Prioritise employee happiness with the PERMA formula

9 min read | Gordon Tinline | Article | Career development

Woman laughing in office

What if you could guarantee staff happiness with one simple formula? According to renowned American psychologist Dr Martin Seligman, you can. We spoke to fellow psychologist Gordon Tinline about how to use the formula in the workplace. 


Employee happiness: Key insights

The PERMA model focuses on five key elements to boost happiness. We spoke to business psychologist Gordon Tinline about happiness in the workplace. 

In this article, we will look at these five key elements:

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement.

Prefer to listen to the conversation? Check out the podcast below.


Introducing Gordon Tinline, Business Psychologist

Before we dive into staff happiness, let’s get to know Gordon. 

Gordon Tinline is a business psychologist who has worked in the field for more than 25 years, mainly in the areas of assessment and development, both for individuals and teams. He’s also focussed on psychological wellbeing and resilience in organisations. He says that positive psychology is one approach that “pulls these threats together” really well.


How can positive psychology improve happiness in the workplace?

Gordon says: “Positive psychology is when you focus on positive experiences and on flourishing. So, what makes people perform at their best and feel good? There is 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 flipside, do we know enough about the positive experience and do we really understand it? That’s really where positive psychology sits.”


What is the PERMA model?

The PERMA model comes from Dr Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology. Gordon explains: “‘PERMA’ is an acronym which stands for:

  • Positive emotions: clearly understanding the importance of feeling good and the consequences of what happens behaviourally when we feel good.
  • Engagement: that sense of, “I’m so engaged in something that I’ve almost lost track of time,” because you are really concentrating. That often doesn’t feel like hard work because you’re enjoying it.
  • 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: a 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.
  • Achievement: making sure we fully understand our goals and achievements, and celebrate them when they happen.


How can positive emotions promote a happy workforce?

Gordon says: “We need to make sure we attend to positive experiences. 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.

“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.”


What does ‘engagement’ mean in a work context?

Gordon warns that we must not assume everybody needs to be engaged in everything. “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. 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, I would argue they’ll feel great about that, because it connects with positive emotions and achievement.”


How can managers build positive relationships?

“I think this is about understanding the whole person approach,” says Gordon. “This idea 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.

“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.

“One of the best predictors of staff happiness and retention is do they feel like their manager values them as a human being, and not just as a resource.”


How does ‘meaning’ affect employee happiness?

Gordon says: “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 a mission statement on the wall.

“What are we here for? What’s our function? What’s really important? I think as leaders, particularly for those who are in non-frontline roles, keep talking to your team about their impact at work. 

“As employees, 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.”


How can managers help their staff feel a sense of achievement at work?

On the final element – achievement – Gordon emphasises the quality of frequent feedback. “I think you’re beginning to see a trend away from the annual appraisal, towards more regular, informal feedback. That’s connected with really understanding day in day out what you have achieved and the value in that.

“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. Try moving out and talk to each other about what you’re doing.”


The top qualities in leaders that promote employee happiness

When asked the top three qualities in a leader, Gordon said:

  • Finding and emphasising positive results
  • Focusing on what makes a different
  • Managing your own PERMA – look after yourself, too!

To hear the full interview in podcast format, click the play button below.


About this author

Gordon Tinline, Business Psychologist

Gordon Tinline 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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