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End of the road for Positive Psychology at work?


There is a great scene near the end of the Australian film, Animal Kingdom. The murderous, ever positive matriarch of the family gang is confronted by the death of her last son. Up until that point every set back, including the gangland slaughter of most of her family, had been met with a rosy one liner about how all would turn out well. In one of the last scenes of the film we see her hunched and sobbing at the breakfast table. She turns to one of the few remaining gang members, red eyed and sobbing and blurts out, “I’ll be fine darl, I’m just looking for my positive spin”. Of course it all ends painfully for the drug gang, who had a date with destiny from the start of the film.

About nine years ago I started to get really interested in the emerging field of Positive Psychology. I’d come from a corporate finance background and I was particularly interested in how the work place could become a more satisfying place for all concerned. My particular bias was that I had spent eleven years in the accounting profession. Which can be a tad dry…My first role as a fresh faced KPMG recruit was as an auditor in the West Midland. I spent many wet Wednesday afternoons in steel works in places like Smethwick checking widget inventories. My wonderful doleful brummie friend Graham Frost gave me some charming advice at the start of my auditing days.

 “Andy, first they will crush your soul with mind numbing tasks and they will rob your creativity and drive through a regime of fear and intimidation…And then they will re build you into a perfectly functioning KPMG finance attack dog. From that point on you are theirs. You will see through their eyes. And you too will enjoy the power and majesty of becoming an assistant audit manager in the KPMG Birmingham practice. You will have the power to bend young recruits to your will. And as you climb the pole to the dizzy heights of audit manager your power and influence will grow. Your esteem and bank balance will rise. You will become what you now loathe… A perfect chiseled auditing machine. You have no choice. It is written”

So that’s my heuristic bias out on the table. I was superbly well paid and highly bored.   Towards the end of my KPMG career I started to explore the relationship between money and happiness and how to find meaning in life. After lots of false dawns I’ve become a quirky, economist trained, yoga teaching, geek accountant, psychologist hybrid. Able to match “The Office” with “Deepak Chopra” and the “hard headed”, “serious” , “evidenced based” world of corporate psychology. I am one of the army of Positive Psychology consultancies ready to swoop down and measure your employee wellbeing and find authentic ways to enthuse, energise, motivate and generally fluff your staff…..

But …..from day one of studying Positive Psychology in the workplace I’ve had a strange, queasy, uneasy feeling about everything that the “research” was suggesting makes people more engaged and work harder.   I am blessed that KPMG trained me so well. I can sniff out bullshit and I know how office politics works for real.

So if you are the owner of a company looking to engage your staff here are my five potential bullshit beware items:

1) Employee engagement questionnaires –

download (9)Nobody at work wants to do them. They get filled in by harassed folk and fail to address underlying blockages between colleagues. Poor managers use them as a tool to address staff wellbeing and motivation. If you feel you have to use one, the Gallup Q12 is short and sweet. Make sure you back it up with actual communication. Ask people what’s up. All the others are just money making fatter, longer, more boring versions of the Q12

Conclusion – the jury is out. Management by algorithm should never replace actually listening to what people want to say

2)  If we can make people more positive in their interactions with colleagues then the organisation will thrive

Back in 2006 psychologist called Losada was very popular. He came up with the idea of measuring the positive to negative ratio of expressions between work colleagues and then mapping these to future financial performance of an organisation. He found that a positive to negative expression ratio greater than 3 to 1, in an organisation, led to “thriving”. With a ratio of below that or above 8 to 1 organisations languished. The argument was that greater than 8 to 1 was a recipe for a floppy organisation full of yes men. He had based his calculations  on complex fractal mathematics. Lots of people like me, studying for a masters degree in positive psychology, quoted this magic ratio and used it as leverage to win work. Until some bright spark at UEL discovered that the maths was bull. Here’s a little secret – most positive psychologists don’t understand statistics. I’m lucky that I studied statistics at degree level and am a Chartered Accountant. But I never understood all the math.

Now I’m not saying that we all need to spend long dreary hours at work or that happy thriving fun offices are not something to aspire to but we have to get real. In every job and every organisation there should be a time for fun and a time for serious, focused, hard edged drive. One size does not fit all organisations.

Conclusion – more research needs to be done. Surely its better to match the task at hand with a useful emotion. For example a blue sky, team building, exploratory meeting needs to be light and fun. Reviewing a colleagues report needs to feel stern, serious even argumentative (especially if the colleagues are friends). The devil is always, always in the detail. Introducing forced positivity is a recipe for passive aggressive stifling of meaningful communication

 3) People who are optimistic about the future and visualise successful outcomes are likely to succeed at what they do

download (10) More than two decades ago, Gabriele Oettingen, conducted a study in which women enrolled in a weight-reduction program with several short, open-ended scenarios about future events. They were asked to imagine how they would fare in each one. Some of these scenarios asked the women to imagine that they had successfully completed the program; others asked them to imagine situations in which they were tempted to cheat on their diets. They were then asked the women to rate how positive or negative their resulting thoughts and images were.

A year later the results were striking. The more positively women had imagined themselves in these scenarios, the fewer pounds they had lost.

In the last 20 years Gabriele and his team have replicated this finding using many different scenarios (for example people looking for jobs). In their research they discovered that dreaming about the future calms you down, measurably reducing systolic blood pressure, but it also can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals.

In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they asked two groups of college students to write about what lay in store for the coming week. One group was asked to imagine that the week would be great. The other group was just asked to write down any thoughts about the week that came to mind. The students who had positively fantasized reported feeling less energized than those in the control group. They also went on to accomplish less during that week.

Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it. It should be noted however that focusing just on the negatives will also have an adverse effect on performance.

It seems that a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how the research describe it :

“Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.”

They described this process “mental contrasting,”. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.

