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Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the positive

Cheerful businesspeople looking at the report.

Tune in to your strengths – and those of your colleagues  and you will see your career and organization prosper

“You've got to accentuate the positive…  Eliminate the negative… Latch on to the affirmative… Don't mess with Mister In-Between…”

This upbeat tune – music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Johnny Mercer – has been a hit for decades.

Bing Crosby sang it in the 1944 film, Here Come the Waves. And the song was later recorded by performers as diverse as Connie Francis, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, NRBQ and Paul McCartney.

Today, it is a great theme song for our personal and work lives:

When it comes to organizational change, gone are the days when the focus first and foremost is on what’s not working – what’s broken.

Instead a growing body of research focuses on building on positives – the strengths and competencies that have worked well for both individuals and organizations.

In the personal realm, this emphasis is called “positive psychology.” In the corporate world, it's called "appreciative inquiry.”

Martin E. P. Seligman, often identified as the father of positive psychology, describes its goal this way:   "Using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification."

In organizations, the goal is similar – to maximize strengths of individuals and groups to increase capacity and effectiveness.

So in this issue of Changing Times, we share resources and techniques for building on your strengths and those of the people you manage – creating a more strength-based organization.  Another Wunderlin Company newsletter explores appreciative inquiry more thoroughly.

Positive psychology = Happiness…and much more

Your first thoughts about positive psychology may be that it sounds like a lot of popular culture references today.

Dozens of colleges and universities have begun offering courses that focus on “happiness studies.”

Speakers at TED events – those convocations of folks with fresh ideas – offer dozens of perspectives on positive thinking and happiness.

And popular book lists have seen a boom in topical bestsellers including The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.

Building on strengths

One of our favorite books is Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton. It helps individuals identify their talents, enhance and build them into strengths – and enjoy consistently excellent performance.

It’s funny: If you ask most people about their strengths, they have a hard time articulating them.  If you ask them about their weaknesses, they become experts… happy to focus on repairing them.

"The real tragedy of life is not that each of us doesn't have enough strengths it's that we fail to use the ones we have," the authors say.

Buckingham and Clifton challenge readers to adopt the two following assumptions and launch a “strengths revolution” as individuals and in their own organizations.

First, each person's talents are enduring and unique.  Second, each person's greatest room for growth is in the areas of greatest strengths.

Based on a Gallup study of more than 2 million people, the authors introduce 34 dominant strengths they call “themes”– from responsibility to strategic skills – with thousands of possible combinations.

Buckingham and Clifton encourage you to "look inside yourself, try to identify your strongest threads, reinforce them with practice and learning, and then either find or carve out a role that draws on these strengths every day."

If you manage people, the implications are clear, they say: You must understand the value of talent, identify different kinds of contributions, tailor your approaches to your diverse staff strengths and invest the most time with your best people to get maximum impact.

Gallup Press has followed up that book with two more – StrengthsFinder 2.0 and Strengths-Based Leadership.

With an access code from their books, a web-based assessment analyzes your instinctive reactions and immediately presents you with your five most powerful signature themes.

You may also have used other tools to help you identify your strengths – like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator and other assessment measures we discuss in another Changing Times column.  They also represent a fine way to assess your assets.

Strategies for dealing with weaknesses. This doesn't mean you can ignore your weaknesses. Some are baseline requirements for any role. Here are suggestions offered by Buckingham and Clifton to manage them:

Get a little better at it. You need a basic level of competence at some key skills – like listening well, communicating and organizing your life so you are in the right place at the right time with the right tools.  If you fail to address those weaknesses, they can undermine all your strengths. So: focus.

Design a support system. Often people will come up with an idiosyncratic support system to compensate for talent weaknesses. If you have trouble staying on time and prepared, it may be as simple as using your smart phone’s calendar and notes to help you prepare for each day’s tasks and appointments. If you tend to zoom too quickly through the day’s chores – and make mistakes -- you might imitate a manager who keeps a simple reminder note on his computer that says, “Slow down.”

Use one of your strongest themes to overwhelm your weakness. We often recommend this strategy to coaching clients. In one case, a client was a very effective sales person; his customers loved dealing with him because he was knowledgeable and a creative problem-solver. The problem: his internal staff found him very difficult to deal with. Eventually he learned to use the questioning and listening skills that worked so well with his clients on his internal staff to improve relationships and results.

