06 Apr 2018
Leadership and the Multiplier Effect
There is strong evidence that leader behavior is related to employee happiness. For example, charismatic leadership is strongly related to subordinate job satisfaction (DeGroot et al. 2000), and leader-member relationships is also strongly related to job satisfaction and organizational commitment (Gerstner and Day 1997). Likewise, trust in the leader is a strong predictor of satisfaction and commitment (Dirks and Ferrin 2002) as is the appropriate level of autonomy displayed by leaders (Baard et al. 2004). According to research by Sy et al (2005) positive managers are more accurate and careful in decision making as well as being more personally effective and imbuing those around them with greater positivity too. Crucially, Kopelman et al (2006) suggest the positive leaders create upward emotional spirals which help colleagues cope better with change.
Thus, if there was one thing an organisation could do to foster engagement it would be to have flourishing leaders. Stated in the opposite way, the point seems more stark; if it is the leaders who are disengaged then the organisation is very unlikely to flourish.
Flourishing: the source
In its simplest form, positive psychology is about accruing a body of knowledge that is useful to people who want to live a good, happy and long life. Reflecting on the entirety of this study, it could be stated that positive psychology comprises much more than ‘positive thinking’ but that it perhaps starts with positive thinking.
Further, just as an individual’s personal experience of being at their best reveals their potential, so the study of flourishing in an organisation reveals the highest potential of the whole organisation. Cameron et al (2003) suggest that excellence always exists, even in the most dysfunctional organisations. The ‘secret’ lies in tapping into the source – the positive core, the people - resulting in higher levels of engagement, motivation and productivity.
This opens up a deeper line of enquiry – how does the organisation tap into this positive core? The debate between the sources of eudemonia and hedonism is, arguably, unnecessary. The research literature is rife with examples of where the two entwine. Indeed, pairing pleasurable emotions in the ‘here and now’ (hedonic) with adaptive activities that will sustain future happiness (eudemonic) is evolution’s way of ensuring that humans engage in the behaviours necessary for our survival (deWall, 1996). Perhaps therefore, the distinction between the two should be about their roots.
Flourishing at work is an umbrella concept that includes a large number of constructs ranging from transient moods and emotions at the person level to aggregate attitudes at the unit level. In the workplace, happiness is influenced by both short-lived events and conditions inherent in the task, job and organization. It is further complicated by influences at individual level such as personality and the fit between what the job/organization provides and the individual's expectations, needs and preferences. Understanding these contributors to happiness, together with recent research on volitional actions to improve happiness, offer some potential levers for improving happiness at work.
Flourishing People Create Flourishing Organisations
Masten (2001) describes flourishing as ‘ordinary magic’, suggesting that it is available to everyone. It is important to note that the benefits of feeling good are not because such feelings allow individuals to play down, ignore of distort negative information. Rather positive affect leads people to be able to consider many aspects of a situation simultaneously, make evaluations and choose behaviours responsive to the situation. Gaffney (2011) suggests there are four elements of flourishing: challenge, connectivity, autonomy and using one’s valued competencies. Further, Gaffney suggests these core components are enhanced by what is termed a ‘mental life’, an alignment of an individual’s thinking and feeling that are on the same wavelength. Gaffney’s point is that it is easy to explain goals, purpose and values in a cognitive way. In many organisations, values posters adorn the walls. In my role as a trainer, I have had rather too many discussions with exasperated managers, paraphrased along the lines of ‘They [the employees] don’t get it! They are not living by the values on the posters!’ And herein lies the point; to function at one’s best one needs to feel a connection and however positive the organisational environment, however interesting the work and however transformational the leadership style, these will merely increase the odds of engagement. True and long lasting engagement has an internal source which lies within an array of attitudinal choices and mental constructs created by the individual.
It is hoped that most staff will have experienced feelings of engagement. For some staff, these feelings arise circumstantially; they are effectively waiting for the right conditions in which to engage. The flourishing employees are less inclined to wait. Instead, they tap into a set of intentional strategies which allow them to take personal responsibility for feeling good. Further, these within person strategies, when written down, appear to be simple and straight-forward. One suspects that the biggest single factor highlighted by this study, that of consciously and deliberately choosing to be positive, stands out as common sense. However this research has uncovered that such strategies are by no means common practice. It may be that one can become psychologically disconnected from one’s best self. The busyness agenda and impediments of modern life (discussed in chapter 1) have resulted in a reactive approach to life rather than an introspective (inside-out) approach that is conducive to flourishing.
Just as the key to individual flourishing is to understand and put effort into function at our best, so it is with organisations. The traditional organisational focus has been on deficit management, eliminating weaknesses and solving problems. This is important, but flourishing organisations must go further and, according to Cameron (2013), they must focus on what is ‘positively deviant’, i.e., what is ‘outstanding’, what is already working and what is world class. In line with Cooperrider’s (2005) work on Appreciative Inquiry, this provides a dramatic shift of focus.
