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Psychological Foundations of Employee Wellbeing: What Managers Need To Know
Source material for this episode comes from the book Creating the World We Want to Live in, How Positive Psychology Can Build a Brighter Future by Bridget Grenville-Cleave, Dóra Guðmundsdóttir, Felicia Huppert, Vanessa King, David Roffey, Sue Roffey, Marten de Vries.
“In the face of rapid, disruptive change, companies are realizing that managers can’t be expected to have all the answers and that command-and-control leadership is no longer viable. As a result, many firms are moving toward a coaching model in which managers facilitate problem solving and encourage employees’ development by asking questions and offering support and guidance rather than giving orders and making judgments.” - Harvard Business Review, The Leader As Coach
The world of work is rapidly changing, and astute leaders are paying close attention.
Heavy hitting human resource firms such as Gartner, academics like the Harvard Business Review, and publications such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have all been calling for coaching skills to supplement (or replace!) hierarchical management practices as we know them today.
Employees are increasingly demanding to be treated like adults at work, with more decision making authority, flexibility, and opportunities for creativity. They also recognize that the bright line between “work” and “life” is often an illusion in our 24-hour wired culture, and want to be met in their full humanity in the workplace.
According to Brian Kropp, chief of human resources research at Gartner, management of the future will require less technical experts, and more social-emotional expertise.
As leaders, it’s critical to become familiar with empirically proven principles that are essential for psychological wellbeing. When these principles are not present in the workplace, the impact is not neutral – it’s actively harmful. (Grenville-Cleave, Et al. 2021)
So what are the 5 areas of wellbeing?
According to the research, there are 5 core principles that comprise wellbeing and support our ability to flourish, both personally and professionally. We’ll begin by taking a look at them, followed by strategies you can use as a leader to hone these capacities on the job, in real time.
Components of Employee Wellbeing at Work
1) Feeling connected to others
Did you know that feeling excluded activates the human brain in the same way that physical pain does? The impacts of such feelings are real and far reaching, in terms of both employee wellbeing and productivity.
Exclusion at work comes in many forms, and may result in:
- Immune system impacts such as susceptibility to infection
- Health decline
- Increased mortality
Our close relationships have the greatest impact in this regard, but it’s not the entire picture. The micro moments of brief interaction with those in communal/work related proximity come in at a close second. (Grenville-leave, Et al. 2021.)
According to their research, specific behaviors will lead to both positive and negative outcomes for employee wellbeing in the workplace.
Positive outcome behaviors include:
- Embracing our common humanity
- Letting go of bias - critically examining disdain for preferences or worldviews that are different from yours
- Exhibiting simple grace - acknowledging that we all have a right to exist together on this planet
- Demonstrating curiosity about someone else’s view, ideas, experience
Negative outcome behaviors include:
The outcome of the aforementioned negative behaviors at work is twofold. The person who exhibits contempt, superiority or blame causes harm to themselves, and also harms others. These behaviors serve to cut the perpetrator off from their own capacity for connection within a group, while also alienating their colleagues.
From a coaching perspective, the associated International Coaching Federation (ICF) Core Competencies that support connection and wellbeing at work include Cultivating Trust and Safety, Coaching Presence, and Ethics.
2) Having a sense of autonomy
Autonomy is the feeling that we have a choice rather than being coerced or controlled by others or external factors. To support employee wellbeing in the workplace, people must have power to take actions that are in alignment with their values.
On the individual level, this could be as simple as choosing what we eat, or what we wear. At work, this looks like involvement in decision making, communication about our tasks, and basic respect for one another’s dignity.
Let's take a look at a simple example: dress codes.
When employees have an opportunity to weigh in on policies that directly impact how they present themselves, it increases buy-in and the liklihood of compliance. Consider:
- Whose idea of professional norms are we adopting, and why? Where does it come from?
- How does that definition directly relate to our business context, industry, or the work itself?
- Does our perspective regarding what's "acceptable" take into account non-dominant cultures, worldviews, and standards?
- What biases might we be holding regarding "professionalism"?
When organizations allow for feedback and co-creation that affects their people, interpersonal engagement and policies are much more effective.
The world is beating us all down with really big challenges that are beyond our individual control: we’re talking headlines such as global warming, war, and economic upheaval. While it may seem small in that larger context, empowering your employees to take action and have ownership in personally meaningful ways on the job can seriously increase overall wellbeing. (Grenville-Cleave, Et al. 2021.)
The associated ICF core competency that can be applied here is Coaching Mindset.
