaches in helping assist and support clients as they learn to master their strengths and grow their well-being, therefore propelling them into greater levels of excellence as leaders.
What is PPI?
After World War II, most of Psychology focused on studying and correcting pathologies. It was out of this focus, humanistic psychologists looked to move beyond pathologies to more positive aspects of human nature. From the 1950s to the 1980s, psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Eric Fromm pioneered more person-centered approaches to theoretical understanding and clinical interventions. During this time positive psychology was not at the center of academic study in the Psychology field. However, by the 1990s the stage was set for a gradual flow of enlightening theories and works to be published, bringing positive Psychology into greater focus and interest. Although not in any way an exhaustive list, a few examples of popular titles include works such as Csikszentmihaleyi’s 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience; Seligman’s 2002 book, Authentic Happiness; Peterson & Seligman’s 2004 book, Character Strengths, and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification; Boniwell’s 2012 book, Positive Psychology In a Nutshell: The Science of Happiness.
One of the major academic voices in Psychology for Positive Psychology is Martin Seligman, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. According to Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. Model of Happiness, everyone can find meaning and fulfillment through incorporating the following five elements: Positive emotions of optimism and enjoyment; Engagement or finding flow in work activities; Relationships with healthy love, intimacy, and social connection; Meaning or living with a sense of purpose in life; Accomplishments through the achievement of goals that produce pride.
Over the past couple of decades, several interventions in Positive Psychology research and practice have been developed to help individuals build happiness, fulfillment, and purpose into their lives. Based on a client’s goals PPIs can be grouped into seven categories. They are the following:
- Savoring PPI’s involve helping the client more fully connect with the perceptions of various experiences (i.e. eating, smelling, etc.). The understanding behind this intervention is that an individual’s ability to fully consciously attend to little experiences builds self-satisfaction and well-being.
- Kindness Interventions involve the client’s willful gestures of compassion and care for others. Studies show that happiness and kindness are complementary to each other.
- Empathy PPI’s focuses on strengthening relational bonds through developing self-love, communication skills, and greater perceptual awareness. The premise behind this intervention is that having and maintaining healthy relationships is foundational for a person’s well-being.
- Optimism Interventions work toward helping individuals increase the positivity of their view of the future. Exercises such as “The Best Possible Self” work by leading individuals to imagining and experiencing their best possible outcomes in the future.
- Gratitude Interventions can include either self-reflection or interactive expressions of gratefulness to others. Studies show that regularly practicing gratitude dramatically increases satisfaction and positive emotions in recipients and those expressing gratefulness.
- Strength-building Interventions help individuals gain a sense of their internal capabilities. Studies show this intervention has helped individuals deal with depression, as well as helping individuals recognize and value their internal resources in challenging circumstances.
- Meaning PPI’s focus on helping individuals understand what brings meaning to them. Often this includes building realistic goals and expectations. Studies reveal that individuals with clarity on their goals tend to be more confident and content with their lives.
When one or more of these types of PPI’s are deployed, they can help raise an individual’s happiness, contentment, and positive outlook. With these increasing internal benefits, a person’s ability to be resilient, creative, and happy can help leaders and managers raise their influence and be more skillful with managing tasks and people, ultimately accomplishing their goals.
Potential Weakness of PPI?
Regardless of past results, PPI has its critics. Not surprisingly, because Positive Psychology is a growing field, critics point to the lack of empirical evidence or in some cases lack of rigor of past studies conducted. Although there have been some valuable scientific studies in the field, there remains a need for more research to avoid the mistake of creating a false view that one size fits all. However, in the past 20 years, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of published studies with increasing reliability, validity, and applicability. In fact, since 2010 after the University of Pennsylvania introduced the first Masters of Applied Psychology degree, over 80 respected universities have faculty that have expressed interest in pursuing research on PPIs.
Another observation by critics is the positive-only focus of the field, which can create limitations on who can benefit from Positive Psychology interventions. Critics claim PPI’s oversimplifies and carries a superficial “happiology” prescription to complex and harsh life realities. While Positive Psychology doesn’t dismiss complexity and trauma, ongoing research of the impact of PPI’s employed responsibly shows impressive and encouraging results. The intervention of positive thoughts, feelings, and actions on the human nervous system, individual’s subjective happiness set points, long-term health, education performance, work performance, and organizational cultural indicators, is showing PPIs are helpful and beneficial. As the field continues to grow empirical evidence may continue to reveal how Positive Psychology interventions significantly affect clients at multiple levels.
Benefits of Using PPI in Coaching
- Leadership coaching with PPI could help leaders to expand their internal resources in difficult, stressful work environments. This is important for coaching clients as they pursue their personal transformation goals in their coaching journey. Maintaining positive emotions and an optimistic outlook can help leaders be more mindful in managing stress at work. This, in turn, helps leaders remain grounded and resilient in their decision-making, planning, and execution.
- There is some evidence that coaching leaders using PPI’s can help individuals develop a growth mindset. Leaders functioning with a growth mindset, are more likely to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, invest in sustained efforts, learn from criticism or mistakes, including learning from other successful leaders or role models. The growth mindset not only helps leaders to better performance, but it provides direct reports solid modeling of healthy professional habits.
- Managers and/ or leaders impacted through PPI’s during their coaching journey, may be able to recognize and internalize the importance of people finding meaning in their work and its connection to their happiness and work performance. This link between work and meaning is a helpful guide for leaders during the talent management process, encouraging recruitment and hiring of new employees whose personal purpose and values align with organizational purpose and values.
- Coaching with Positive Psychology gives an executive coach a flexible framework to customize solutions based on the client’s leadership development journey. Positive Psychology provides a framework involving empowering concepts such as helping a leader know and live out of their character strengths (values); making mindful choices toward increasing their well-being (P.E.R.M.A.) and understanding their unique arousal-performance balance toward optimal functioning.
- Employee engagement is a major problem for leaders and managers. Leadership coaching with evidence-based PPI’s helps influence a new standard of leadership. As a leader grows in self-awareness, learning to maintain positive thoughts and feelings, new leadership behaviors can begin to form. Furthermore, as leaders learn to develop and lead out of their unique character strengths, their experiences increase their understandings of how to help employees develop and work from their strengths, potentially increasing engagement levels.
Collectively, PPI’s deployed during coaching may help move individuals leadership standard from a task-focused, compliance-based, transactional management approach to a development-focused, vitality based, transformational management style. This new style of leadership helps shift an employee’s connection, raising engagement levels, increasing organizational results, therefore, elevating quality, quantity, ethics, teamwork, and effectiveness.
In most cases, leading and managing others’ performance is a difficult position. We’ve all heard the mantra, “it’s lonely at the top”. However, actively managing oneself toward happiness and fulfillment, gives the power to lead differently. Regularly investing in activities proven to increase optimism, elevated workflow, nurturing healthy relationships while raising a meaningful sense of personal mission, helps to equip leaders to thrive in difficult circumstances.
Clients moving toward a goal or transformational target require increased self-understanding, perspective shifts, and changes in a personal capacity as they patiently work and move forward. PPI’s are one of many tools, coaches can use to empower and support clients as they journey toward their intentions or goals.
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