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Month: July 2008

3 essential steps to become a positive psychologist

So, I am a psychologist, but how can I become a positive psychologist?

I have found three essential competencies that I need to master in addition to my conventional training.  Can you think of any more?

New maths

1.  I need to be able to think in terms of fractals.   To be more concrete, I need to think of phenomena at three levels.

  • A clutch of relevant dimensions that are interdependent (a recursive model, that is).  So I am happy when the world is good to me and the world is good to me when I am happy.
  • Phenomena that are phase states.  So I am thriving when I am happy about good things and sad about bad things and move appropriately between the emotive states.   I am sort of coping when my state varies but it is limited.  I am definitely not flourishing when my mood is consistently positive or negative no matter what happens around me.
  • The benefits of the phase states are phrased at a different level of analysis, such as prosperity and longevity, and are expressed as mean differences rather than a direct linear effect.


2.  Out goes the lab report, though I need it for some things, and in comes the story.  Can I tell a story about who does what, to what, and why?  Can I recount stories that reflect my vulnerability?  Can I create situations which respect the voice of others?

After a life time of “science” I find myself learning the art of story telling.  We have great role models in TED and fortunately great coaches such as Cliff Atkinson are stepping up on the business front.

Personal experience

3.  Have I applied positive techniques to my own life and do I approach situations appreciatively as reflexively as I looked for objectivity in my conventional training?

Am I able to take part in the mutual environment of action research or do I have to hide behind a facade of objectivity?

Any more?  I think positive psychology is going to take us on an interesting journey of professional transformation.

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3 steps to positive HR with a recession looming

UPDATE: For an HR Managers perspective on the Recession, I have written a summary on a new post.

Demand for HR increases with a recession looming

In this spring and summer of 2008, the northern hemisphere has been in a mild panic: fuel and food is increasingly expensive, banks and financial institutions are struggling to meet their commitments, and recession seems in the offing.  That feels depressing, doesn’t it?

I’ve just done a quick search on Google Trends of what we, the citizens, are saying.  Pop a few terms in yourself.  What patterns do you see?

  • Talk of recession rose sharply in January 2008 and has leveled off.
  • There has been a lot of talk about lay offs but less about job losses.  Semantics possibly, but also talk about what management does to us rather than what we experience?

It makes sense that people are more interested in HR when job losses are in the offing.  This pattern seems to be more pronounced in India and it is not possible to tell whether India is creating the global trend by force of numbers, or creating the trend by the direction of its attention, or simply the place with the most pronounced pattern.

The role of HR during a recession

Though it is an important concern, I am not particularly interested in whether there is a recession or not.  What concerns me is that we cannot create a good future until we can imagine it.

And I am concerned about the role we in HR play in helping people imagine a positive future.  People come to us when they are in trouble and feeling negative.  People come to us when they cannot see a way forward.  The graphs on recession, leadership, HR, hope and strategy show that people are not even looking for hope, strategy and leadership when they are looking for us!

Our key task

The challenge, for us, is that emotion is highly contagious.  Natural empathy will allow us to be infected by our clients’ gloom.

But they don’t want us to share their gloomy predictions.  They want positive action from us.  They want us to advise them and to act effectively on their behalf.  This is what concerns them.

  • What are their options and what can the firm do to help them?
  • What could we do with our skill base that we haven’t thought of?

Practical steps to positive HR in gloomy times

So if we are likely to reflect and perpetuate the gloominess of our clients, how can halt this process and restore a positive, forward looking, strategic atmosphere?

Here are three practical suggestions.

  • Make emotional R&R mandatory for the HR team.

Budget part of the day, part of the week, and part of the month for them to recover from toxic emotions and to restore their sense of what is “good and true, better and possible”.  Allow frequent “walks in the woods”.

  • Increase your budget for strategic thinking (not tactical response) and engage the organization in thinking through positive futures for all its staff.

After all, a firm that is healthy and thriving should be able to imagine positive futures for all the skill sets used in their industry.

  • Increase your budget for calming down line managers.

Stress causes defensiveness.  We try to control what we have and imagination flies out the window.  Stressed managers will quickly create a downward spiral.

And because supporting stressed people is extremely hard work, look after yourself.

Why I am positive

The positive news is that people are generally active and focused rather than passive and reactive.  People are less interested in abstract concepts like “recession” and much more interested in “what they are going to do”.

For young people, recession is not a bad memory.   They weren’t here during the last one.  A minor economic downturn is simply an adventure: something to be explored, something to be understood, something to be conquered and something to be enjoyed in the company of fellow travelers.

My call to action

My call to action:  Add an explicit positive agenda to your HR now.

  • Give your staff resources to recover from negativity.
  • Up the time spent on strategic HR and don’t stop until you have a positive vision for everyone in the company.
  • Work with senior managers.  When they are glum, they make everyone else glum, who then make them even more moody!

