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Is 'PERMA' the formula for employee happiness?

By Gordon Tinline, Business Psychologist

According to the renowned American psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman, there is a simple formula which can be used to boost happiness and wellbeing: the ‘PERMA’ model. This formula is made up of five elements, which includes positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement.

To help explain more about how we can apply this in the workplace, we spoke with Gordon Tinline, Business Psychologist. Gordon will share his expert advice with us around how we can practically implement this model in our everyday working lives, to really help boost both the performance and the wellbeing of our employees.

1. Thank you very much for joining us today, Gordon. Before we begin, please could you introduce yourself to our listeners?

I am a business psychologist and I have worked in the field for longer than I care to remember, but over a quarter of a century across organisations, mostly in the areas of a combination of assessment and development, both for individuals and teams and also around wellbeing, psychological well-being in organisations and resilience in organisations. And I’ve found that positive psychology is one approach that I increasingly use to pull a lot of those threads together, really.

2. Positive psychology has grown in popularity over recent years. Can you explain what it is in real terms and how it can help leaders and managers get the most out of their teams?

Well, positive psychology is really when you study and put the focus on positive experiences and on flourishing. So what makes people perform at their best and feel good? And this arose from a lot of emphasis previously on negative experiences. Obviously, we need to understand those as well, but there are lots of research about dysfunctional relationships at work, stress at work, people making bad decisions at work, and we do need to understand that. But on the flip side, do we know enough about positive experience and do we really understand it? That’s really where positive psychology sits.

3. It sounds like the ‘PERMA’ model could be a really helpful tool for those listeners who are keen to further improve the engagement and wellbeing of their employees. I have briefly summarised the model, but if could you provide a more detailed summary for us, that would be great.

This is Martin Seligman’s approach, who is very much one of the founders of positive psychology. ‘PERMA’ is an acronym and as you said, it stands for:

Positive emotions: clearly understanding the importance of feeling good and the consequences of what happens behaviourally when we feel good. We need to understand that better a lot of the time, because not surprisingly in organisations, we do spend a lot of time on things that aren’t going so well and lead us to feel bad. So really, it’s an emphasis on that.

Dr. Martin Seligman talks about a state of flow. It’s that sense of, “I’m so engaged in something that I’ve almost lost track of time.” because you are really concentrating. Funnily enough, that often doesn’t feel like hard work because you’re enjoying it, you’re enjoying the activity and the task, and it’s understanding that and the benefits of that.

Relationships: making sure that we pay enough attention to the importance of relationships, building, and maintaining positive relationships both in the workplace and beyond.

Meaning: sense of purpose. The importance of staying connected to something that has meaning for you personally and how important that is for long-term wellbeing in particular and for resilience. When things go wrong, that’s what you come back to.

Achievement: which is making sure we fully understand goals, objectives, and making sure that we make the most of achievements and don’t just discount them.

4. Thanks, Gordon. Let’s start with the first element. Positive emotions. What is meant by this in the context of work and how can leaders and managers help promote this in their employees?

Well, I think there’s a couple of things here. One is actually making sure we attend to positive experiences. One of the things I observe in a lot of businesses and organisations is when things go well, there’s almost this kind of sense of relief. “Oh, we got away with that. Now, back to the stuff that’s not going to where we need to pour all our attention.” I don’t know many people who are good at dwelling on the positive and actually that is understandable – we pay attention to negative experiences for lots of good reasons as well, but it’s about really understanding and recognising the importance of spending some time on what’s going well.

I think as a leader and a manager, making sure you draw attention to that, which is something that’s easy to forget to do. You’re too busy with too much to do, but also often firefighting and reacting to things that aren’t going well.

If that happens all the time, we can just discount it and ignore the positive. You can actually end up with a distorted view of reality. You can end up feeling things are much worse than they are.

5. It sounds like the positive emotions element is about equipping your employees with the tools and mindset to deal with challenging scenarios more positively and constructively?

