For managers, coaches and consultants working with others around their character strengths, it’s sometimes difficult to see how the strength of love can be appropriately expressed in a work environment. The key is finding the right context and expression with colleagues which will differ from the way it is expressed among loved ones.
Here’s a conversation I often have with professionals who take a look at the 24 character strengths in the VIA classification to help clarify this distinction:
Manager: “I see how the strengths of perseverance and self-regulation are important at work because employees can learn to work hard, be disciplined, and focus their attention.”
Ryan: “Yes, that’s right!”
Manager: “And, I can even see how strengths like curiosity and gratitude have a place at work because employees can ask one another curious questions, express interest in projects, and they can be grateful and appreciative of the positive that exists at their company.”
Ryan: “Yes, all 24 of the character strengths are highly relevant in the workplace.”
Manager: “But what about love? There’s no place for love in the workplace. This stuff has its limits, right?
Ryan: “Is it not relevant to express warmth and care to your coworkers? To show support and genuineness when a co-worker is upset? To offer the practice of careful listening to customers and thoughtful, mindful speech with your boss?” These are examples of love.
Then they get it. Love simply takes on a different form but it is still love. Love will often be expressed differently at home and in one’s closest relationships, perhaps with hugs, kisses, and loving touch. That is not the way love is expressed in most workplaces.
This shows that all 24 character strengths – which are parts of all of us – not only have a place at work but they are what really matters most in the workplace.
In the last five years, there has been an ever-increasing array of connections between character strengths and work outcomes. Here are 10 of the research benefits to using your character strengths at work right now!
- Higher work performance
- Less counterproductive work behavior
- Better stress management
- Greater harmonious passion
- Greater flourishing at work
- More work-as-a-calling (meaningful work)
- More positive work experiences
- Greater work engagement
- Higher job satisfaction
- Increased strengths use the next day
Take simple action
- Express love at work by being warm, caring, and genuine to each person you interact with.
- Spot character strengths in your colleagues, boss, and subordinates.
- Tell one co-worker today why you appreciate them for their particular character strengths.
- Align your signature strengths with your daily work tasks.
- Use one of your highest strengths in a new way.
Social anxiety has always been examined with a deficit-based approach—exclusively looking at what’s wrong or weak. Until now. Newly published research shows how social anxiety can be linked to strengths expression, specifically overuse and underuse.
It is possible to overuse any of your character strengths. For example, if you use too much curiosity by asking your shy colleague one too many questions, they might start to view you as nosey and bothersome. Conversely, you can underuse your character strengths. For example, if you never give money to an important work charity, year after year, your colleagues might come to view you as low in generosity or underusing your strength of kindness.
Back to social anxiety disorder. How might the underuse and overuse of character strengths be operating here?
My colleagues, Pavel Freidlin and Hadassah Littman-Ovadia, and I investigated this question. We developed a new test called Overuse, Underuse, Optimal-Use (OUOU) Survey of Strengths and gave it to people with and without a social anxiety disorder. While there were many interesting findings, one in particular stuck out to me. It turns out a unique combination of six overuses/underuses of strengths could be used to identify people with the disorder from those without (with over 87% accuracy!). This is the first actual study of character strength overuse/underuse to be published.
Here are the six overuses/underuses, along with an explanation of why they are relevant to social anxiety (they are not listed in any order of importance):
1.) Overuse of social intelligence
What it means: You are analyzing your thoughts and feelings too much. You might also be quick to over-analyze the intentions and actions of others.
How this relates to social anxiety: You are probably giving extra attention to your nervousness and worry and less attention to more balanced thoughts and other feelings (such as excitement, interest, and hope). For example, you might see a hand gesture or expression on someone’s face and come to an immediate conclusion that they are thinking something negative about you.
2.) Overuse of humility
What it means: You have little interest in talking about yourself or any of your accomplishments. When people praise you for doing something good, you feel uncomfortable and awkward and say little to nothing.
How this relates to social anxiety: Humility is an important strength and can have social benefits. However, too much humility in certain situations can lead to depriving others of learning about you. If people can’t learn about you, it’s hard for them to connect with you, which can subsequently contribute to sub-optimal social situations.
3.) Underuse of zest
What it means: If others perceive you as coming across without even a moderate amount of energy, you might be perceived as uninterested or lacking in enthusiasm. Zest is one of the character strengths most connected with happiness, so in some situations, you might even come across as “unhappy.”
How this relates to social anxiety: In order to contribute to social situations, you need to express energy. If you are bringing forth too little of energy, you won’t contribute as much. This underuse feeds your “avoidance” mechanism which is a problem because “avoidance of fear” is a hallmark feature of all types of anxiety. Socially anxious people avoid what they are afraid of, which further perpetuates the cycle of anxiety. Underuse of zest feeds this process.
4.) Underuse of humor
What it means: In some social situations, you are especially serious and don’t smile, joke, laugh, or see the lighter side of things. While that might be appropriate behavior at times, there are situations where humor is particularly important—take, for example, socializing with friends or co-workers at a restaurant.
