From languishing to flourishing – what is the role of leaders?

I recently heard Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, speak at a conference about his research on what enables people to move from languishing to a sense of thriving or flourishing. This work is even more relevant in today’s world. As Adam Grant wrote recently in a NYT article, languishing has perhaps been the dominant emotion of the first half of 2021.

Seligman’s PERMA model of well-being is a simple and evidence-backed way of creating the enabling conditions for this move towards flourishing. It is based on five building blocks of well-being – Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning / Purpose and Accomplishment. It got me thinking about what organization and team leaders can do to enable more and more of their people to thrive.

Here are the details on each building block, and some thoughts on the role of leaders:

Positive Emotion: Gratitude, mindfulness and optimism are science-backed and learn-able ways to increase positive emotion about events in the past, present and future respectively.

These can be consciously built into company culture through routines and processes. For example, taking 5 minutes at the start of a meeting to share what each person is grateful for is one such way. Another is creating a process to reflect on organizational or project failures through a positive lens – acknowledging failure but reflecting on the ‘gifts’ it may have brought. These could include what we may have learned as an organization or team, how it may have brought us closer together, how it may force us to develop competencies or skills that give us an advantage in the future, etc.

Co-creating a compelling vision and building excitement around it is another way to spark that part of the brain where positive emotions arise.

Positive emotions in and of themselves contribute to well-being. In addition, a lot of neuroscientific research shows that when we operate from the positive circuits of the brain, we have access to greater creativity, empathy and learning – all of which contribute to improved performance at work.

Engagement: The state of ‘flow’, as first described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is one where ‘people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.’ When in flow, one experiences a sense of timelessness, the disappearance of self-consciousness, and deep concentration and absorption.

Activities that create a sense of flow typically share a few properties – they are just challenging enough for the person’s current level of skill, they have clear and immediate feedback and have well-defined success and failure metrics.

Leaders can think about how they structure projects for people on their teams in a way that creates the conditions for flow. Finding the perfect fit between skills and roles, setting goals that are challenging yet achievable, defining clear success criteria, and creating opportunities for timely feedback are some ways of enabling the magic of flow in the workplace.

Relationships: The longest-running study on health and happiness – the Harvard Study of Adult Development – found that one of the best predictors of happiness is the quality of relationships a person has with family, friends and community. Close relationships and a sense of personal connection protect us from the lows in life, and they contribute more strongly to health and happiness than money, fame, social class, IQ or even genes.

Fostering warmth in work relationships has been hard during the pandemic, but takes on even more significance in light of this finding. A few ways that leaders can do this include making time for 1:1’s, taking a few extra minutes at the beginning of a meeting to really connect with each person before jumping into work, and using virtual ways of re-creating the water cooler conversation – such as virtual happy hours, team-building activities and interest-based clubs.

Developing a shared sense of community can also happen through volunteering together for a cause or project, creating opportunities for kind acts and expressing gratitude towards each other.

Meaning: A sense of meaning or purpose contributes strongly to the feeling of a life well-lived. Research has found positive correlations between meaning and happiness, hope, self-esteem, autonomy, relationships and health. We have written often about the power of purpose – for individuals in creating a fulfilling life, and for organizations in driving employee engagement, customer loyalty and financial performance.

As individuals, we can find greater meaning at work by connecting it to some of our own core values and our purpose, recommends Adam Grant. Another way of making work more meaningful is job crafting – proactively architecting our job so that we have an opportunity to weave in our own motivations, strengths and passions into our job role.

What is the role leaders can play to foster greater meaning at work? Drawing from the above, making the space for and encouraging employees to play a role in crafting their own jobs can create shared responsibility for improving job satisfaction and lead to a wider sense of meaning across the organization.

In addition, leaders need to create a sense of higher purpose for the organization, embed it in how the organization works and help people connect with it in their day-to-day work. While creating a purpose-driven organization takes time and effort, it reaps rewards in the form of greater engagement, creativity and energy from employees, a deeper connect with customers, and organizational performance.

Accomplishment: This refers to a sense of achievement, success and mastery that comes from persevering towards and accomplishing a goal, mastering an endeavour and finishing what one set out to do. Seligman’s research shows that achieving intrinsic goals (such as growth and connection) contribute even more strongly to wellbeing than external goals (such as fame and money).

Accomplishment is perhaps the one dimension of this model that organizations are best at fostering – through rewards, incentives, promotions, etc. To get even better at this one, leaders can become more conscious about acknowledging and celebrating even the small wins, the steps on the way to getting to the big goals.

As we return to work after the devastating second wave, organizations are undertaking many initiatives to foster well-being. Incorporating these research-backed strategies can give a strong boost to these efforts.

About Shweta Anand Arora

Shweta Anand Arora is the founder of The Core Questin. She is a Leadership and Life Coach, who works with leaders across the corporate, social enterprise and non-profit space. Shweta holds an M.Ed. from Harvard University, an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad and is a graduate of Coach for Life, USA.

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