Personality Matters- Introducing Positive Psychology


Personality Matters- Introducing Positive Psychology
By Leslie Sachs

Many of my articles focus on identifying and dealing with dysfunctional behaviors in the workplace, such as paranoia or the learned helplessness that we have seen in many IT operations shops when systems went down even after the technical personnel warned that there was a problem. Psychology has long focused on pathologies in a valiant effort to identify and cure mental illness. However, one limitation with this approach is that focusing on the negative issues can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy. First year medical students are notorious for thinking that they have almost every illness that they learn about in their classes. If you want an effective and healthy organization, then it seems obvious that it is essential to focus on promoting healthy organizational behavior. Psychologists Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have pioneered a new focus on a positive view of psychology and this article will help you to understand and begin to apply these exciting and very effective techniques.

Technology leaders from CTOs to Scrummasters work every day to foster the optimal behaviors that lead to improved productivity and quality. That said, we all know that dealing with difficult people and dysfunctional behaviors can be very challenging and sometimes disheartening. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi wrote that “psychology has become a science largely about healing. Therefore, its concentration on healing largely neglects the fulfilled individual and thriving community.” [1] Instead of concentrating so much energy on remediation, it would be better to empower technology leaders to focus on and encourage positive and effective behaviors in the workplace. Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, note that “the aim of positive psychology is to begin to catalyze a change in the focus of psychology from preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building positive qualities [2].” Seligman delineates twenty four strengths, ranging from curiosity and interest in the world to zest, passion and enthusiasm, which he suggests are the fundamental traits of a positive and effective individual [3]. Notably, playfulness and humor, along with valor, bravery and a sense of justice, are also listed among these traits that Seligman describes. So, how do we apply this knowledge to the workplace and how can we use this information to be more effective managers? The fact is that we all know people whom we admire and we have all had more than a few employers who seemed less than completely effective.

Effective leaders do indeed exhibit valor, bravery and a sense of justice in identifying barriers to organizational success. The best leaders are not afraid to deliver a tough message and also use their positional power to help teams achieve success. Technology leaders are often particularly motivated by curiosity and exhibit interest in the world, as well as a love of learning. Most also display considerable enthusiasm and passion for their work. Other traits frequently observed in strong leaders include kindness and generosity, along with integrity and honesty. Successful leaders usually also exhibit perseverance and diligence. It hardly comes as a surprise that so many of these strengths are specified as beneficial traits. In fact, many of these aspects had been discussed earlier by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers in their work on Humanistic Psychology, a discipline which focuses on helping people to achieve success and realize their full potential. Positive psychology is providing a useful framework for understanding the traits which lead to success both at an organizational level, and also for each of us individually. Much of what positive psychology advocates aligns well with agile methodologies and the agile mindset which many organizations are finding to be so effective, especially in creating an environment where each stakeholder feels empowered to do the right thing and to speak up when there are problems or barriers to success.

Quality management guru W. Edwards Deming noted long ago the importance of healthy behaviors such as driving out fear, in order to ensure that your employees are willing to speak up and warn of potential issues [4]. Clearly, positive behaviors lead to highly effective teams and successful organizations.

Positive psychology cannot solve every problem and there is no doubt that many organizations have cultures and environments that just do not foster success. However, if you are a technical leader (or wish to emerge as a technical leader), then understanding the significance and impact potential of encouraging positive traits is essential for your success. In future articles, we will discuss strategies for employing these techniques in the workplace. Helping your organization to embrace and cultivate positive and effective behaviors will increase the productivity and success of every endeavor!
[1] Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5–14
[2] Seligman, Martin.  (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Free Press, New York
[3] Abramson, L. Y.; Seligman, M. E. P.; Teasdale, J. D. (1978). “Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation”. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87
[4] Deming, W. Edwards (1986). Out of the Crisis. MIT Press

Aiello, Bob and Leslie Sachs. 2011. Configuration Management Best Practices: Practical Methods that Work in the Real World. Addison-Wesley Professional.

Aiello, Bob and Leslie Sachs. 2016. Agile Application Lifecycle Management: Using DevOps to Drive Process Improvement. Addison-Wesley Professional.