The Cult of Happiness
What exactly is ‘organisational culture’? Cameron (2013) suggests it refers to taken for granted values, expectations, collective memories and implicit meanings that define an organisation’s core identity and behaviour. Thus, ‘culture’ reflects the prevailing ideology that people carry inside their heads. It provides unwritten and usually unspoken guidelines for what is acceptable and what is not. The wider point of creating an organisational culture conducive to flourishing is that an organisation cannot ‘force’ an employee to be engaged. Thus, by implication, the suggestion is that the organisation alone cannot create a culture of engagement because ‘engagement’ is partly an internal concept. Therefore if push motives such as ‘forcing’ are out, it may be that pull motives such as ‘allowing’ or ‘encouraging’ are in.
Being religious is associated with elevated happiness. In a survey of 163,000 people in 14 European countries, 84% of church goers rated as ‘very satisfied’ with life compared with 77% of non-church goers (Inglehart, 1990). The suggestion is that religion provides a framework of meaning as well as a collective identity and a reliable social network for people with like-minded views and values. Thus, ultimately, it is the strong social connections that provide happiness in a religious context. The result is the rather powerful effect whereby individuals give up their weekends to attend their place of workshop, for free. While religion was not born out as a major factor in happiness in this study, there exists a wider analogy. It may be that the challenge for organisational designers is to create a similar cohesiveness, akin to a ‘spiritual home’ where, instead of religion, employees are bonded by a common purpose and/or pervading sense of ‘why?’ The organisation creates a sense of community where high quality connections are the norm and where individual employees are playing to their strengths. In short, the challenge is to create a culture in which employees want to be part of something worthwhile and where engagement is not forced, but rather, it flows. Continuing the religious metaphor, it may be that this sense of higher purpose and internal buy-in is, indeed, a more enlightened way to create flourishing organisations.
The relatively stable basic affective state of happiness refers to the momentary level of happiness that an individual typically experiences - the individual’s ‘set point’ (Williams & Thompson, 1993). The implication is that this component ensures that different individuals may experience different levels of happiness when all other factors are held constant. Although all individuals can experience a range of emotions at different intensities, there is a tendency for these to return to their idiosyncratic ‘set point’ (Diener et al., 2006).
Diener et al (2006) argue that one’s happiness set point is determined by the individual’s sense of identity which is in turn determined by their psychology. In short, most people think like the person they perceive themselves to be (e.g., victims get stuck in ‘learned helplessness’, winners have a winning mentality, confident people behave confidently, etc.) The question therefore arises, is it possible to change one’s mental habits and/or one’s sense of personal identity? The concept of neuro-plasticity (Goleman, et al, 2003) suggests the brain is always learning. Siegel (2007) states that “Where attention goes, neurons fire. And where neurons fire, they can re-wire” (p. 291). This capacity for the brain to be reconfigured opens up the possibility for genuine and permanent personal change
If one’s brain has an element of neuroplasticity it may be that the ‘set point’ is nothing more than a ‘familiar point’. It raises the possibility that with some mental dexterity and a little effort, one may be able to alter one’s ‘normal’ or ‘familiar’ level of happiness. In terms of this study, the NonH+ mean happiness is 6.77 (sd = 1.41, std error mean = 0.07) and the H+ mean is 8.29 (sd = 0.51, std error mean = 0.75). Thus, inquiring into the mental strategies of the H+ group and applying them to the NonH+ group could conceivably result in an increase in the ‘set point’ of 22.5%. As argued in earlier chapters, the knock-on behavioural effects of such an increase would achieve significant business results.
This comment, taken from an H+ respondent, provides a succinct account of the main findings of the difference between the H+ and NonH+ respondents: “I see the world differently to them.” (male, organisation W)
Thus if reality depends, at least in part, on how one views it, it becomes less of a surprise that external circumstances account for only 10% of total happiness (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schade 2005). Indeed, Lyubormirsky (2007) prefers the phrase “creation or construction of happiness” to the more popular “pursuit of happiness” “since research shows that it’s in our power to fashion it for ourselves.” (p. 15)
Further, if ‘reality’ is linked to mind-set and self-identity, then Dweck’s (2006) work on fixed and growth mind-sets becomes more salient. Dweck purports that those of fixed mind-set believe their capabilities are already set whereas a growth mind-set is conducive to self-improvement through effort. Dweck suggests that a growth mind-set is not dismissive of innate abilities, recognising that “although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience” (p. 12). Further, Dweck purports that those with fixed mind-sets often miss opportunities for improvement and consistently underperform while those with a growth mind-set watch their abilities move ever upward.