When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. It seems that Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.

Conclusion – The studies by Gabriele Oettingen are a breath of fresh air. I’ve written a good deal for the need to observe your thoughts and feelings in a mindful manner. If we can look at the future in a rosy positive light then we are more likely to see wonderful opportunities and have more “aha” moments. But its far more powerful and engaging to also choose to focus on what can go wrong. If you do this in a calm, dispassionate manner you become forearmed and better placed to face the challenges ahead.

 4) Happier people work better

bottomlineA 2010 study, by Andrew Oswald at Warwick Business School, concluded that there was a positive link between an employee’s happiness and their productivity. The team conducted a range of exercises in their research. The subjects were asked to add a series of two digit numbers in ten minutes. They were paid an attendance fee, and also a performance fee based on how they performed.

Half of the group was then shown a ten-minute comedy film. The film apparently led to an increase in the self reported happiness levels of participants, compared to those who did not see it or who watched placebo film clips. The participants then repeated the task. The researchers concluded that those participants with an elevated self reported happiness level were 12% more productive than the participants with non-elevated happiness levels.

They also noted that those participants who watched the film but did not feel any happier did not demonstrate improved productivity.

This was reported in the media as groundbreaking research, however it merely adds to the body of findings from the field of Positive Psychology, which has a far more nuanced understanding of the role of emotions in the workplace. Emotions, both “negative” and “positive” have a vital role at work. They are a call to action to help change behaviours. There is a danger in that this type of research might suggest that positive emotions are appropriate in all workplace settings.

The Andrew Oswald study involved students at the business school and not employees on a production line or sitting in an office. When the media reports on these studies they often miss the vital aspect of context.

Happy people can be lazy thinkers.

Happy people are more likely to use cognitive shortcuts and approximations when thinking about the world. In one study researchers presented people with a list of 15 words related to a theme (e.g. tired, bed, rest, etc) and then asked participants to recall the list as best they could by looking at a separate list and identifying the original words.

The researchers include some false items related to the theme such as “sleep” that never appeared on the first list. Happy people were 50% more likely than their counterparts to mistakenly identify such words.

 Happy people may be less persuasive.

Researcher Bob Cialdini identified concepts associated with persuasion: scarcity, expertise, and so forth. One element of persuasive communication is clear, concrete, detailed arguments. Exactly the stuff happy people are inclined to gloss over.

In three studies, judges rated the arguments about everyday issues such as allocating tax money. Happy people were rated as about 25% less impressive and 20% less detailed than were their more negative counterparts.


Its all about context again. Trying to increase happiness across the board within an organization is a foolish task. We need to look at the drivers of engagement – the relationships that people have, the likelihood of advancement, being rewarded fairly, having training available to succeed etc. Happiness at work is a by product of these things

5)  If we can get our staff to realise that their meaning and engagement is not linked to how much we reward them we can work them harder and pay them less

Positive Psychology is a genius corporate tool. Here is the argument:

  • There is no relationship between your subjective wellbeing (how happy you think you are) and your financial wealth.
  • People find meaning and engagement at work by things like loving and appreciating colleagues, loving their roles, receiving sufficient training, having nice environments etc
  • Happier people are less likely to leave, will be nicer to their colleagues, share information and work harder
  • If we can get them to find meaning and get them to be happier we can work them harder and pay them less!

Take a look at this graph. It shows how the top 10% of earners in the US have performed financially during every period of gross domestic product growth. Its startling. In the 50s as the economy grew, the engine of the economy (the bottom 90%) enjoyed the greatest increase in their wealth. By 2014 the roles have switched. The top 10% have enjoyed the benefits of growth whilst the incomes of the bottom 90% has actually declined during growth periods!!!

photo-2The thing that drives our thoughts, feelings and actions is fairness. The majority of working people have seen real cuts to their living standards whilst the management group have enjoyed the growth. Empires topple when the unfairness factor becomes all encompassing. Positive psychology programs at work can only mask unfairness for so long.

Organisations mirror society. This is the environment within which Australian business operates:

  •  Anti depressant use in Australia is the second highest in the OECD
  • The Safety at work Australia survey noted in 2013 that 20% of people at work had been humiliated by a colleague and 42% had been bullied at work
  • 1 in 5 Australians say their stress levels affect their health
  • Depression affects 1 million Australians


Given the society background care and sensitivity is needed when introducing Positive Psychology programs at work. Employers need to appreciate that the prospect of improved financial reward is vital. Without it unfairness grows and the wheels start to come off. Without the prospect of a better future hope withers and dies at work. People become disengaged, more fearful and feel pitted against their colleagues. Employers also need to be realistic . The workplace mirrors society. Forced positivity can be stifling for people feeling real hardship.

Is there a role for Positive Psychology programs at work?

I’m not sure anymore. I think there are gold nuggets within some of the research and tools that have been developed. And within the positive psychology coaching profession there are some super talented, loving, passionate coaches

Any tool which helps people develop kindness and compassion and positive regard for their colleagues has got to be a good thing. We want to work in happy, rewarding, challenging and fun places. I think many of the Positive Psychology interventions fit well underneath the banner of mindfulness at work, rather than the other way around.

We need to be more mindful that sometimes things are good and sometimes bad and that all things pass eventually. We need to be mindful of our emotions and those of our colleagues and also cut ourselves (and them) some slack. Work mirrors society. If we are having hard times outside of work then it will impact us at work. We need to improve our focus and learn when to switch on and when to tune out. We need to really appreciate that our worst enemy and our most negative of emotions may be our greatest teacher and our greatest blessing. We need to get comfortable with sitting and exploring our negative thoughts and emotions and harness their power to facilitate growth. By contemplating grief, tragedy and failure we can learn and grow and allow the fun times to flow