As someone who is always fascinated by the latest ideas in management, leadership and personal development, I've been tracking developments in an overlapping field – Positive Psychology – for quite a few years. It's a discipline that not only helps people flourish in their lives and in the workplace but also looks at how individuals and organizations do outstanding work, so that others can learn from this and do excellently themselves.
This is a core part of effective leadership, and it's why, with a lot of anticipation, I recently attended the Fourth World Congress on Positive Psychology in Florida.
The conference opened with an inspiring session on positive psychology in executive coaching, run by Jeffrey Auerbach. Starting from the points that very many senior executives are seriously "depleted" (fatigued) and in danger of burning out, and that it's extremely expensive for organizations to replace them, Auerbach looked at a range of ways that they can be coached to manage their energy and perform at their best.
Partly this involved focusing on wellbeing – he quoted Gallup research showing that, while 66 percent of executives flourished in at least one of five types of wellbeing, only 7 percent flourished in all five. He then highlighted, among other things, the value of keeping gratitude journals (three times a week being the ideal number); the importance for satisfaction of using "signature strengths" in a new way; and the usefulness of mindfulness meditation as a way of improving your sense of wellbeing.
The theme of energy management was picked up by Tom Rath (@TomCRath) – author of "Are you fully charged?", and one of the researchers quoted by Auerbach. As well as focusing on the importance of helping people find meaning and building strong friendships at work (people with a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged than those who don't), Rath argued that, normally, only 11 percent of us have a great deal of energy.
Small choices that we make can have a great deal of impact: a good night's sleep, taking vacations, exercise, healthy food, good life choices and so on can create an upward spiral of energy. (Apparently, it's a myth that people can thrive on limited sleep – top performers sleep as much as 8.5 hours a night, and losing four hours' sleep is the equivalent of "drinking a six pack" in terms of its impact on decision making and performance.)
I've admired the work of Martin Seligman (@MartinEPSeligma) for a long time (everyone needs to know about his PERMA model). It was a real pleasure to hear him speak about recent research on brain circuits that argues that the default response of mammals (implying people) to traumatic events is to become passive, but that this is countered if they believe that they have some control, and expect to have control in the future.
This turns on its head the idea of "learned helplessness," and it implies that the best way of re-energizing people is not to dwell on negative experiences, but to help them regain a sense of control and mastery over what's going on around them. This has big implications for a whole range of traditional approaches to coaching and counselling.
Another highlight was a talk by Dr Joyce Schaffer, about "neuroplasticity." We've all been raised with the idea that our brain cells steadily die off during our lives – this, apparently, is completely wrong, just as long as we build regular aerobic exercise into our schedules (our brains will atrophy if we don't exercise). What's more, we can do great things for our memory, as we age, by stretching our brains to learn unfamiliar new skills, such as a new language. For those of us not in the first flush of youth, this is great news!
Jane Dutton (@HQCJane) was inspiring with a talk on "building high quality connections" – relationships full of vitality and energy, mutuality and positive regard. With a few simple tips, she had us making incredibly energizing connections with the people around us. I hope that we can bring some of these tips to Mind Tools soon!
This was further developed by the amazing Jill Stratton (@Stratton_Jill), who encouraged us to ask questions like "so what's bringing you joy right now?" and "what three great things happened today?" as a way of making connections with people.
All in all, it was a great conference, with many inspiring speakers, and I had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people. Thank you, in particular, to Clive Leach (@CliveLeachCoach), Suzy Green (@DrSuzyGreen) and Danielle Buckley (@Gobeyondpsych) for making a newbie at the conference feel so welcome!
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