For many people, the workplace is a trial. It can be immeasurably stressful, and it can be immeasurably rewarding.
Under the pressure of a deadline, it is possible to achieve one’s highest potential, yet it is also possible to fail spectacularly.
Leadership activities, designed to promote collaboration under simulated pressure, help to bring out qualities in participants that help them flourish and achieve under less-than-ideal circumstances.
One type of leadership activity involves one mute-but-informed participant who knows how to execute the task at hand, and must then successfully guide a group of participants through the task, all the while unable to say a word about what needs to be done.
This type of activity tests communication abilities under restricted conditions, and requires quite a bit of problem-solving to execute successfully. While understanding how to work efficiently under stressful conditions is important, it should only be vital under exceptional conditions.
How Can Leadership Activities Help Workers Flourish?
Workplaces can be extremely dynamic, which can lead to both stress and excitement; how people react to the unique demands of their environments determines how successful and happy they become. How can leadership activities help workers not only succeed in their environments, but flourish?
Positive psychology provides a framework that relates leadership development to a state of thriving. A positive approach is not just about maintaining efficiency; it’s about achieving a personally rewarding way of life. From an empirical standpoint, how can leadership activities teach a culture of thriving in the workplace?
According to Roni Reiter-Palmon (2003), professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, performance in leadership situations in general is dependent on “several key factors”:
2. Social Skills:
- Social activity
3. Personality and motivation:
- Resistance to stress
- Tolerance for ambiguity
- Emotional stability
To Reiter-Palmon, the most important aspect of any of these factors is flexibility. His research with college students demonstrated that cognitive and behavioral adaptability predicted success on leadership activities, even when social skills and academic ability were statistically held even among participants.
This means that among students with the same level of social and academic skill, the ones who were better able to adapt their thinking and behavior to the task had more successful outcomes. But adaptability isn’t just efficient; it’s a sign and function of a resilient mental state.
This is where positive psychology comes into play. According to Seligman & Csikszentmihaly (2000), it is important to learn “how a person’s values and goals mediate between external events and the quality of experience,” because:
“It is not what happens to a person that determines how happy they are, but how they interpret what happens.”
Responding rigidly in one way to adversity can become a source of distress when external circumstances no longer work with that one way of responding, and leadership activities should help participants respond to the unexpected in constructive ways.
Positive psychology promotes the nurturing of individual strengths and resiliencies, which often translates into adaptable forms of decision-making. With a positive psychological framework in mind, how can leadership development interventions and activities promote adaptability in the workplace?
Nurturing flexibility and individual strengths plays an important role, but many occupations demand a high level of communication between individuals and groups or departments. Effective leadership activities need to consider both the individual and the social aspects of the people who participate.
Catherine McCauley-Smith’s research team tracked the development of a group of newly-promoted leaders within a shared-resources school facility that consisted of three recently merged schools. The study examined how the leadership group, which consisted of postgraduate students with teaching qualifications, made sense of and adapted to their new leadership positions while engaging in a leadership development intervention.
Over the course of two years, participants adapted to their new leadership positions, and many reported feeling more calm, emotionally in-control, able to assert themselves when appropriate, and able to communicate collaboratively. Successful leadership development activities should promote the use and refinement of internal resources and resiliencies, and positive psychology can play a vital role in making that happen.
In the workplace, activities designed to promote leadership should promote personal strengths, particularly those that help the professional community as a whole.
“Learn how to build the qualities that will help individuals and communities, not just to endure and survive, but also to flourish”
– Seligman & Csikszentmihaly
Flourishing in the workplace is not just about being efficient. It’s about working in a way that promotes personal development and satisfaction, and being able to find hedonic satisfaction within the pursuit of eudaemonia.
Following this logic, the leadership activities that a workplace implements should reflect both the specific demands of that workplace and the strengths of the individuals that comprise that professional community.
When an activity or development intervention is effective, the participants will come out of the experience with a heightened understanding of the ways in which they are each individually resilient, adaptable, and competent.
The workplace is a test of day-to-day adaptability and collaboration; the exercises that each workplace implements should foster and develop the signature strengths of the people who work there.
Leadership Coaching & Positive Psychology
“People are blinded to the survival value of positive emotions precisely because they are so important. Like the fish who is unaware of the water in which it swims, people take for granted a certain amount of hope, love, enjoyment and trust because these are the very conditions that allow them to go on living. These conditions are fundamental to existence.”
-Martin E.P. Seligman & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Throughout the history of the science of Psychology, an almost exclusive focus on pathology has dominated the discipline.
The science of positive psychology hopes to fill that gap by answering the question: what makes individuals and communities thrive?
Furthermore, positive psychology hopes to bring about a change in the focus of psychology from concern about repairing disorder to how go to about building and promoting positive qualities.
