Experts in Positive Psychology stress the importance of trusting employees, authentic leadership, and gender differences at work
This is the second article in a two-part series exploring management implications from current research in the growing field of Positive Psychology. The first article focused on discoveries involving innovation, employees' need for respect, and the search for meaning in the workplace. Part 2 provides three more areas of insight from the Third International Positive Psychology Summit, which was held this fall at The Gallup Organization's Washington, D.C., headquarters.
Trust pays dividends
Booker T. Washington once said, "Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him." Julian Barling, Ph.D., of Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, is out to prove that sentiment is as true of modern workers as it was in Washington's day. Barling has investigated psychological workplace conditions from a number of perspectives, but perhaps his most intuitive -- and most profound -- hypothesis is that trust leads to good things for employees and employers.
In several studies, Barling and his colleagues have noted that "high quality" jobs -- those that provide employees with the means and opportunity to do great work -- are characterized by extensive training and enough autonomy to use that training. Their conclusion: Jobs in many fields should be redesigned to accommodate the reality that people don't like to feel they are being controlled. Barling contends that such changes would yield big gains in employee morale and safety.
In addition to his own work, Barling cited a classic 1990 study on job redesign by researchers at the University of Sheffield. The study found that when a group of factory employees was trained to fix minor problems with their own equipment -- and given opportunities to do so -- their intrinsic job satisfaction rose, their feelings of job pressure decreased, and their occupational injury rate declined.
Barling's exploration of employee autonomy essentially applies to workplace settings. It's similar to a theory that Albert Bandura, Ph.D., of Stanford University, has studied for much of his career: Perceived self-efficacy enhances a number of positive outcomes, including achievement drive, anger management, and mastery of stress.
Bandura, one of the most distinguished psychologists in the field (he has 16 honorary degrees), champions a simple idea: You can't have hope and optimism if you're convinced your efforts will be futile. People who persist and take risks generally have an optimistic view of the world; what's more, progress -- in society and organizations -- depends on these "unreasonable" people. Bandura's conclusion applies as easily to companies as it does to societal systems: Those who cultivate competency and who trust individuals with self-directedness improve the chances that people will become what they want to be.
Authentic leaders build psychological capital
Does the importance of trust and self-efficacy mean that the primary contribution great managers make to employees' psychological health is to stay out of their way? Hardly. Effective leaders know that micromanaging does not promote wellbeing, so they work to actively promote a sense of self-efficacy in those they lead.
Another of Barling's interests is the effect of "transformational leadership," which he contends includes four components that make it suitable to affect wellbeing: idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration. Among the experiments Barling and his colleagues have conducted is one with a group of teenage swimming instructors. Participants were interviewed prior to undergoing transformational leadership training. Later, they were interviewed again to see if their approaches to ensuring safety had changed. The conclusions echoed those of previous studies: Transformational leadership affects employees' physical and psychological wellbeing, elevating their trust in management and enhancing their own sense of self-efficacy.
Bruce Avolio, Ph.D.,of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, directs the Global Leadership Institute, which is dedicated to examining a leadership model similar to Barling's. Avolio defined "authentic leadership" as transparent, positive, ethical, and aware, as well as other-oriented. He and his colleagues have demonstrated that authentic leadership enhances psychological capital in the form of hope, efficiency, optimism, and resilience demonstrated by employees. That cluster of traits, in turn, predicts those employees' wellbeing and engagement.
Avolio also discussed an insight gleaned from the institute's study of a multitude of authentic leaders from the past 100 years: Such leaders create key developmental moments for people that serve as "triggers" for accelerating their perception of how worthy they are. Avolio shared this example: A university dean once told him that she would always remember the moment when a leading administrator told her that the positivity she had brought to the dean's office had changed the nature of the entire school. At that exact moment, she fully realized the power of her own positive nature.
Think gender differences have no place at work? Think again.
Researchers are mapping new terrain within Positive Psychology -- and some of it resembles Mars and Venus. At the summit, gender roles were explored from a number of angles, resulting in useful insights for managers.
Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., of Florida State University, adopted an evolutionary perspective with a presentation that posed the rhetorical question: "Are men good for anything?" Baumeister, a prominent social psychologist, discussed the idea that men and women are genetically predisposed toward different social strengths. Men are better at operating within larger groups, while women are better at fostering close relationships and small-group interactions. As the emergence of culture brought the development of large organizations that generate wealth, he argued, men's social status outpaced that of women.
What does this mean for work orientation among today's employees? Baumeister discussed research indicating that among rank-and-file employees, men tend to be more passionate about their jobs and companies. But there's no difference at the executive level, suggesting a process of self-selection among women whereby those with a more characteristically "male" work orientation reach executive status. The implication is that if women are to achieve equal status and opportunity for fulfillment at work, organizations will have to learn to better leverage and appreciate the adeptness at small-group and one-to-one interactions that Baumeister contends is the evolutionary inheritance of women.
Baumeister's description of gender-based social strategies was echoed by Barbara Kozusznik, Ph.D., of the University of Silesia in Poland. Kozusznik looked specifically at the influence tactics used by female versus male managers -- and how those tactics affect managers' perceptions of themselves and others.
Men tend to be more domineering managers, Kozusznik said, and their autocratic management orientation is still predominant in Poland. But the demands of tomorrow may call for more "female-style" tactics. Kozusznik presented preliminary findings that overuse of the controlling "male" form of influence in modern workplaces causes managers to devalue their employees and ultimately damages their own self-perception. She theorized that those who use "softer" management tactics such as rational persuasion and personal appeal may be more effective at promoting productivity and wellbeing for their workers -- and themselves -- in the long run.
In his latest book, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the eminent social scientist who is one of Positive Psychology's guiding forces, maintains that our feelings about how we make a living are so important to our quality of life that "anyone in charge of a workplace is obliged to consider the question: How am I contributing to human wellbeing?" With every new discovery, Csikszentmihalyi and his fellow positive psychologists are making that question easier for managers to answer.