MT Expert - People: Strike the right balance in 2010

Can lessons from positive psychology help us get our message to staff right as we face the new year?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

So here we are in 2010 - a new year and a new decade - and most of us are glad to see the back of 2009. But as leaders, how do we set the right tone for the year ahead? We want to be truthful and help our people to understand the realities of the difficult economic environment, but we also want to shield them from the impact of the continued uncertainty. We can easily find ourselves being falsely positive in our attempts to restore confidence in the future.

After a long haul and probably a succession of cuts in people, costs and other resources, it feels like it’s time to end the starvation diet. We want to start building up strength again. We want to start thinking positively, and focus that positive energy on achieving profitable growth again.

So I’ve been reflecting on how we can best do that, while maintaining integrity about what’s really going on. I wonder if we can perhaps apply the lessons of positive psychology in the workplace. We need to be aware of its limitations – it's hardly a panacea for overcoming all the bad things that befall us, as Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book ‘Smile or Die: How positive thinking fooled America and the World’ makes plain and clear. But are there some useful lessons we can learn?

What is positive psychology? Martin Seligman, its founder, describes it as a scientific study of optimal human functioning [that] aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive.  It’s basically the science of happiness, and addresses the very real and important need to help people thrive in challenging environments. It therefore addresses questions such as: what is right about this person rather than what is wrong... what works rather than what doesn’t?

In our businesses, perhaps we need to take a more balanced approach.  An emphasis on strengths and achievement fits well with the relentlessly positive ideology of our American friends, but an over-emphasis on the positive soon sounds hollow over here.  An exclusive focus on goals and actions without challenging some of the self-defeating behaviours and internal conflicts is likely to be counter-productive. A healthier and more realistic approach is: We need the bad, which is part of life, to fully appreciate the good.

What does that mean in our day-to-day work? I think it’s an opportunity to set out your renewed ambition for growth, and to remind everyone of the competitive strengths and capabilities in the business. At the same time, it’s good to get the issues that in the past have got in the way out on to the table. Ask everyone what really frustrates them; ask how we can improve our working processes; ask how we tackle unacceptable behaviour.

Tap into the zeitgeist that is making us all re-evaluate what’s important in our lives, and get everyone to assess - and address - both your strengths and your weaknesses.  

Virginia Merritt is managing partner at Stanton Marris, a consultancy that specialises in making strategy work through effective leadership, employee engagement and organisation development. By helping organisations make sense of the issues that stop change being sustainable, it enables them to manage the risks associated with strategy development and execution. For more information visit

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