“A coach and coachee deal in the present, focus on applied strategies strategies to enhance professional effectiveness, address real-world challenges, and explore insights that objectively expand and maintain work-life habits”
Leadership coaching, as a function of leadership development, reflects an evolving dynamic between a client and coach. In this relationship, the coach helps the client meet specific business needs. For example, this may include developing ways to become a more effective and efficient professional.
The Coach helps guide the coachee in an objective fashion on how to best navigate diverse complex social, emotional, personal and technical structures.
Leadership coaches may have qualifications such as graduate behavioral science training, or experience in the client’s industry. Each coach has a theoretical framework that is utilized in order to provide structure to the coaching process.
The critical difference between leadership coaching, and the larger field of leadership development, is that leadership coaching is a personalized and customized process that aims to meet the unique needs of each client in the context of the client’s organization and personal life.
Now, you may have noticed that these descriptions of positive psychology and leadership coaching have a significant overlap. That’s because they both have a similar aim: to identify and promote positive aspects of individuals.
How Leadership Coaching can Utilize Positive Psychology
Organizations are increasingly practicing leadership coaching utilizing a positive psychology lens, with promising outcomes.
A qualitative analysis focused on this type of coaching found that several themes, including: context, engagement, understanding, emotional awareness, and interpersonal growth.
It was found that the positive psychology coaching approach helped leaders to move from initial anxieties to understanding themselves.
This self understanding helped the leaders increase their ability to self regulate and access their own resourcefulness.
The Self and The Organization
One trend was that participants initially described the sessions as difficult and strange, because they did not understand the relationship between their own struggles and the struggles they were having as a leader.
While they did not anticipate the emotional challenges inherent in the coaching experience, they showed great appreciation for the growth that it caused.
One important theme that emerged from confronting difficult emotions was that leaders found that they were able to more easily deal with the complexities of their role with the support from a coach who used a positive psychology framework.
As the coaching progressed, the coaches helped the leaders to develop increasingly high levels of mental resilience, enthusiasm, and concentration on their tasks.
The Strengths Perspective
Instead of focusing on their negative qualities, their roles, and their organizations, leaders who worked with coaches in this study found that they were able to focus on their strengths and how they could best utilize their available resources in order to be most effective.
One large aspect of this is the complexity of roles and how many leaders initially felt lost without having guidance. Through the positive psychology coaching, leaders not only learned how to best utilize their cognitive and emotional resources, but how best to conceptualize and work within their organizational context, in conjunction with teams and other professionals.
Having a sense of personal responsibility as well as a sense of connectedness with others was highly correlated to leaders’ ability to effective conduct themselves in their role individually and in groups.
These personality characteristics, along with emotional regulation and cognitive flexibility, were shown to increase dramatically through positive psychology coaching. Through the experience of leadership coaching, clients also became more willing to learn about and investigate their own emotional experiences and how they might connect to their effectiveness as a leader.
While there was a focus on positive emotions in the coaching program due to the theoretical orientation of positive psychology being utilized, researchers advocated for a balanced view. The acknowledgement and discussion of both positive and negative emotions were found to be beneficial in the development of the clients as leaders.
Both positive psychology and leadership coaching are growing disciplines. While these initial outcomes are promising, there are many ways in which these areas will become more refined in coming years.
Leadership coaching researchers have suggested observing leaders in their natural environments for long periods in order to best understand how to most effectively assist them.
Other suggestions include adopting objective criteria and prescribed norms for leadership coaching in order to create practical standards. The complexity of leadership coaching lies in the fact that it relies on a relationship between a coach and coachee, while being steeped in the nuance of the coachee’s personal life, and their organization.
This level of individualized assistance makes it difficult to create standards and norms. Perhaps through the repeated applications of positive psychology to leadership develop, we may begin to see a new paradigm emerge in which leadership coaching is defined by identifying and promoting growth using the lens of positive psychology.
Bleich, M. R. (2016). A Gift to Self: Leadership Coaching. The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing, 47(1), 11-13.
Cilliers, F. (2011). Positive psychology leadership coaching experiences in a financial organisation. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 37(1).
Ely, K., Boyce, L. A., Nelson, J. K., Zaccaro, S. J., Hernez-Broome, G., & Whyman, W. (2010). Evaluating leadership coaching: A review and integrated framework. The Leadership Quarterly, 21(4), 585-599.
McCauley-Smith, C., Williams, S. J., Gillon, A.C., & Braganza, A. (2015). Making sense of leadership development: Developing a community of educated leaders. Studies in Higher Education, 40(2), 311-328.
Reiter-Palmon, R. (2003). Predicting leadership activities: The role of flexibility. Individual Differences Research, 1(2), 124-136.
Seligman, M.E.P., & Csikszentmihaly M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologyist, 55(1), 5-14.