3) Feeling competent
Feeling capable in what we do is a basic psychological need that has a big impact on our wellbeing at work.
We know that the recognition of skills and contributions makes an important contribution toward employee satisfaction and engagement. But are we making enough time to offer positive feedback in a regular, meaningful way?
And what about on the other end of the spectrum? What happens when an employee is struggling, stretching into new challenges, or missing the mark?
When we try new things, we naturally lack competence. This is to be expected, and isn't itself a problem. But for employees, it is often their EXPERIENCE during the process of gaining new skills that creates a tipping point in their ability to learn, experience belonging, grow, and function well at work.
This means that managers must give consistent, constructive feedback around what someone has done well. It also requires being clear about what needs improvement in order to meet a standard of performance that is acceptable.
The balance set here is very important. When we teach people how to rise to our standards, they need to know what to keep (what is acceptable) and where to grow.
Appreciative inquiry is a technique that uses “what’s working” as the foundation for every future build. Using this framework, the job of a manager is to walk with employees as new initiatives are rolled out, hear concerns and clearly communicate the WHY behind change.
Be ever vigilant for the impulse toward command and control - “do as I say” without context, input or education. Implicit in command and control leadership are the harmful behaviors we visited above: contempt, superiority, blame. (Grenville-Cleave, Et al. 2021.)
Effective management involves getting an employee on-board in a competent manner so that you can oversee their work process rather than do the work yourself. Your investment in providing useful guidance and feedback all along the way - rather than blindsiding or "just doing it myself" - will reap long term rewards, enhancing employee wellbeing in the workplace.
4) Noticing what's going well
The tendency to see and ruminate on "what's not working" is natural. It stems from the fact that as human species evolved, our survival depended on avoiding danger. Our bodies are designed to scan the environment for things that might do us harm so that we can live to see another day!
Even though few of us expect to encounter a tiger on the way to work, our underlying operating system hasn’t changed very much over time. Only now, modern day "threats" include that person who cuts us off in traffic, or how we feel when our boss calls us in for a performance review. While our brains are built to scan and flee, adults in today’s world can’t physically outrun most of the things that trouble us.
When we neglect the reality of our hardwired negativity bias, we leave a massive opportunity for employee health and wellbeing on the table.
According to the research of Barbara Fredrickson, our ability to engage positively with our environment and see the existence of positive facts, traits and wins increases our capacity for perception.
The outcomes from taking time to acknowledge what went well - or was even just “okay” in an otherwise challenging situation - can be profound.
Accounting for the positive helps us to:
- be more open to others;
- apply more dexterity to our thinking;
- observe more options; and
- get better at problem solving.
In contrast, when we give in to negativity, suspicion, derision, or blame we cut ourselves off from our capacity for higher, logical thinking. In effect, following such thoughts will revert us back to a part of our brain that functions at the same level as large mammals scanning for constant threats to survival.
Threat assessment is not a functional space for innovation. And it certainly does not lead to trust of others, or recognizing the innate capacity of people around you.
Trust, noticing what’s working, and seeing possibilities are ingredients that allow human beings to feel better, grow and thrive.
Noticing what's working does not mean that we ignore problems. However, cultivating a positive outlook gives us a superior mental threshold from which to approach problems, and increases our chances of being effective at finding durable solutions.
As above, the ICF competencies associated with this principle for promoting employee health and wellbeing at work include Active Listening and Evoking Awareness.
5) Attaching to a sense of meaning
“Meaning at work” is all over the workplace wellness literature right now - MIT Sloan, World Economic Forum, McKinsey are all talking about it.
Gone are the days of “you should feel lucky to have a job.” Generation Z would rather not work for you than deal with disrespect and lack of meaning. Labor is not guaranteed, and enough negative online employee reviews can tank a company's ability to source talent.
So what’s the value of having a sense of “meaning” at work?
- It helps us direct and prioritize what matters most.
- It helps workers stave off burnout
Now here’s the thing: meaningful work is useless if the environment in which someone works does not uphold the previous 4 principles.
The associated ICF core competency at play here is Evoking Awareness. As a manager, this involves asking questions to understand your employees’ way of thinking, values, needs, wants and beliefs.
So how do we actively apply these five principles at work? Let’s take a look!
How to Create Wellbeing In the Workplace: Tools for Managers
1. Mindful awareness
Tactical failure in this area looks like:
- functioning on autopilot
- rushing through life lost in thought
- reacting automatically to what is happening in the moment
When you catch yourself in these behaviors, the antidote is to create space. Your aim is to make deliberate management decisions that take the full context (and implications) of your response into account.