Yes. It is particularly important when obviously it’s really challenging. No one feels positive all of the time. In fact, it can be a bit of a warning actually, but it’s the balance, really.

I think as a leader you can certainly think, “Okay, do I do all I can with my team to make sure that they don’t just gloss over what’s going well?” and spend a bit of time understanding that. Not just celebrating it, which is important and may come back to that with achievement, but also understanding it.

For example, there’s a technique that people use now called “appreciative inquiry”, which is sometimes used in change management. That’s about actually reflecting properly on positive experiences, which will offer consequences in terms of feeling good, but to understand them better and learn from them. I think that’s the key – if we don’t attend to positive emotions, we’re missing an opportunity.

In organisations, as you said, we learn from the negative situations, what went wrong, but it’s probably very important to ensure that you also use key learns from what went right.

Yes, it’s just the balance, really. It’s about trying to engineer that balance sometimes.

6. What about the second element, engagement? What does this mean in the context of work? And, again, what can leaders and managers do to help their employees feel more engaged?

Engagement has been something we’ve put a lot of emphasis on and certainly large organisations have too for the last ten, fifteen years. I think it’s a bit of a mistake to think you can have people truly engaged on everything, and I’m not sure that’s a good idea because you may get them feeling engaged on stuff that doesn’t matter as much in terms of the value add.

I think as a leader, you should think about “where do I really want them concentrating and engaged completely”. Then when you can identify that, I think it’s very much about controlling distractions.

I think we all know in the workplace how many distractions there are. Whenever you try in open-plan environments to concentrate and do something, there’s a lot of frustration, about, “I’ve had that on my to-do list for three weeks, but I just can’t find the time and space to really concentrate.”

This applies to everybody, but certainly as a leader, what can you do to help your team to manage some of those distractions so they can properly focus on what’s important? Actually, as a result, I would argue they’ll feel great about that, because it connects with positive emotions and achievement.

7. Would you say this engagement element is all about helping employees find what they’re passionate about and what drives them? And do you have any tips for managers who may struggle with this?

It certainly helps. We’re getting into meaning here. I think the key tip is obviously understanding individuals and where you’re likely to bring out their strengths.

I think a lot of what this forms from positive psychology is strengths-based work. That’s about thinking, “Right, well, I’ve got to take a team approach. I’ve got a lot to achieve with my team. ” Rather than just kind of farming that in a random way. or even sometimes giving people stuff that they’re clearly not very good at (sometimes it will happen, it’s inevitable). But doing all we can to say, “Okay, what are the strengths here? Do I understand my people in terms of where they feel great because they’re energised and actually they perform well?”. Then if you can do all you can to allocate work to them that’s going to play to those strengths, not surprisingly, you’re going to get them more engaged.

That’s easier said than done, because I think sometimes as a leader, you’re so busy yourself that you just don’t find the time. I think one of the things is giving yourself space to be able to do that and actually recognising and realising that it’s not a luxury, that is really important to leading effectively.

8. You touched on this idea that it can be very hard to concentrate in modern workplaces. There’s so much technology, there’s so many ways for people to reach you and communicate with you. Do you have any practical examples of how you can mitigate that and use communication more effectively without it becoming burdensome?

I think it is about time and space to find where you can do work, where you’re more likely to concentrate and get less distracted. For some that’s working from home occasionally although that doesn’t work for everybody. Some people get more distracted at home than they do at work and some people try to sit in the office with earphones plugged in. I don’t think you want to do that all of the time, particularly as we come onto the relationships element as it is fairly antisocial.

But, you do need to think about it. Say you’re doing some report writing, if I really need to concentrate properly, finding a space when you can do that and negotiate a space probably with your manager particularly, “I need some time to do this. Can you help me to find the right space for doing that.”

Also recognise that no one really concentrates for a long period without some breaks and sometimes doing some things, perhaps getting some fresh air and so on just keep the energy levels up. I think those things will make a difference. Again, it’s the discipline to be able to do that on a regular basis.