And make sure you have your quote of “walks in the woods”, positive mentors, simple pleasures and good home life.

Are you looking for a mentor or are you available to mentor an HR Manager trying to implement positive HR?

UPDATE: For an HR Managers perspective on the Recession, I have written a summary on a new post.

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Are we naturally positive?

A handheld digital camera.Image via Wikipedia

Which would you recognize more quickly?  A candid photograph of yourself, or, a photo airbrushed in your favor?

It seems we recognize “better” images of ourselves more quickly.

I don’t find it terribly surprising that we prefer prettier pictures of ourselves.  What seems to be significant is that we recognize ourselves a split second sooner when we are looking good!

  • I wonder if this holds when we are depressed?
  • And does it hold for verbal descriptions – do we recognize a positive account of our contribution more quickly than a realistic account?

I am fumbling here, but I suspect this may be very significant for managing social media campaigns?


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If you haven’t seen Mama Mia yet, don’t read this post!

Streep at the 61st Academy Awards.Image via Wikipedia

Celebration of baby boomers

Last week, someone kindly took me to see box office hit, Mama Mia. Meryl Streep and others were looking good, singing and dancing on a Greek Island.

I think the show is intended only as light hearted frivolity. It is a celebration, though, of baby boomer culture – bell bottoms, pop, and liberation.

The dilemma facing baby boomers

I found it interesting because it has sufficient of a story line to address the dilemma facing baby boomers.

  • What should boomers make of their past lives and decisions?
  • Where is the fine line between reminiscing and treasuring the past?
  • What is our role vis-a-viz Gen Y?

Mama Mia – an example of moving on

The movie does offer an example of moving on gracefully.

  • The sixties are shamelessly celebrated in a beautiful setting with beautiful people.
  • The past is brought into the present without apology or aggrandizement.
  • The parents resolve past misdeeds allowing them to “let go”, plan their own retirement and allow Gen Y to plot their own course.

I’ve posted Rainer Rilke‘s poem (translated by J. Mullen) before about the challenge of approaching old age.

Lord: it is time. The summer was great.
Lay your shadows onto the sundials
and let loose the winds upon the fields.

Command the last fruits to be full,
give them yet two more southern days,
urge them to perfection, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Who now has no house, builds no more.
Who is now alone, will long remain so,
will stay awake, read, write long letters
and will wander restlessly here and there
in the avenues, when the leaves drift.

“Who now has no house, builds no more” is a tough line to understand, possibly because it directs our attention to our disappointments.  Mama Mia is a great movie for someone to watch to “get it”.

What is the house that we built?   In what way was everything a rehearsal for this?

Accommodate boomer at work

We hear so much about accommodating Gen Y at work.  What do we need to do to accommodate boomers?

Do you know of any systems, formal or informal, that build in this reflection and draw out of strengths of older members of an organization?

Would empowering boomers impower Gen Y too as it did in the movie?

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Designing and building positive business processes

Positively, please

Martin Seligman wants to spread the positive movement throughout society. I hope so, starting with customer relations in big businesses.

HSBC: May I compliment your staff?

Today, I rang my bank and had to hang on for several minutes while they stepped me through a tedious set of steps that we all know and love to hate.

Finally, I was given an opportunity to make or follow up a complaint. It really jarred. Irritation followed by the opportunity to complain but never an opportunity to say thank you.

Does anyone know of a business that allows you to thank its staff members?

Of course, HSBC are not the only offender. I once thought of trying to thank someone at my nearest railway station (20 miles away).   The rail company also has a “complaints only” policy.

Gratitude site

I’ve been thinking for some time that we need website where we can send messages of thanks. Today I found another site, PlaceShout, that would work as a template. Placeshout works for San Francisco only – so San Franciscans, you can try this out.

I want to build a PlaceShout for the UK. The idea would be that when and where you get great service, you SMS the website with the business and message. Logging into the website would allow you to add new businesses.

Microblogging developers

And anyone else, if you are interested in this project, could you tweet me at @jobucks?

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5 slides on positive organization design

Positive psychology, Appreciative Inquiry, Positive Organizational Scholarship, & Positive HR

Almost a year ago, I put together a set of slides to illustrate the concepts and process in Positive Organizational Design. If you are beginning to read around the field of positive psychology, appreciative inquiry, positive organizational scholarship, or positive HR, you may find them useful.

They are five slides, each with quotations, beginning with

  • David Cooperrider on Appreciative Inquiry
  • The link between appreciating your own unique contribution and possibilities emerging in the world around us
  • Conversations about strategy, affirmations of hope, and recognition of the possibilities in the present
  • Nonaka’s Ba and designing organizational spaces
  • Rilke’s Swan as a metaphor of the rightness of what emerges.

I am standing on the shoulders of giants here. The quotations are referenced but not my sources. Please do google the quotations to dig deeper into the original works.

I would welcome any feedback or elaborations.


