Not: you can do better than this. But rather: well done.
Marianne van Woerkom’s academic enquiries don’t focus on why people don’t do well at work, but rather on what’s going on when they do. Hence the name positive psychology.
TEXT: Janneke Juffermans
What is positive psychology?
“Positive psychology aims to counterbalance the overemphasis on things not going well, as characterised by things like depression and burnouts. While it’s important that these are studied, it's equally important to study what’s happening when people are happy and doing well. This allows us to better understand the circumstances in which people flourish, feel motivated, and so on. Fixing someone who’s had a burnout won’t increase their motivation.”
As a positive psychologist, are you perhaps not something of a lone voice in the wilderness?
“Haha, it’s not that bad. More and more organisations are starting to employ it. Businesses are starting to focus more on the well-being of their staff, not only to prevent burnouts, but also to boost loyalty and ensure that people feel good at work. It’s gaining more attention in the non-corporate world too, such as in education, whereby the focus isn’t solely on performance and educational attainment, but also on tracking how well students are dealing with their emotions, and on how we can help them to boost their self-esteem and discover their talents.”
Why do we have a tendency to focus on things that aren’t going well?
“We humans have a ‘negativity bias’, which is the tendency to pay more attention to negative experiences than to neutral or positive ones. This can be explained by our evolutionary desire to manage anything that threatens our well-being. You don’t have to do anything about things that are going well in order to survive. But we now know from research that reinforcing positive emotions is also very important. Taking a moment to reflect on what you have, for example, makes people happier. So does expressing appreciation for the people you value, such as your colleagues.”
“When workers are allowed to focus on their strengths, they typically manifest lower rates of absenteeism.”
Are organisations doing too little of this?
“The focus within many organisations is often on improving what individual workers aren’t good at, their weak points. Most performance appraisals are about just that, with training and courses offered as a fix. But positive psychology takes the opposite approach by focusing on people’s strengths: what are you good at, what motivates you and how can we better tap into that? We investigated this by comparing two groups: one group was asked to draw up personal development plans and the other was merely asked to discover what their strengths were and see if they could find new ways to use them. When we checked back three months later, the latter group scored much higher in terms of their level of interest in their personal development, even though we hadn’t even asked them to think about that.”
What are the knock-on effects of this?
“One is the established connection between how we feel at work and illness-related work absences. Healthcare workers who state that their work allows them to focus on their strengths suffer less from work pressures and emotional strain. They also call in sick less often. Thus this approach benefits both organisations and workers.”
NAME: Marianne van Woerkom
EDUCATION: Graduated as a pedagogist from the University of Groningen, with a focus on vocational and business training; obtained her doctorate in 2003 with the thesis ‘Critical reflection at work. Bridging individual and organizational learning’
FUNCTION: Professor of Positive Organizational Psychology at Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences