What Leading with Optimism Really Looks Like

What Leading with Optimism Really Looks Like


Optimismby Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan

When there is negative news everywhere you look and unprecedented financial and logistical challenges facing so many companies, it can be tough to advise people to stay positive. Many leaders we work with worry, especially now during the global pandemic, that trying to emphasize positivity and happiness will make them look out of touch — and rather than helping their people, it will backfire.

The findings from our multi-year research project at a hospital system in Iowa indicate quite the opposite. It’s precisely in the midst of a setback or challenging time, that leaders should be actively encouraging positivity because it will help teams weather the storm.

Three years ago, Genesis Health System, which is comprised of five hospitals and a regional health center, was not profitable. This was true for many hospitals, which were experiencing the lowest profitability since the 2008 financial crisis. Consequently, few leaders at Genesis were talking about happiness at work and Jordan Voigt, president of the largest medical center (Genesis Medical Center-Davenport), was facing a conundrum. He wanted to infuse more positivity into the culture at the medical center, but they were about to undergo two rounds of massive cost reductions and layoffs. In addition, they were asking staff to reduce their hours and take time off with or without PTO.

Still, he felt it was important to focus on the company’s culture and hypothesized that positivity could help the center at this crucial time. We worked with the medical center to roll out a series of positive psychology interventions department by department so we could test the effectiveness compared to groups that had not been exposed to the interventions. Each department designed positive changes tailored to their subculture spanning from gratitude exercises, increased praise and recognition from managers, and team-based conscious acts of kindness.

The color “orange” was adopted to symbolize positive changes. For example, in some departments, when people returned from vacation, their colleagues cover their offices with words of appreciation on orange post-it notes. The staff from the organizational behavior department bought caterpillars for every department in the entire hospital and together released the Monarch butterflies after they hatched as a symbol of change. When moms have new babies, the staff give the big brothers and sisters plush orange frogs called baby Sparks as a symbol of the kind character of the department. Employees receive a Spark Award for spreading happiness through a kind act. You can even find orange hair nets and orange oxygen carts in some departments.

In addition, the department leaders and staff were tasked with examining how to change existing work routines to create more happiness at work, like starting their meetings with three positives or adopting a praise and recognition program. We staggered the teams trained so we could effectively test in real time how different departments fared with the setbacks.

As happiness researchers, we expected the departments exposed to the interventions to do better, but even we were surprised by the extent.

For the individuals who had not yet been exposed to the positive intervention, only 23% of the team members reported they were “very expressive of optimism at work.” That jumped to 40% after participating in the positive psychology culture training (measured six weeks after the intervention). Even in the midst of the massive organizational changes, the percentage of respondents who reported that they were happy at work went from 43% to 62%. Individuals feeling burned out “often” dropped from 11% to 6%. Individuals reporting “high stress at work” dropped by 30% after they participated in the workshop on creating positive mindsets on the team. Social connection improved as well. The number of respondents who said “I feel connected at work” went from 68% to 85%. This was after staff reductions where some coworkers and friends were no longer at the organization.

In the parts of the hospital that had not been part of the intervention, only 37% of respondents claimed Genesis was going in the right direction, compared to 63% in the groups who went through the intervention. Imagine if double the number of people on your team felt like the company was going in the right direction, even in the midst of an incredibly challenging time.

Why did this work and what can you learn from it? We have written previously about the efficacy of positive psychology interventions upon performance, so we won’t rehash that here. But here are four key takeaways for leaders who want to know how to start the conversation.

Role model from the top

Oftentimes leaders give lip service to the value of a positive mindset and people being their greatest asset, but then they don’t bother to attend their own internal positive leadership workshops because they are too busy. This signals to the rest of the organization that a positive culture is in fact a much lower priority than they claimed. As president of the Medical Center, Voigt personally kicked off every workshop. He made sure to follow each round of data collection findings to determine what was working and whether to continue. He affirmed happiness as a priority, which made the topic more salient in the minds of his staff. This is the first step for leaders who want to create positive mindset in the midst of setback: show up and model that mindset yourself.

Help employees connect before asking them to change
People don’t typically make positive changes alone or in isolation. A positive mindset at work is often a collective exercise because the behaviors and attitudes are reinforced when a group does it together. At Genesis, the emphasis in the workshops was on developing positive habits, brainstorming new work routines, and discussing culture together in groups. This allowed participants to take ownership over the new mindsets, routines, and ways of working. They were creating new social scripts in real time and connecting these changes to purpose, verbalizing the significant impact their happiness and positivity can have on their patients. It’s imperative that leaders help people feel connected first and then deputize them to make positive change.

Make changes part of the routine way of doing work

As a leader, don’t just tell people “don’t worry, be happy”; work with them to create patterns that reinforce the positive. It’s too hard in the midst of stress to try to invent new ways to be positive, so creating regular patterns as a department can help sustain the positive without having to call on new brain resources. It can be as simple as routinizing celebration. For example, the endoscopy department, which was known to be toxic with a 35% vacancy rate, now has regularly scheduled potluck lunches — and a 0% vacancy rate over six months. Some departments’ leaders set the routine of starting all their staff meetings with each person saying one thing they’re grateful for. Some have areas where people can post thank yous or pictures of successes so that any staff or patient walking into that department is given a dose of visual positivity.

Track outcomes to make the changes sustainable

If there was no perceived change, or if there was no data justifying the approach, the culture change would not take root as readily. If we don’t test what works, we lack the motivation to keep that change permanent or top of mind. Positive interventions in particular get thrown by the wayside in challenging times unless you have a clearly established connection between the energy required to continue the positive change and the desired outcomes. In the end by doing a rolled out, staggered approach, other teams heard about the intervention and the results and were actually demanding the positive intervention for their teams.

All of these changes weren’t just good for the hospital staff; they benefited patients too. Patient experience rates nearly doubled within a 12-month period. Following the intervention, Genesis Medical Center-Davenport achieved profitability again and exceeded their operating budget by 35% during the first part of 2019, going from an operating loss of $2M to a profit of $8M. The medical center was recognized in 2019 by Press Ganey as one of nation’s most improved medical centers for performance and six months into the fiscal year increased total operating revenue by $15 million or 8.7%, while expenses increased only $1.9 million or 1.1%. And in October 2019, it achieved a record in the history of the medical center for gross revenue, $114 million. All of this was happening when so much of the medical industry was financially contracting.

Even in the face of dire circumstances, you can create a positive mindset at your company — one that will help your people and your customers. When is the best time to start talking about positivity at work? Maybe right now.

A father learns the true reward of taking a free online happiness course with his son

A father learns the true reward of taking a free online happiness course with his son


FamilyBy Jeff Schrum

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, my wife and I worried that we were running out of time to help our two teens learn the self-care and coping skills they’ll need to launch themselves into an increasingly volatile world. No longer an elective, emotional intelligence is a prerequisite for teens coming of age in the 2020s. Thankfully, a happy and fulfilling life — which is what parents across cultures and continents say they want for their kids — is not a luxury reserved for a privileged few. Science reveals that the good life awaits those who make deliberate, daily efforts to cultivate positive emotions, such as joy, fulfillment, compassion, connectedness and resilience.

This is material I barely know myself, so when Yale’s popular “The Science of Well-Being” appeared in a list of free online personal development courses to take during the pandemic, it seemed like a good starting point. I convinced my older son, a 10th-grader, to join me, promising we could watch a few lectures, count the hours as social science credit (we home-school) and bail after a few weeks if he lost interest, a distinct possibility.

Laurie Santos, a psychology professor and head of college at Yale University, introduced the live class, “Psyc 157: Psychology and the Good Life”, in 2018, responding to an increase in anxiety and depression reported by students. “I was really seeing this mental health crisis that so many college students are facing really up close and personal in my role as head of college,” she said. Now the most popular course offered in the school’s history, “Psyc 157” arms students with evidence-based happiness strategies. After garnering worldwide interest and media attention, the university developed a free online version, called “The Science of Well-Being”, shortly thereafter. It boasts more than 2.6 million registrants — 2 million in the past two months alone. “That just made us realize that it wasn’t just Yale students who needed this content, you know, this is really the kind of thing that could help a lot of people”, Santos said. Similar free online courses from Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of California, Berkeley, to name a few, show positive psychology’s high demand.

What is happiness?

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside, happiness researcher and author, suggests thinking of happiness as being both happy in your life, and being happy with your life. “Being happy in your life is the experience of fairly frequent positive emotions, like tranquility, joy, curiosity, pride, affection, etc.”, Lyubomirsky said. Happiness with your life is feeling an overall sense of satisfaction, that your life is good, meaningful and worthwhile, she continued.

