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Well-Being in Leadership: Positive Psychology in the Workplace

Positive Psychology in Leadership

"You can't solve todays problems with yesterdays solutions" Barbara Fredrickson

The notion of positive psychology in business is a concept that has garnered mixed reception. If all leaders understood that at its core, positive psychology focuses on strengths and establishes resources within human capital so that resilience, performance and overall well-being are maximised, more of them would definitely subscribe to the paradigms within.

To define well-being in leadership and substantiate how it can increase an individuals’ leadership effectiveness, I refer to the construct of well-being provided by Martin Seligman ~ a thought-leader in the field. According to Seligmans' theory, well-being is comprised of 5 elements, each independent of themselves and pursued for their own right.

Elements of Well-being Model PERMA (Martin Seligman)

1. Positive Emotion

2. Engagement

3. Relationships

4. Meaning

5. Achievement

Positive Emotion

Making a conscious effort to focus on positive emotions provides individuals with an optimistic view the past, present, and future. This in turn is linked to improvements in resilience, creativity, innovation, engagement and overall sense of satisfaction.[1]

Positive emotions are not merely the hedonic feelings of pleasure, but include feelings of joy, gratitude, serenity, hope, interest, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love.[2]

Leaders would benefit from understanding their own extent of positive emotions as well as ways they could evoke positive emotions within their teams and across their organisation.


The work of Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi examines engagement through the state of flow ~ being totally immersed in an activity, one that challenges but is not too demanding or too simple. When individuals find themselves in this state, they become so absorbed in the activity it is timeless, creativity and effort are high, and they are playing to their strengths. Engagement can play to athletic, creative, cognitive or signature strengths.

If leaders played to their strengths and provided an environment for team members to utilise their strengths, performance and energy levels would simultaneously increase. If managers challenged their team members and set appropriate goals, the state of flow would be more attainable.


‘Other people matter’ a statement by Christopher Peterson, epitomises the need for positive relationships. Having positive connections with other people has been linked to things such as improved ability to deal with stress, greater levels of collaboration, better physical and mental health.

Leaders would clearly benefit from having positive relationships themselves, and promoting positive connections and social capital across the organisation. Mentors are one way organisations have started doing this, team meetings also promote positive connections within smaller teams. There are many ways to elevate positive relationships within the workplace.


Working towards something bigger than one’s self is how meaning is described in the literature. Meaning can come from several sources such as achievement, relationships, altruism, spirituality and justice. [3] Meaning also incorporates living aligned with one’s values.

Creative work, opportunity for achievement and personal growth are just a few avenues organisations can tap into in order to provide more meaning in the workplace. Leaders must also take this into perspective so that they continue to have meaning in their day-to-day operations, as all too often they are inclined to get caught up in the numbers and the bottom-line.


Having goals and working towards something energises, influences our motivational systems, and leads to higher levels of self-efficacy[4]. Simple rituals such as making your bed each morning, contribute to your sense of achievement. Carol Dweck determined that the power of our mindset directly impacts our goal setting and likelihood of attainment.[5]

Achievement in the workplace may appear an easy element to implement however, there are many things leaders can be doing to increase their teams/organisations sense of achievement. Breaking down goals into smaller tasks provides small wins along the way, contributing to overall well-being. Setting rituals at team meetings and for basic processes also contributes to sense of achievement. Having weekly, monthly and quarterly expectations and discussions are other means of contributing to overall sense of achievement. Incorporating personal goals and wellness objectives addresses the work-life integration that should be considered in todays integrated world.

5 Things Leaders Can Do to Increase Overall Well-Being

  1. Raise awareness of their own levels of positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement.

  2. Drive a strengths based culture.

  3. Harness and encourage curiosity and creativity.

  4. Provide opportunities for ongoing development.

  5. Set challenging yet attainable goals.

To clarify, well-being is not wellness, however it definitely contributes to it. As a small insight into well-being in leadership, PERMA can be one of the constructs utilised for improving leadership impact and an organisations inclusive well-being.

[1] Biswas-Diener, R & Dean, B. (2007) Positive Psychology Coaching. Wiley & Sons, UK

[2] Fredrickson, Barbara L. "Positive emotions." Handbook of positive psychology (2002): 120-134.

[3] Wong, 1998, Fry, Prem S. (Ed), (1998). The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications. , (pp. 111-140). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, xxvi, 462 pp.

[4] Bandura 1997 Self Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. Worth Publishers.

[5] Dweck, C. 2008. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House Publishers.

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