Hope springs

Positive emotions in the workplace should be encouraged and can lead to better organisational performance, argues Michael West

For most of its history, psychology has focused mainly on the dark side of human behaviour – depression, anxiety, psychosis and psychopathic behaviour. Then, in 1998, Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association and inspired a movement to focus on all that is positive in human behaviour.

Positive psychology, or the psychology of human strengths, has since transformed debates in many fields about how to develop human strengths in education, health, child development, relationships and communities. It has shown how important emotions such as hope, pleasure, happiness, humour, excitement, joy, pride and involvement are to human strength.

So what are the implications for the workplace? When we feel positive emotions we think in a more flexible, open-minded way, and consider a much wider range of possibilities than if we feel anxious, depressed or angry. This enables us to accomplish tasks and make the most of situations. We adapt more effectively to the demands around us and are more likely to see challenges as opportunities rather than threats.

Positive emotions don't only enable us to solve problems more creatively. We also tend to adopt an open, questioning and understanding style with others, making for more successful negotiations. Similarly, we are likely to feel greater self-control, cope more effectively and be less defensive in the workplace.

The benefits spill over into what is called "pro-social behaviour" – co-operation and altruism. So by developing an environment where people feel positive, we can encourage organisational citizenship – in other words, the tendency for people at work to help each other and to put in extra effort beyond what is required. Increasingly, researchers think organisational citizenship is what makes the difference between the most profitable organisations and the rest.

This is fine when things are easy, but how do positive emotions affect our performance during challenging tasks? The evidence suggests that when we feel positive emotion we are more likely to work harder at tasks – particularly those we enjoy and feel are useful.

Perhaps the most important barometer of positive feelings and attitudes at work is job satisfaction. Research shows that feeling positive (which includes being satisfied with one's job) is significantly correlated with work performance. The association between average levels of employee satisfaction in organisations and organisational performance is particularly strong. Within manufacturing organisations, for example, 

it has been found that average job satisfaction among the workforce predicts the subsequent levels of organisational productivity and profitability. Similarly, a link has been established between the average level of nurse satisfaction in hospitals and patient satisfaction, which has a positive impact on health.

One of the key elements of positive psychology is optimism, which Seligman and others have shown plays a major role in human behaviour. Not only do optimists get sick less often and recover from illness more quickly than others, they also live longer.

And optimism can be learnt. Far from having a "happy clappy", cheery disregard for reality, optimists are less likely to get locked in a futile pursuit in the workplace and will recognise the need to move on to something that is more productive. They pay more attention than others to negative information about their own performance – and they are more likely to learn from it, too. Perhaps it is because they are buffered by their positive feelings from the threat of this negative information that they are able to make better use of it.

This may also be the reason why optimists pay closer attention to information about the risks involved in their work – which is vital in high-risk sectors, such as security, chemical processing and healthcare.

Not surprisingly, at the other end of the scale, chronic anxiety and hostility or anger lead to ill health, failure to recover from illness and a generally depressed immune system. Pessimism, anger, anxiety, cynicism and apathy are corrosive in organisations, not only to organisational performance, but also to the health and well-being of the people who work in them.

So what are the implications of this work for HR practitioners? The first is to develop the strength of human optimism in oneself – not starry-eyed idealism, but realistic and encouraging optimism. As leaders, we have to demonstrate confidence, enthusiasm and a balanced optimism. We should also ensure this is built into our leadership and management development programmes at every level.

We also need to tackle those issues or relationships in the organisation that are discoloured by anxiety or anger. Of course, transient arguments or concerns are an inevitable part of organisational life. It is long-term unresolved anxiety and anger that we should deal with, and enable those in the organisation to leave behind.

There is a strategic role for HR to encourage a culture of positive emotion, given the links to stronger organisational performance, lower employee turnover and better health. This means encouraging good humour, positive feedback, confidence and enthusiasm through the socialisation of new employees, the messages given by leaders, and the modelling of relationships across the organisation. Discouraging the use of aggressive emails is a small step. Encouraging celebrations of success and appreciation of contributions is vital.

The idea that we can create effective organisations by focusing on performance and ignoring the role of our emotions is based on the false premise that emotions can be ignored at work. Positive relationships and a sense of community are the product and cause of positive emotions. We should work with human need, capacity and potential, rather than against them, if we are to create positive organisations that succeed and, at the same time, foster the health and well-being of those who work in them.

Further info

Michael West is professor of organisational psychology and head of research at Aston Business School. He will be speaking on "How to maximise performance" at the CIPD's annual conference and exhibition in Harrogate on 26-28 October

Further reading:

  • Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Anne McKee, The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership into the Science of Results, Little, Brown, 2002.
  • Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Penguin, 2005.
  • Martin E P Seligman, Authentic Happiness, The Free Press, 2002 • www.authentichappiness.com  
  • Michael A West, The Secrets of Successful Team Management: How to Lead a Team to Innovation, Creativity and Success, Duncan Baird Publishers, 2004.