Happiness isn’t gratification, although we tend to equate them, said Christine

Carter, author of “The New Adolescence” and senior fellow at Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “In our culture we are wildly confused about the difference between something that is gratifying or pleasurable, and something that will actually foster a positive emotion, like happiness,” she said. Pleasure is fleeting. Positive emotions, on the other hand, persist, reversing our fight-or-flight response, and activating a part of the brain that doesn’t leave us wanting more. “Fostering positive emotions, like gratitude, is going to create a lasting sense of well-being”.

This distinction between happiness and gratification is one of many myths and misconceptions I hope this experience has helped dispel for my son. The problem isn’t just that we tend to misunderstand what may and may not create lasting happiness, putting too much faith in things such as promotions, grades and possessions. It’s also that humans usually return fairly quickly to a baseline level of happiness after a positive or negative event — a tendency called hedonic adaptation. This can throw us for a loop if we expected something — for teens, this could be a new activity or course or relationship — to change our lives. Understanding hedonic adaptation is a very important life lesson for teens, Lyubomirsky said. “When you cease to be as excited as you were, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, or the person, or the activity, or the job or the school,” she said.

The ‘rewirements’

After arming us with research and tips on cultivating happiness, Santos sent us off to practice our selected happiness strategies — habits correlated to increased well-being, optimism and emotional regulation — for the next four weeks. She calls these homework assignments “rewirements,” since they’re practices aimed at rewiring our habits. Creating new habits is the goal of the course. I chose gratitude, and my son chose meditation.

I was curious to see if my son would stick with his practice, because I know from experience that meditation can be challenging for beginners. Plus, I didn’t want to nag, because Carter says that interferes with adolescents’ sense of independence. “With a teenager you always have to be willing to walk away from your own agenda,” she counseled. Happily, my son practiced his 10- to 15-minute guided meditations (he used the Calm app) with minimal coercing, and seemed on most days to enjoy, or at least tolerate, his practice.

My gratitude practice felt forced at first. I scanned my day for positive moments, feelings and sensations, savoring them in the moment, then noting them in a journal each night. I began all entries with, “Grateful today for . . . ” followed by “. . . the pastel sky on the horizon at dusk tonight” or “. . . the fragrant honeysuckle along the trail on my evening walk” or “. . . the it’ll-do quarantine haircut [my wife] gave me,” trying to be as specific and detailed as possible.

The practice eventually came more naturally, and to head off hedonic adaptation, I will probably adjust the “dosage” from daily to weekly. Finding the right dosage is important, as is ensuring the strategies you use fit your personality and culture, advised Lyubomirsky. Variety is also key. “If you engage in these activities the same way every time, they’re going to lose their power,” she said.

Taking stock

Six weeks after recording my first gratitude journal entry, I still find myself instinctively scanning and savoring, grateful for brief moments of joy and awe and connection. I’m happier overall (most days), both with my life and in my life. My wife and sons see an improvement in me, too. My son kept up his daily meditation, which he now practices with his mom — another bonus from this experience. While he may not notice, it’s obvious to us that his confidence and motivation have improved. Plus, he seems to have more emotional bandwidth to regulate emotions as common triggers arise. When I mentioned that he seemed calmer and happier, he agreed.

With so many variables, we can never know the degree to which taking the class improved our felt sense of happiness and overall well-being. Regardless, the magic in this experience was in sharing it. We served as new-habit partners, which studies show correlates to success. Co-learning as peers allowed him to preserve his sense of independence and competence, critical components of teens’ motivation, according to Carter. It also afforded me an authentic way to model self-care and growth. “No self-respecting teenager wants support or instruction from somebody who can’t do it themselves,” she said.

Whether my son retains much from the course is irrelevant, she said. He ended up with a practice — meditation — that research shows will benefit him “in terms of improving his overall functioning, his ability to fulfill his potential, his overall well-being”. Finally, we made a connection, the kind that seemed infinitely possible when he was younger but that I now savor as if each is the last. (This, too, we learned in the course, is a happiness strategy.) Regardless of how much he retains from the class, Carter said, “you still found a way to connect with him, to just do something next to him. And we know that that is meaningful.”

Schrum is a freelance writer, volunteer crisis counselor and home-schooling dad in Virginia.

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