Positive psychology, studying people’s strengths and promoting human potential, is adding greatly to our understanding of success.
This school of thought proposes that it is important to understand and encourage human virtues, happiness and fulfillment. What do people require to flourish? What makes people resilient in the face of adversity?
The answers to these questions are relevant to public service leaders who work in demanding roles and aspire to make a difference in the society they serve. When we can identify and understand the conditions that encourage wisdom, courage, virtue, talent, commitment, altruism, satisfaction and well-being, we are in a better position to achieve the goals we set in public policy, and to motivate others in that direction as well. While one should not neglect psychology’s traditional concern with understanding and treating human problems and maladaptive behaviours, it is even more important, in organizational settings, to understand success.
The Public Service Commission’s Executive Counselling Services (ECS) uses the positive psychology model to guide leadership development and provide support to public service leaders. A service unit within the Personnel Psychology Centre, ECS is staffed by professional counselling psychologists and engages coaches who have worked as senior executives in the federal public service and know first-hand about the rigors and rewards of the job. Together, they offer coaching and counselling services that encourage clients to gain personal insight, use initiative, and have realistic expectations.
During the past year, ECS worked with nearly 900 new clients from the executive and senior professional ranks. Clients responding to a satisfaction survey indicated that 99% felt the service made a difference for them, and 100% would recommend it to a colleague. Asked why, they cited achieving better focus, taking a more strategic perspective, gaining better awareness of expectations, increasing awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses, getting objective feedback, understanding their mistakes, identifying areas to improve, and boosting their self-confidence.
Executive coaching seeks to enhance performance and well-being, which is consistent with positive psychology. In our coaching services, we follow the fundamental principle of self-determination: the client decides when and how to act upon whatever discussion has taken place. Our role is to help the client explore options prior to taking action. The reason for this is simple: research suggests that when individuals are given the opportunity to have their views heard, have their perceptions and feelings acknowledged, consider relevant information, and choose a course of action, they are more productive, satisfied, and healthy than individuals who act primarily on the basis of external pressures. When people feel supported in taking their own decisions and determining their course of action, they will be at their best.
In these circumstances they will perform in ways that reflect their preferences and inherent strengths, their core values and beliefs. They will identify with the chosen action and find the process rewarding. Research demonstrates that they also perform more effectively, especially when their work requires creativity, conceptualization and flexibility. Performance improves even when their work is not interesting but serves a long-term goal with which they identify.
In some circumstances, coaching may be remedial, as when a client’s performance evaluation in the workplace has identified an area of weakness. The coach and client seek to understand the circumstances and identify the best way to address the need for change. In other circumstances, coaching may be adaptive. A client may enter a new and unfamiliar situation or face high expectations, and seek the assistance of a coach to better understand the requirements and keep abreast of expectations. For example, ECS provides “onboarding” services for senior executives recruited from outside the public service to accelerate their adjustment to expectations and management practices. Finally, coaching may be performance enhancing, as when it supports a client’s intentional effort to stretch his or her abilities to eventually achieve a longer-term objective.
Career management services provided at ECS build upon three basic elements identified by positive psychology as essential for optimal human development and well-being:
- autonomy – the ability to take decisions and influence one’s environment
- competence – the ability to effectively take action to accomplish goals, and
- relatedness – the ability to relate and be connected to others.
Studies from vastly different cultures agree that when these three needs are satisfied, people fare better in terms of psychological health and well-being. Applying this principle to clients’ decisions about career, ECS counselling psychologists use a broad range of tests and assessment tools to enable executive clients to clearly articulate their personal strengths and limitations, values, sources of satisfaction and motivation. With this insight, career alternatives and choices become clearer. People can more readily trace a satisfying career path that lends itself to strong performance and personal fulfillment. Moreover, in a rapidly changing world, individuals who know themselves are better placed to seize opportunities when they arise, and to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. In this vein, clients often consult ECS at mid-career, at key decision points in their career, and in preparation for retirement.
The benefits of aligning autonomy, competence, relatedness and career extend beyond workplace satisfaction. Recent studies suggest that individuals who give importance to the process and purpose of their work experience fewer physical health problems, and have a longer lifespan.
Exploring tough situations
Part of maintaining a healthy organization involves keeping leaders healthy. A leader’s influence spreads quickly throughout an organization. Leadership styles and attitudes, and the state of a leader’s physical and mental well-being, can have significant repercussions for staff and colleagues. Yet like anyone, leaders experience times of stress, challenge, and failure during the course of a normal career. Rather than ignoring these setbacks, it benefits an organization to help leaders move through their low phases in a timely way. We provide clients a confidential environment, and service providers who are in tune with the unique challenges of public service.
Through frank dialogue, ECS provides constructive support to assist strong people in their vulnerable times. Personalized support during a difficult phase, and having the opportunity to discuss options with knowledgeable service providers, generally helps clients process emotions, make well-considered decisions, and often, learn from the experience in a way that will serve them well in the long run. A practical, proven coping strategy, such as mindfulness, can also be learned and applied to alleviate symptoms of stress. While stress is a normal part of executive life, healthy people at risk for stress (e.g., teachers, health workers, executives) who learn to observe and accept their symptoms (shallow breathing,