How this relates to social anxiety: Socially, humor and playfulness are kings (or queens). People generally want to be around funny or playful people. They want to laugh and have a good time. If you underuse humor in social situations, you are essentially eliminating one of the main pathways to connecting and socializing with others.
5.) Underuse of social intelligence
What it means: You are not particularly attuned to your own feelings or the feelings of others. You pay little attention to social cues, body language, or the circumstances of the social situation you are in.
How this relates to social anxiety: Social situations often require a subtle and nuanced level of awareness of feelings and circumstance. People unaware of their own feelings, unable to speak appropriately to those feelings, unaware of how others might be feeling, or unaware of how to query and discuss others’ feelings are at a significant disadvantage. Furthermore, those who sense this reality within themselves are prone to feel more anxious about this disconnect. People with social anxiety may also misinterpret cues or misread body language, further contributing to the problem.
6.) Underuse of self-regulation
What it means: You have some difficulties in managing your reactions to others or in managing your feelings or personal habits. You may come across as lacking discipline (in your speech and behavior).
How this relates to social anxiety: The best social interactions involve a balanced back and forth of questioning, sharing, and communicating. If your self-regulation is particularly low in these situations, you may appear insensitive to others. This can impact the interaction and contribute to anxiety.
1.) The first step is awareness. If you or someone you know suffers from social anxiety, what is it like for you (or for them) to look at anxiety in this way? The best course of action with this new research is to reflect on how you might be overusing or underusing these particular character strengths in social situations. This will lead you to new insights and ideas for taking action.
2.) Think about social anxiety from the lens of overuse and underuse. This does not mean you have to get rid of deficit-based thinking or attending to symptoms and other parts that feel “wrong” about you. Instead, you now have an empowering language and a new lens for looking at this challenge.
There are different subtypes of social anxiety disorder that I have not addressed in this article. These are quite wide-range, for example, there are social fears involving eating in restaurants, giving presentations, and using public restrooms, to name a few. Thus, the overuse/underuse of these character strengths will need to be adapted accordingly.
Remember, this is a new study so it is important to have these findings replicated in additional studies. If these findings above are also found in future research, this could lead to new treatment approaches to this relatively common and painful condition.
Want to do research on overuse/underuse?
Scientists and student researchers can use the new Overuse, Underuse, Optimal-Use (OUOU) Survey of Strengths for free in their research. Go to this link here to take action.
Freidlin, P., Littman-Ovadia, H., & Niemiec, R. M. (2017). Positive psychopathology: Social anxiety via character strengths underuse and overuse. Personality and Individual Differences, 108, 50–54. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.12.003
Do you wake up most mornings with your mind furiously spinning as though you’re a hamster stuck inside the wheel of your work life? If so, you are not alone.
Isn’t it time to turn this unhealthy mindset on its ears?
Rather than lying in bed allowing harmful thoughts to hold you captive, consciously, develop the practice of focusing on all that is good in your world.
Are you not able to come up with a single thing?
How about, I’m grateful for:
- A paycheck every month that helps me provide for my family and myself—believe it’s not worthy of Gratitude? Think of those who don’t have a job.
- Having the opportunity to work with a great bunch of co-workers. You get to chose who you pay attention to in your career.
- Being challenged to grow and expand my capabilities. Decide to embrace the uncomfortable because this is where exponential growth takes place.
By flooding your thoughts with the VIA character strength of Gratitude, you will jumpstart yourself right into a happier, more productive, and positive state of mind. Concentrating on the upbeat in your world will shift your attention and help you realize how remarkable life is. You see, negative emotions are turned upside-down in the face of Gratitude.
Because Gratitude is not only a feeling you self-generate; it is a gift you can freely give others as it is contagious—a contagion that creates an enhanced work environment for everyone!
Research corroborates, Gratitude fosters realizing the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from circumstances.[i] The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology adds that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience which is a valued attribute in today’s chaotic, ever-changing environment.[ii] And there are consequences when businesses don’t cultivate a culture of Gratitude according to a study by the American Psychological Association: more than half of all employees intend to search for new jobs because they felt underappreciated and undervalued.[iii]
Don’t Miss The Small Stuff: Sometimes you’re so caught up in dissatisfaction you miss all the positive. You know your fellow co-worker who lends a hand when you’re overwhelmed; or the executive who connected with your idea. With this expanded sense of Gratitude, your focus goes beyond self to discern the meaningful and valuable all around you.
Make it a practice of sharing the good. You create a climate of positivity when you communicate what is going well at meetings. Recall emotions are contagious. When you help another recognize and celebrate what is going right, your senses lifts too.
Savor and value your positive experiences. Don’t just name what you appreciate; instead, live fully in the emotions of gratefulness. You will feel infinitely more alive and energetic.
Mentally stash feelings of Gratitude. It helps to tap into energizing memories when faced with negativity. Recalling past occasions of Gratitude will transform the difficult circumstance of the moment and have you dwelling in a more joyous reality.
As you choose to live in Gratitude, you will notice a shift in your energy and discover your circumstances don’t determine the quality of your life or career rather your attitude does. Simply put: Gratitude goes a long way toward living a life filled with happiness, and success despite the challenges confronting you.
To learn where Gratitude falls in your strengths profile take the free VIA Survey.