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How positive leadership can help CEOs unlock their team’s potential

This World Mental Health Day, Dr Suzy Green, Founder of The Positivity Institute, looks at how leaders can embed positive psychology principles in themselves and their teams, and the business benefits of doing so.

Positive leadership

What would it mean for your organisation to have people who were more creative, more innovative, more engaged, more inclusive and better at making decisions? I’m guessing the answer is, a lot. And by this, I don’t mean hiring new people. I mean empowering the people you already have to feel more engaged and inspired, through the power of positivity.

Positive psychology, together with its business-focused science, Positive Organisational Scholarship, is defined as the science of optimal human functioning, and it’s an approach being embraced by an increasing number of workplaces around the world, with research showing it has a proven impact on creativity, innovation and decision making. It empowers people to be operating at their best, builds capacity in teams and supports the mental health and wellbeing of workers.

These all sound like great things, but a positive psychology approach to the workplace isn’t just nice to have. Organisations today have a responsibility for the mental wellbeing of their people, with ISO 45003 now in place as a global standard for managing psychological health within the workplace. Not only that, in a post-pandemic world, leaders are faced with new pressures: managing remote teams, disjointed communication and a growing trend towards burnout as the boundaries between life and work become increasingly blurred.

When workers are struggling with their mental wellbeing, their workplaces suffer too. The World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety disorders in employees costs US$1trillion per year to the global economy in lost productivity.

Positive Leadership

Positive leadership

So how can organisations begin to take a proactive and positive approach to employee wellbeing? As with most things, strong leadership plays a big part.

Positive leadership considers how leaders can be their best selves, and this has a positive flow-on effect to their teams, and even their families. Research shows that there are a number of positive workplace practices leaders can engage with that will have an impact on organisation performance.

For example, research from the complementary field of Positive Organisational Scholarship provides evidence that leaders expressing gratitude, showing forgiveness and cultivating compassion has a positive and significant impact on teams. They sound like small things, but they can have a big impact.

The age-old debate in the business world is of people vs profit, so how does positive leadership come into this?

We need our businesses to be profitable, but can we focus on profitability while also looking after our people? I believe the answer is yes, and in fact the secret to success is to build the capacity of our people so that they’re engaged with a business’s purpose, excited about being part of it, and challenged to bring their best selves to work. A lot of business leaders would agree I’m sure, but they stumble when it comes to the ‘how’ of making it happen.

My advice for CEOs is to start with learning. Educate yourself about what’s possible, and engage your leadership team in the process. There’s a wealth of research out there, and some great free resources about how to start embedding positive psychology into your organisation’s day-to-day.

Encourage questions and conversations. As I mentioned earlier, vulnerability in leadership is a good thing, and admitting you don’t have all the answers is the right place to start. Ask your people about what they’re struggling with, and experiment with new ways to address challenges.

Invest in evidence-informed programs to support your people in building their mental wellbeing and resilience.

Positive psychology in the workplace isn’t about putting on a happy face all the time and smiling through the pain, it’s about recognising the full breadth of human emotions, and allowing our people to bring their whole selves to work. Giving people permission to share their feelings and vulnerabilities, to encourage meaningful conversations and connections.

Building Resilience

Positive leadership

When we build the resilience of our people and embrace a positive psychology approach, we’re giving them the tools to make it through hard times, and to flourish in the good times.

We know from research that when people are stressed, their thinking shuts down. We’re in flight/fight or freeze mode, and we can’t think clearly. But the opposite is also true. When our people are supported and have good mental health, they’re in a better position to make good decisions and think of new ideas. To innovate and ideate.

People who are flourishing through a program of positive psychology are also 30 per cent less likely to take sick leave or fall into habits of presenteeism. A positive approach means empowering people to have good mental health, rather than waiting for them to struggle with mental health and then trying to fix it.

It’s for this reason we’ve seen an increase in the number of Chief Mental Health Officer and Chief Wellbeing Officer type roles in the c-suites of many large organisations around the world. Google famously has a Chief Happiness Officer, and organisations from Starlight Children’s Foundation and the Smith Family, through to Accenture and Zappos, have embedded positive psychology into their wellbeing and leadership programs. Workplace wellbeing is directly linked to the health of a business’s bottom line, and it can also result in teams that are three times more productive due to improved goal attainment and productivity.

So this World Mental Health Day, how about taking a pulse check on your organisation’s approach to employee mental health and wellbeing? Could you take a step today that would start your business on the path of positivity?

There’s no better time to begin than now.

Dr Suzy Green is the Founder of The Positivity Institute and a leader in the complementary fields of Coaching Psychology and Positive Psychology, having conducted a world-first study on the impact of evidence-based coaching on performance and wellbeing. She works with leaders and teams to build positive psychology into workplaces and holds roles with the Centre for Wellbeing Science, Starlight Children’s Foundation, the University of Melbourne and the University of Cambridge.

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