Cultivating Organisational ‘Games-Makers’
Organisational culture is one of the most important predictors of high levels of performance over time (Cameron et al, 2011) and for ‘culture’ one should read ‘people’. Organisations that flourish have developed a ‘culture of abundance’ (Cameron 2013) which builds the collective capabilities of all members. It is characterized by the presence of numerous positive energisers throughout the system, including embedded virtuous practices, adaptive learning, meaningfulness, profound purpose, engaged members and positive leadership. Various studies point to abundance culture and organisational success (Cameron, Mora, Leutscher & Calaro 2011; Cameron & Plews 2012)
Achor (2013) uses the term ‘franchising success’; identify something that is simple and easy to copy. Achor uses the example of the ‘10/5 principle’, supplanted from the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain to an American hospital. This simple notion of smiling at anyone who comes within 10 feet and making eye contact and giving a positive greeting to anyone within 5 feet is cited as an example of ‘franchising success’. And while sceptics might point to the 10/5 principle is cosmetic, false or, indeed, overly American in tone, Achor reports a different reality. When the behaviour becomes contagious it changes the reality and the feeling of the hospital. Achor reports that staff were smiling and this was ‘franchised’ to patients and visitors. Crucially, this new behaviour became normalised, embedded in the hospital’s culture.
It is difficult to find British examples. Although not examined academically, anecdotal evidence exists within the London 2012 Olympic games-makers. Volunteering to give up their own time, with a clear vision to make London 2012 the best ever games, they are perhaps the outstanding British example of franchising positive affect.
Positive Psychology: The right science for the wrong reasons?
Reflecting on 5 years of study and taking the learning in the round, it is difficult not to have a nagging doubt about the upsurge of interest in the science of positive psychology. The business imperative is strong and this may be the source of my doubt. It could be that positive psychology is the right philosophy but for the wrong reasons. Organisational behaviourists are using the science of happiness and well-being to create workplaces that are engaging and fun, where people can experience a sense of meaning and value. The underlying public sector mantra that lies behind the science is that by creating these conditions, employees will therefore work harder. In austere times, maintaining levels of service with fewer staff is the cost-efficient Utopia of squeezing ‘more from less’. And while this makes perfect sense at one level, treating people well because it is good for the bottom line is, perhaps, the wrong reason for treating them well.
In the recommendations, I spoke of a more enlightened way of conducting organisational behaviour. Enlightened organisations may be the ones who take a leap of faith and conspire to treat employees well because that is absolutely the right thing to do.
This research points to happiness being a conflux of genetics, circumstances and internal strategies. According to Lyubormirsky (2007), the ‘circumstances’ element of the happiness pie is a rather insignificant 10%. Therefore, tweaking the structure, altering the appraisal system, or providing gym membership and a dress-down Friday, are all having a tiny effect on individual happiness. Much more salient are the mental habits that employees choose (or do not choose) to bring to work. This points to organisational culture spreading in a more viral way, because happiness and its contagion is about sustaining new thinking and behaviours, rather than processes.
Rather than command and control, this is more about influencing people to want to change. Statistical analysis suggests the data for this study is reliable. Thus, I can confidently state that a sense of personal choice stands as a central tenet of flourishing. The organisation may well engender this sense of personal choice if it is seen to be doing things for the right reasons. Therefore, the focus naturally shifts towards ‘meaning’. The H+ community feels a very strong sense of meaning and purpose which is reflected in flourishing behaviours. The hyper-dyadic nature of affective contagion means that other employees will ‘catch’ the new feelings and behaviours. This points towards a paradigm shift away from culture change being a ‘top down’ or even a ‘bottom up’ process, towards an ‘inside-out’ phenomenon.
There is a dichotomy at the heart of positive psychology. The science is both supremely complex and effortlessly simple. The pig iron quotation that heralded the start of this chapter seems somewhat disingenuous towards the pig-iron worker. It is perfectly possible to couch the subject in such academic terms so as to lose the average worker. Yet, at its heart, the constituent parts of happiness remain simple enough for everyone to understand. The concept of ‘consciously choosing a positive attitude’ and ‘making an effort to do so’ seem simple enough. It may be the lack of cognisance that a choice is available or the subsequent effort involved in sustaining an H+ attitude that is more problematic.
It may well be that some occupations are inherently more purposeful and carry greater meaning. However, this report suggests that if the aforementioned pig iron worker chooses to be positive and engages in positive mental strategies, if s/he can find meaning in their work and have challenging tasks, stretching personal goals and, moreover, if handling pig iron plays to their strengths, then engagement is more likely.
In terms of context, this research project was almost cancelled on the grounds of ‘right research, wrong time’. The head of organisation B1, who turned out to be a strong champion of this research, stated somewhat sardonically, in a meeting prior to phase 1; “This is an interesting time to be measuring motivation.” Her point was that the challenges of the 2008 banking crisis and the subsequent knock-on effects of austerity would make happiness and engagement more challenging than ever. Bearing in mind the finding that H+ employees deploy more strategies and work those strategies harder it could be that conducting this research in such challenging circumstances was exactly the right time.
It could be that in trying times the key to flourishing is to try even harder.
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