Thoughts about hr and management in the real world – extra information I couldn't fit in my books!.

Using Positive Psychology in HR & training

One of the areas I’ve been really interested in the last couple of years is positive psychology. It came into being in 2000 when Martin Seligman (who had been researching and writing about happiness) met Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who had been researching flow) at a conference in Hawaii.

What is positive psychology?

Their definition was: The scientific study of optimal human function that aims to discover and promote factors that allow individual and communities to thrive.     

Previously psychology had been focused more on solving negative issues (like mental illness). The impact of positivity was less clear. However  Barbara Fredrickson’s theory of ‘broaden-and-build’ shows that positive experiences do have a long lasting effect on our growth and development. She wrote that positive experiences:

  • Broaden our attention and thinking: when experiencing positive emotions like joy and interest we are more likely to be creative, open and play.
  • Undo negative emotions: mild joy or contentment can eliminate stress.
  • Enhance resilience: positive emotions help us cope better, enhance problem solving or infuse negative events with positive meaning – so we bounce back faster.
  • Builds long term psychological resources and skills: for example playing with other children or socialising with friends increases our social skills.
  • Trigger an upward spiral: towards emotional well-being and being a better person.

All sounds good? What does it have to do with HR and training?

There are a number of tools and techniques that I’ve been trying out in both areas of our business (both our consulting to SME’s and HR teams and also the HR and management training that we run). Using these tools, in the last couple of years we’ve had excellent results  – so thought it was time to share them!

The positive psychology tools that apply to HR

There are two tools that I’ve found really useful in HR.

  • Appreciative Inquiry. This is where you focus on what a positive result would look like and ask questions around that, rather than focusing on the issue. I’ve found that when managers come to talk to HR about their people challenges, asking what the best outcome would be can focus them forward. I’ve also found that in meetings where things are going off course, focusing on how things would be working if we found a solution can move people through arguing their differences and focus on a solution!
  • Self Determination Theory. Under this theory for intrinsic motivation to occur you need to provide autonomy, meaning and mastery. What I’ve found is that if you can build these principles into how you provide support to managers, you will motivate them to value HR more. For example when a manager asks me how to deal with something, I’ll give him or her a few options of what I’ve done in the past, but then ask which approach they think will work best and how they want to do it (autonomy). I might help work through the issue with them the first time as support so they can build the skill (e.g. sitting in on a disciplinary meeting).

The concepts that apply to training and L&D

Of all the parts of positive psychology there is one key concept that I’ve been working to build into the workshops we run through Elephant – and it makes a world of difference! The concept is ‘flow’. Flow is when you’re in the moment and completely involved in what you’re doing. How do you create this in training? There are several components of flow and here are 3 I’ve found can be achieved to create ‘micro flow’ moments.

  • Make sure your attendees have really clear goals on what they’ll be achieving – both from the full workshop but also during each exercise or discussion. Flow happens when people have clarity of goals and immediate feedback. Think about when you’ve got some filing to do. You can get caught up in it because you can see the filing pile reducing (seeing progress) and know at the end what the goal is (all files will be up to date!). So participants will need to be able to see their progress.
  • There are no concerns about failure. I find that sharing examples of when I made mistakes (especially around managing people or putting HR strategies in place) makes people feel a lot more open to discussing when they went wrong. We actually learn really well from when we get something wrong as we don’t want to do it again!
  • Activities and exercises that people complete during the training are rewarding in themselves. For example when people have to draw something, anyone who is creative will really enjoy that. Or discussing your own experiences – many of us enjoy talking and sharing. So the activity, while it’s about applying what you’ve learned, is also rewarding in itself! You also need to make sure that you balance the amount of teaching and learning that happens when you design your session.



On the face of it these may seem like simple things to do but we often don’t do them. When I presented at the NZ Association of Positive Psychology’s conference in June and talked through some of these concepts, one participant suddenly realised that the reason managers disliked a workshop they ran was because they were presenting it all as ‘teaching’. There were no learning activities built in. so she went away to make that change.

And if you can use these tools, you may find the same as we have, that you have managers that value and want to work closely with HR and training participants who love the workshops you run because they were in flow!

If you’d like to get in touch to talk about how you might use these concepts, just send me an email!


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This entry was posted on August 26, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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