Building resilience with positive psychology

Filed on August 25, 2011

The Penn Resiliency Programme is being implemented in 21 diverse school settings to teach children how to become more optimistic and resilient. A $145 million Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme in underway to build resilience and teach positive psychology to multinational soldiers.

Positive psychology has decades of clinical trials behind it and this is what has created university MBA programmes in positive organisational development. Since then, graduates of such programs have helped implement positive psychology programs in companies such as BP and Toyota, Ann Taylor and Castrol Marine, the Standard Chartered Bank and the US Navy.

Why is everyone jumping on board? Because research has found that positivity increases creativity and combats stress. Happiness at work can increase profits, customer and employee loyalty and workplace safety. A positive mood reduces the time it takes doctors to make complex diagnoses; a social worker that feels appreciated will double her client visits. The effects are measurable. One bank saw its deposits rise by 20per cent; a retail chain increased its revenue by 10per cent in three months.

Positive psychology programmes can help your company flourish during the good times, but their most useful application is during the bad. In rapidly changing markets and times, it is the ability to respond to setbacks, see opportunities in problems, shift direction and remain optimistic that helps companies grow and succeed. Martin Seligmann, the “father of positive psychology,” studied learned helplessness in the 1970’s. His studies found that about a third of the animals or people that encountered noise or shock that they couldn’t escape from and couldn’t control did not descend into learned helplessness. They recovered and even experienced growth after the negative experience rather than slipping into despondency and hopelessness. Seligmann learned that it is optimism that made the difference between those with an “all is lost” mentality and those with a “this will pass-can do” mentality.

It is this finding that prompted Seligmann to develop a number of programs in positive psychology and resilience training. He says the building blocks of growth and resilience can be found in the acronym PERMA: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

CEO of California Seal employed these tactics when his company experienced a slew of setbacks that threatened morale and the business altogether. He learned to hire for strength rather than resume-listed skills, match employees with jobs, offer more training and autonomy and use praise rather than criticism in meetings. The CEO credits the company’s rebound growth with their changed mission: “We’re a personal and career development company. It turns out the by-product is engineered rubber, metal, plastic and foam.”

Building resilience means building emotional intelligence skills, building relationship skills, and recognising and utilizing core strengths.

Identifying a person’s core strengths is at the core of employee engagement. The most successful companies are those in which workers feel they get to practice what they’re best at. We’re not just talking about hard skills here: character matters. If you place people with emotional intelligence, optimism and a sense of purpose in positions where they influence others; you’ll see changes throughout your employees. When a person’s strengths match their work, they’re more likely to experience flow: pleasantly challenging complete absorption. This leads to greater productivity and satisfaction and allows people to push past their comfort zones and onto bigger and better things.

Utilising your employee’s strengths leads to appreciation and achievement. Using Appreciative Inquiry leads to strong teams and more commitment. Appreciative inquiry means inviting your employees to talk about what they do, why it is important, and what the company’s mission is. A sense of belonging and serving a higher purpose are important core needs.

Emotional intelligence training can increase resilience by helping employees to amplify positive emotions and dispel catastrophic, destructive and unrealistic thinking. It also helps in terms of communication and connection with others.And resiliency training helps you and your employees to recognise the good that can come from the bad, how to look at traumatic events as a hero’s journey in which the trials have allowed you to come back with a greater prize.

The author is an executive coach and HR training and development expert. She can be reached at,

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