9. Another third element of the ‘PERMA’ model: Relationships. I think everyone listening to this podcast will appreciate the power of building strong and meaningful relationships at work. But how can managers help their employees do this and actually what role should they play in that?

I think first and foremost as you talk about relationships and what I mean by that, is in terms of the task-people focus. There is still a risk that every conversation you have with your employees or your team members is “Have you done this? Have you done that? This is happening next.” It’s all task-orientated all the time and not enough of “How are things going with you, what’s happening with you?” Perhaps even “how are things going for you generally” and have that natural conversation with people about how they are.

Also, I think it helps if leaders can express how they feel. It’s difficult to open up with someone who you feel is quite a closed book. Now, we are all different and you have to be authentic and true to yourself. I think if you’re able to express the fact that you find things difficult from time to time, that gives permission for other people to say the same.

Equally the flip side of when you think this is going great, and I feel really good about it, I think that helps. Of course, the other thing in general relationships is to make sure you stay connected to the people that really matter to you.

10. You’ve established that encouraging employees to build strong relationships with their colleagues and between managers and teams is important and how managers can support that team in doing this, but what impact do your relationships outside of work have on our well-being and engagement at work? Is there anything our listeners can do to help their employees in this regard?

I think this is about understanding the whole person approach. This idea that you can shut off the rest of your life and just be you at work. And the other way around, actually, that when you go home, suddenly you can forget all about work. It just doesn’t work like that for most people, there’s only one of you.

I do think that managers need to be open to what’s going on in someone’s life, not just what’s happening to them when they see them in the workplace. That doesn’t mean you need to intrude. It just means that you need to give permission and a sense of saying, “Look, seeing that there are things in the rest of your life are difficult for you.” And if you’ve got a relationship with your leader or manager, where you can say “Just to let you know, I’m struggling here and this is perhaps why you might notice that the things are difficult for me in terms of what I’m doing at work.” It goes a long way because you feel it’s a human relationship.

One of the best predictors of whether someone will stay in an organisation is do they feel like their manager values them as a human being, and not just as a resource. If you’ve got that relationship, it goes a long way and it goes along, unfortunately, if you don’t, so I think it is really important.

11. Now the fourth element of the ‘PERMA’ model which is meaning. What does this element mean in the context of work?

Well, it’s about continuously articulating the vision and mission but in a way that it makes sense to the people you’re working with. Not just that there is the mission statement on the wall, let’s all go and have a read of that. That’s not a meaningful conversation.

What I think it is about is saying “Well, constantly what are we here for? What’s our function? What’s really important?” I feel this becomes particularly important for those that are non-customer-facing. Because if you’re interacting all the time with customers, clients, the public, if you’re in the public service, you get quite a lot of meaning from the work you do for people directly. If you’re in a support role or a senior leadership role, you can be quite disconnected from that and you can forget about it.

What that leads to, I think, is when you’re doing your work, it’s hard to connect that with real impact on people. If you’re in that state for a long time, it just becomes something else to do and you don’t find meaning in the work.

I think as leaders, particularly for those, who are in non-front line roles, keep talking to your team about their impact at work. What does it really mean? What impact is it having? Show them that impact if you can.

12. The need to have meaning in your career is something that we frequently hear associated with millennial’s in particular. Have you noticed there’s a bit of a generational difference in terms of who really needs to have meaning in their career or would you say it’s the same across the board?

Well, I’d argue that it’s always been important, but I do think there’s a generational difference in terms of… I think younger people know it’s about their whole lives much more, in terms of what brings them meaning and it’s about the values.

Of course, the more it becomes about values, the more you’re going to look for an organisation and employer that connects with your values. And if you find that, you’ll give your best, because your values fit with their values. If you don’t, you’re really going to struggle and you’re probably not going to stay.

I think that’s one difference. I think in the past, people tended to stay long past the point when they felt there was a good connection in terms of those values. For me, that’s one of the things that’s clearly changed.

13. It sounds a little bit like helping our employees find meaning in their work is also about understanding what motivates them and allowing and giving them insight into the bigger picture?

