Performance management: play to their strengths

Is it possible to improve employee engagement and retention simply by focusing on what staff are good at? Karen Dempsey finds out.

If the term ‘positive psychology’ conjures up images of happy-clappy people waving their arms in the air ecstatically, then think again. Boiled down to its basics, positive psychology means concentrating on people’s strengths rather than their weaknesses – and it’s a concept that is gaining traction in leadership circles.

Traditional psychology focuses on addressing a problem, illness or deficiency, while positive psychology focuses on ‘mental wellness’, according to online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

In the workplace, there is still a tendency to focus on the negative. Managers are generally geared up to solve problems, employers will often use training as a way to rectify a perceived shortcoming, employees still get shoe-horned into jobs that clearly don’t fit and then managers wonder why workers get stressed and call in sick.

But by using positive psychology, leaders can bring happiness to the workplace, according to experts. And happiness, they argue, can lead to better productivity, engagement and retention.

Maria Yapp, chief executive of business psychologists Xancam, says that positive psychology focuses on three main areas:

  • Happiness and wellbeing. “This means identifying the factors that make a positive difference to people’s subjective experience of happiness and satisfaction with life – resulting in better health, energy, longevity and coping abilities,” according to Yapp.
  • Engagement and being ‘in flow’. Yapp explains: “The state of ‘flow’ has been described as ‘a highly productive state of concentration’. When working in flow, people are generally more productive, more creative, less stressed and often lose any sense of boredom or that time is dragging. There is a sense of effortless achievement.”
  • Meaning and purpose. Yapp says: “Activities that can help employees develop a greater sense of ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ (how what they do really matters and contributes to the bigger picture of the organisation/the community at large) are a key weapon in the retention war – making people feel more ‘connected’ and committed to the organisation.”

Loving what you do

This so-called ‘strengths-based’ approach was pioneered by the Clifton Strengths Finder assessment tool from Gallup Consulting and the book Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O Clifton.

The basis of their thinking is that people perform better when their jobs play to their strengths, and when they love what they do. Some organisations profile the strengths of a role and hire people who have those strengths. And instead of correcting people’s weaknesses – which is potentially demotivating – these organisations develop employees according to their strengths.

Yapp says: “This approach argues that it is better to tolerate (small) imperfections and to focus on what the person does well. I argue that the strengths-based approach is just another way of saying that high performance arises from a combination of being both competent at and motivated by a particular skill area.”

Mike Fiszer, principal psychologist, leadership development at occupational psychologists Pearn Kandola, presented the argument for taking a positive psychology approach to talent management at a recent IRS conference on the subject. (Watch the webcast of the conference).

Fiszer has little appetite for the competency-based approach. “You can gather evidence of competencies and end up with a pyramid of ticks – then managers wonder why they’re still not leaders when they’ve ticked all the right boxes,” he says.

“Leadership by this mechanistic approach doesn’t produce them. There should be an amnesty in leadership development ­programmes. Hand in the weapons you don’t want.”

Fiszer claims there can be huge benefits to organisations if they focus on what’s good rather than what’s bad – “if we can only get the HR community to move away from its obsession with competencies”.

One business that has done just that is Standard Chartered Bank, which moved from a traditional competency-based model to a strengths-based approach in 2000.

Kari Nelson, manager, HR communications and HR top team, group HR, says the new approach was based on the belief that individuals are most productive and have the greatest growth potential when they focus on their existing talents.

“This approach fundamentally transformed the bank’s thinking on people management and now underpins many of its people processes and products. It also transformed the role of HR – from a primarily administrative function to adding a great deal of value through its strengths-based applications,” says Nelson.

Pygmalion management

Much of the development of positive psychology comes from ‘Pygmalion in management’, which J Sterling Livingston described in a 1960s article in the Harvard Business Review. Eliza Doolittle, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, says: “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl.” Livingston concluded: “We are all like Eliza Doolittle – we behave according to how we are treated.”

Someone who has taken this approach is Leatham Green, assistant director, personnel and training at East Sussex County Council. He says: “I promote the concept of ‘be the change you want to see’. In recruiting to the personnel and training team, we are more concerned about the individual’s characteristics than technical knowledge.”

Green also offers support and encouragement to line managers through mentors and coaches, using programmes such as RADA in Business, or neurolinguistic programming-based coaches. This changed some of the traditionally negative approach to management to a positive outlook,” he says.

A rewarding place to work

Crucially, leaders taking a positive psychology approach reward behaviours they want to encourage and see more of. It’s therefore vital to spell out what success looks like, and then celebrate that success. Reward is as much about recognition, by peers and bosses, as anything else. East Sussex has launched a scheme where peer nominations can lead to a free cup of coffee – and where the boost to employees doesn’t just come from the caffeine (see below).

The practice of praising employees can make a difference to the kind of people you attract, which in turn makes a huge difference to your business. “Cheering progress” is particularly important in the hospitality sector, where it is an employees’ market rather than the employers’, says Sean Wheeler, director of people development at hotel group Malmaison & Hotel du Vin.

Wheeler prioritises people development in such a way that 50% of the potential earnings of key people are linked to developing and retaining their team. “Every time an individual interacts with a guest, that is a reflection of the company – good or bad. If you don’t motivate your people, they won’t look after the guest, and the company loses out because reputation slides and therefore so do sales and profits. Motivation of our people is the DNA of our business,” he says.

This approach may not work for everyone, but it is making a difference to organisations as diverse as banks and councils. As Green says: “What is wrong in promoting ‘love’ in the workplace: love what you do love where you do it love who you do it with.”

Being ‘fabulous’ at East Sussex county council

As part of a bid to create a fabulous place to work, Leatham Green, assistant director, personnel and training, at East Sussex County Council, gives out a ‘gift set’ to everyone on the personnel team, which includes a mouse mat, coaster, pen and stress ball. He has just introduced sticky notes with ‘You’re fabulous today because’ written on them. Employees who receive three stickies from their colleagues win a free cappuccino.

The council also holds annual ‘fabulations’ – internal awards to recognise fabulous work.

Green says: “These achievements may not be huge, but they promote the qualities we believe in. They are all easy and cost-effective ideas and have made a huge impact in developing a positive culture with a strong focus on what we do well, rather than what we do badly. It does not mean we ignore poor performance – in fact, we address unacceptable performance quickly and positively.

“This could all sound rather ‘fluffy’. However, one hard statistic to back up this theory is that the team’s sickness absence level reduced by 38% last year (currently running at an average of 3.5 days per person). So you can see the impact this approach has on the bottom line.”

Case study: Standard Chartered Bank

Kari Nelson, manager, HR communications and HR top team, group HR, says: “Standard Chartered revised many of its HR processes and tools to reflect the strengths-based approach when it was introduced in 2000. Latterly, its focus has also been on helping managers to recognise and manage according to individual talents to help people do what they do best every day to drive engagement and performance. A new development programme – Great Manager Programme – is designed to do exactly that.

“Employees identify their strengths using an online self-assessment system supported by trained in-house experts, or ‘strengths coaches’, who develop action plans to help individuals and teams improve their effectiveness.

“We focus on helping individuals understand their talents and how they can consciously apply these at work through developing knowledge and skills (which can be learned) to turn natural talents into world-class strengths. This approach has contributed to a high-performance work environment. It has also been a differentiator in helping to attract and retain the best talent.

“We believe this focus on strengths has helped contribute to strong financial performance. Since 2000, when the approach was first introduced, pre-tax profits have increased by 251%, and the future continues to look promising.”

Want more advice on motivating employees? Reward expert Rick Burrage, of consultancy Grass Roots, reveals his positive psychology top tips. 

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