Find a partner. It takes a strong person to ask for help. If you do, you can often find a complementary partner. Think of the "numbers-blind" entrepreneur who deliberately teams up with an accounting whiz or the creative program planner who relies on a great detail person. Together, they are strong.

How full is your bucket?

Donald Clifton, one of the authors of Now, Discover Your Strengths, collaborated with his grandson, Tom Rath, to write a short upbeat best-seller that takes another perspective on positive psychology, How Full is Your Bucket?

Organized around a simple metaphor, the book teaches you how to increase the positive moments in your life while reducing the negative.

It goes like this: "Each of us has an invisible dipper. When we use that dipper to fill other people's bucket by saying or doing things to increase their positive emotions we also fill our own bucket.

“But when we use that dipper to dip from others' buckets by saying or doing things that decrease their positive emotions we diminish ourselves."

As you read the book, you will discover the power of bucket-filling in your own life.  If you would like to introduce the concept to a child, there’s a new version aimed at young people.

Two ways of looking at life: hope vs. despair

Earlier, we mentioned Martin Seligman. The father of positive psychology has written several books we recommend.   


One of our favorites is Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, which provides step-by-step techniques that look at your thought patterns and interior dialogue. If you have been exposed to “cognitive therapy,” you may see some similarities – and with good reason.  Seligman and its developer, psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck, were colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania.

As we grow up, Seligman says, we develop habits in how we explain life to ourselves. With “Learned Optimism,” we can challenge habits that are negative.

So, see if you can find your habits in these thought patterns he outlines:

Permanence:  Some people give up easily, believing whatever causes a bad event is permanent. See the example below.

If you think about bad things in terms of "always" and "never," that may suggest you tend toward pessimism.  If you think in "sometimes" and "lately," use qualifiers and blame bad events on transient conditions, you have a more optimistic style.

Permanent (Pessimistic)

Temporary (Optimistic)

"I never get along with my bosses."

"I have trouble communicating with my boss right now."

The optimistic style of explaining good events is just the opposite: People see good events having staying power.

Permanent (Optimistic)

Temporary (Pessimistic)

“My boss sees the positive qualities I brought to this job.”

"I got lucky.” 

Pervasiveness: While some people keep issues separate as they look at their lives, others let  problems bleed over to color the big picture – so a specific problem with work or their personal lives leads to an overall tendency to “catastrophize” in a more universal way.

“When one thread of their lives snaps,” he says, “the whole fabric unravels."

Universal (Pessimistic)

Specific (Optimistic)

"My life is a mess.”

"This is a difficult transition at work now.”

Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope. Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair.

Personalization. When bad things happen, Seligman explains, we can always blame ourselves or we can rightly put some of the burden on external forces – other people or circumstances.

What you do makes a big difference in your self-esteem – and the odds of more successes.

Internal (Pessimistic)

External (Optimistic)

"I'm stupid. I always screw up."

"No one could have foreseen the complications in this situation.”

Choosing an optimistic path

The key is self-knowledge, says Seligman.

Sure, we may have personalities shaped by our genes, habits and experiences.

If you know you usually explain things to yourself in a pessimistic way, you can work on giving a different perspective a try for balance.

Work on changing your habits of thinking – your explanatory style – and you will be happier now and become more optimistic and better equipped to cope when truly troubled times come.

To learn more

Here is a sampling of popular TED talks that reflect on positive psychology.  Browse and be inspired.

Martin Seligman offers an overview of positive psychology and the factors that relate to a satisfying life – pleasure, engagement and meaning.

Google’s Mark Cutts challenges you to change habits and take on new challenges for 30 days at a time – a great manageable way to develop positive initiatives.

Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, reflects on our bias toward happiness – one that persists even when we don’t get what we want.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot discusses our bias towards optimism – including the joy of anticipating good outcomes.

Shawn Achor, a lecturer and CEO of a consulting company called Good Think, talks about “The happy secret to better work” – the dramatic impact of optimism on achievement. (Train your brain to be positive with new habits, he suggests. For example, think of three new things you are grateful for every day for 21 days.)

And ….

If you think it might be fun to wind up this column by hearing Paul McCartney accentuate the positive, we are happy to share his version.

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