Tactical success looks like learning how to focus your attention.
We do this by developing skills that allow us to notice when we are having a reactive experience, and learning to pause in that moment so we can reset before responding. Mindful engagement with our thoughts and feelings affords us greater opportunity to take back control.
This is especially important when it comes to deadlines, distributing information, and giving feedback. Here’s how that could look in practice:
- Pause: is this a hard deadline or movable?
- Pause: have I provided enough information for everyone involved to know what is expected of them?
So how do you develop the capacity to pause when deadlines are looming and everything is moving at lightning speed?
It begins with learning how to observe your own thoughts. Practices such as meditation and mindfulness teach us how to do this step-by-step, and the benefits of a regular practice compound over time. Cultivating mindful presence helps to build both self-regulation and self-acceptance.
Not sure if you’ve got the time for that? Consider how the folks around you experience you if you don't. Frenzy, lack of feedback, bad moods, and “Do as I say” leadership all stem from our thoughts. Unexamined thoughts lead to unintended consequences.
Mindfulness of our thoughts and an ability to create mental space to respond rather than react has been proven to enhance prosocial behavior. Its role in leadership and social action is increasingly important. If we want to see change from others, we first need to seek to change ourselves, and offer humility in the pursuit of self-awareness. (Grenville-Cleave, Et al. 2021.)
2. Kindness and compassion
Empathy is more than a personal virtue. It’s a tool, and a critical managerial skill set. The good news is that you don't need to be a born "empath". This is a skill that can be learned.
To cultivate empathy, we must take the time to understand somebody else’s perspective from a 360º view. It involves a compassionate investigation of the world as they see it, and how their point of view impacts what they might think, say, or do.
At work this means we recognize that our co-workers are human first. Our colleagues are entitled to have lives outside of work, and are also entitled to care. This means we show up and acknowledge the hard stuff, expressing solidarity and concern.
It also means that your employees want and need celebration and validation. This looks different for everyone, but often includes:
- Remembering birthdays and and work anniversaries
- Publicly acknowledging jobs well done
- Exchanging pleasantries
According to the Harvard Business Review, we can build our empathy skills by:
- Listening as if what the person is saying to you is the most important thing in the world.
- Carefully considering what the other person’s perspective might be.
- Noticing what barriers you may face in trying to understand the other person. This could include assumptions you may be making about them, what you need from them, or your own reactivity.
3. Informed appraisal
This tenet relates to how we evaluate information. According to Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University, we have an average of 60,000 thoughts per day. That’s a whole lot of processing!
The fact of the matter is that we are subject to deluges of information every day from outside sources. Not only that, we are also subject to information that is generated from our own minds: worries, memories, plans and fantasy.
Our thoughts don’t necessarily represent reality, likewise, neither does much of the information that is presented to us on a daily basis from external sources. Our goal is to gain efficacy in determining what is true, important, and needs to be acted upon.
We need to be able to think clearly to engage in the process of critical thinking. Self-awareness around observing our thoughts, feelings, biases, and blockers is step one.
This skill set goes further than mere rational reasoning. We are inserting the step of evaluating how open (or clouded) our minds and hearts are when it comes to our ability to take in information in a meaningful way. (Grenville-Cleave, Et al. 2021.)
Critical thinking filters:
- Am I able to validate the source of this information as accurate?
- Is someone speaking in metaphor?
- Is someone expressing feeling vs. fact?
- Do I have a bias that is blocking me from truly hearing what another person is saying?
That last question can be tricky to navigate! Our biases are usually nestled in the subconscious mind, where their influence plays out in ways that are often hidden from our awareness. If you’re not sure how to identify your biases, discover how in the blog Recognizing & Overcoming Internal Bias as A Coach.
Putting it all together
Wise action can be defined as understanding the complexity of a situation and making a decision that will generate the best long-term results (Grenville-Cleave, Et al. 2021.) Clear thinking, creating space to evaluate our thoughts, cultivating a readiness to act rather than react, and the belief that others deserve to be treated with dignity together form a foundation that leads to wise action.
Question for reflection: How can drilling down on these skill sets enhance my capacity to work effectively with others?
Additional resources for managers:
- 5 Ways to Show Up As A Leader In Times of Crisis
- Dealing With Burnout and Stress: Real Solutions for Leaders
- Using Coaching Skills As A Leader
- The RISE of Coaching in the Workplace
- How To Build A Coaching Culture At Work
- How to Ask Your Company to Pay for Life Coach Training
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