Back in 2005, I was HR Director for BAE Systems Air Support. Looking for new ways to drive the extraordinary performance required to execute the business strategy I turned to the new field of positive psychology.
The business was doing well with a solid order book, £1 billion turnover and profit in line with expectations. We also had a superb management board with a shared ambition to double the size of the business in the next five years. Our strategy was to move beyond the design and development of military aircraft and provide new services, namely maintenance work and capability upgrades for in-service aircraft.
This was unchartered territory, we needed approaches that would help us engage our workforce with the new strategy, encourage extraordinary performance from our people and build from our leadership strengths during a time of significant change.
Scouting for ideas I discovered the fledgling field of positive psychology. This offered a profoundly different approach to the way organisations, manage and create value through people. Positive interventions are unique in that they are aimed at optimal functioning rather than just functioning.
Imagine a person recovering from surgery and visiting a physiotherapist. The physiotherapist engages the client in physical activity with the goal of recovering ‘normal’ functioning. In other words moving along a scale from say a -3 to a zero.
Now think about a person visiting a personal trainer at the gym. The trainer engages in many of the same activities, running the client through repetitive physical exercise, but this time with the aim of taking an already healthy body and making it perform even better. For example this time moving from +3 to +8.
This simple explanation gave me the light bulb moment I had been looking for. I realised that many of the approaches in use within organisations for leading and managing people stop short. They deliver neutral levels of performance at best. Not bad but not that good either.
I began to believe that there was as much, or more to be gained from capitalising on strengths and positivity as there was in trying to overcome weaknesses and fix problems. We needed to generate extraordinary levels of performance. It was time to try a different approach.
It was a risk, it could have gone badly wrong. However positive psychology is built on a foundation of careful study and empirical evidence, so the risk didn’t feel so large.
By 2007 we had a number of ‘first of their kind’ availability contracts under our belt and had doubled business turnover to £2 billion sooner than anticipated. In addition the leadership development, strategic change and employee engagement approaches we used were awarded a Gold Chairman’s Award for outstanding contribution to business success.
If you are looking for new approaches on how to improve leadership effectiveness, employee engagement and the execution of organisational and behavioural change, positive psychology offers impactful tried and tested solutions.
The Science of Emotions
At the heart of positive psychology is the science of emotions. Professor Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina is one of the world’s leading scholars. I recently had the opportunity to learn directly from Barbara in a cutting edge masterclass packed with insights on how positive emotions boost energy, relationships, performance and health. Of particular note, they provide the key ingredient for sustaining behavioural change.
Look out for future blogs where I will be talking about some of the leading edge ideas from emotion science and positive psychology and how they can be applied in the workplace.
Read more about the BAE Systems case study.