Yes, it is all about that bigger picture and translating it. If you go through particularly major change programs, one of the things that people will often say is they just haven’t thought it through or they don’t know what this means to them.

If it’s a strategic change, that’s often true – it’s being formulated for strategic reasons. To work out what it means to individuals in terms of the nature of what they’re doing every day, that has to be co-created with the manager so you need a good relationship to be able to do that.

When it comes to understanding meaning, it’s the practicalities of that as well as something that’s too distant for people that they can’t connect to.

Again, I suppose an underlying message here is you need to create, as a leader, the time and space to do that, particularly at times of major change.

14. That brings me on to the final element of this model: Achievements. Instinctively, this feels like the elements in which leaders and managers would have the biggest impact on when it comes to their teams. How can our listeners help their employees feel a sense of achievement and accomplishment at work and why is doing so, so important?

There’s one thing that’s clearly been recognised now, I think, more than ever, which is importance of good quality frequent feedback. I think you’re beginning to see a trend away from the annual appraisal, towards more regular, informal feedback. That is connected with this – that’s connected with really understanding day in day out what you have achieved and the value in that.

Also, people should think about outwards feedback here. Think about when was the last time I told my boss they were doing a good job? Now, you may think that sounds like you’ve been ingratiating, but when you think about it, we don’t do that much. The result of that it can be important, as your boss might not know if they are doing a good job, if they’re achieving what they’re trying to with you.

Overall as a manager, I’d be encouraging my people to give me feedback. I think the other thing that’s really important here is shared goals. I still find a lot of time with teams, they’re not good at articulating those shared goals.

We’ve got individual objectives, but you ask them, “Yes, but how does this fit together? What are your shared goals that you need to work on together?” Interdependently, if you like, and achieve together and celebrate together. When that goes, you usually don’t have a very good team. I would think about that a lot as a leader – shared goals and teams and paying attention to those and celebrating success on those.

Giving upward feedback and also ensuring the teams aren’t working in silos will also help with the relationships element, of course.

Yes, absolutely. As you can see, this is all interconnected. People talk about “Well, in this organisation, people work in silos.” Try moving out and talk to each other about what you’re doing. There’s loads of reasons why that happens in terms of having too much to do most of the time.

But yes, if you can articulate what you’re doing as a team, it makes it easier to talk to other teams about what they’re doing. If you can’t, it’s very difficult.

15. Thank you so much, Gordon. This has been really insightful. We have one final question for you, which is a question that we ask all of our podcasts guests. What do you think are the top three qualities that make a good leader?

Well, not surprisingly, it’s related to what I’ve said already, but I think the first one is, find and emphasise positive results. You don’t have to do that very regularly. In fact, it’s actually most powerful when it’s just done occasionally. But if it’s not done at all, clearly, that’s not going to help in terms of wellbeing or performance. So, you do have to work at that and make sure that you pull attention towards that.

The second for me is keep people focused on what makes a real difference. That’s my point about, getting them fully engaged on those things that really matter. And, as I’ve said, for people, perhaps, who don’t get feedback from customers, service users and so on, keep them connected to the difference it makes.

The last one’s a bit of a cheat, really, because the last one is, as a leader, as a manager, you need to manage your own ‘PERMA‘. But, what I mean really is, and that’s not self-indulgent to think, “I need to look after myself in these areas first.” If you don’t do that, you’re not going to be an effective leader, so I think that’s essential.

About this author

Gordon is a very experienced occupational psychologist (Chartered and Registered) and works on a freelance basis (GT Work Psychology). Gordon has broad cross-sector and multi-level experience. He has worked extensively with the Police Service, in Defence, with the NHS, in Financial Services and with science and engineering companies, as well as a wide range of other businesses.

Gordon’s work is often focused on helping managers and leaders maximise the wellbeing, psychological resilience and performance of their teams. As well as his Masters level qualification in occupational psychology he has an MBA from Warwick Business School. He has recently co-authored a book with Professor Sir Cary Cooper on mid-level role pressures and development (The Outstanding Middle Manager).

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