Law of attraction, positive thinking, and finding your dream job!

In the summer, many graduates are looking for the job of their dreams.  This post has been very popular and I thought it would be a good time to repost it.  I will be speaking at the University of Buckingham on the power  of positive psychology and our careers on Monday 28th July.   I would be happy to address other groups around the Milton Keynes/Bedford area or talk with you by email or by phone.

Here is this very popular post which may help you find the job of your dreams.

A long back story

I took out Goodbye Mr Chips from my local library thinking it would be nice to relax for a couple of hours with this gentle, slightly sentimental, very inspirational movie. For non-Brits, this is a classic pygmalion, teacher story with romance thrown in. Think To Sir With Love, History Boys and Freedom Writers. I think when Yanks write pygmalion stories they are typically about basketball coaches. Britain has teacher stories.

Goodbye Mr Chips is a double-pygmalion story. Mr Chipping is an awkward “Latin master” in a “public school”. If you are non-Brit, read exclusive private school (or prep school in Americanese – a prep school here preps you to go to public school which takes you to the army academy or university).

Mr Chipping has two mentors. A charming relaxed fellow teacher and his wife. They are the catalysts in allowing Mr Chipping, or Chips as he comes to be called, to incorporate the softer side of his nature in his teaching style, reform the rugged-masculine-bullying culture of the school, and to encourage boy-after-boy, and their sons after them, to blend the feminine sides of their nature with the masculine demands of their school and obligations to country.

I thought I was borrowing the musical version with Peter O’Toole from the library. When I got home, I discovered I a new version with Martin Clunes, the star of the TV show, Doc Martin. He makes a marvellous Mr Chips with the mixture of clumsiness and kindness that we also see in Doc Martin. (He doesn’t sing btw, and nor do we hear the boys singing which we did in the earlier version).

The story seems slightly different too – but so be it. After this long back story, this is the quote I wanted to give you.

“I found that when I stopped judging myself harshly, the world became kinder to me. Remember I told you once, go out, and look around the world. Do that now. Only this time, let the world look at you. And the difference, I assure you, the world will like what it sees.”

Positive psychology is more than positive thinking

This is the concept which takes positive psychology far beyond positive thinking. It has echoes of the pygmalion effect, popularized in the musical My Fair Lady in which a flower girl becomes a lady. It includes the Galatea effect, ably researched by Dov Eden, who also researches the pygmalion effect in work settings. Basically, the Pygmalion effect is the effect of other people’s expectations on us. So a teacher creates clever pupils by expecting more of them. A teacher creates dull pupils by expecting failure and subtly communicating doubts and restricting the resources and time we need to learn. The Galatea effect works the other way around. It is the effect of our own self-perception. It is not that seeing is believing. But that, believing is seeing.

Is this new?

George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion 100 years ago. 150 years ago Goethe wrote:

The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

The idea that we shape the future is so new to us in the west. The idea that the universe comes to us sounds a little new age.

Of course, we cannot do anything. We don’t want to do anything.

But there are some things, we want to do. And if we can imagine those things, if we believe in them deeply without effort, if they make sense, if they seem right in themselves, if we believe in them enough to take the first hesitant step,

if we believe in them enough to take the first hesitant step,

then the universe conspires to help us.


This is tautological, of course. It will work because it is right and it is right because it works.

Ask only whether what you want is right, and why you would want anything that doesn’t work!

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Should you google a candidate in a selection exercise?


There is much talk about whether employers google candidates, whether they should google candidates and whether it is legal to google candidates.

As a work psychologist, whose original speciality was personnel psychology, I know heaps about selection. So I ask the question differently. What are we hoping to gain?

Yes, before I meet someone, I look them up on the internet. Before I go to a job interview, I know more about the interviewers than they realize. But if I were the interviewer, would I look up the candidate? I am afraid not, and this is why.

The art of selection is

  • to identify variables on which we vary reliably
  • and to identify which of those, correlate with difference in job performance.

To find anything that varies with job performance, we must be first find out what variations there are in job performance that are themselves reliable and meaningful.

Collecting information on people ad nauseum just clutters the process. If you want to use Google and Facebook in selection, you need to show me that what you are looking at is reliable and relevant.

Otherwise you are gossiping. Harsh words, I know, but go back to the numbers.

We deal with weak effects. Generally we deal with effect sizes of around 0.2 or 0.3 and we account for 4-9% of variance on the job. The grandest claims are 25%. Muddy that prediction and you are left with nothing but randomness. Moreover, you are likely to create adverse impact (select on a like-me basis and open your company up to valid charges of discrimination).

In selection, we stick to variables that we know are relevant to job performance and that we can measure reliably. If it cannot be done, then it cannot be done. That is the professional and ethical position.

So, what are we really worried about?

People aren’t daft. So, what is going on when we try to select minutely?

Organizations take people and make them live in closer proximity than if they were married. Anxiety goes up. Is this going to be heaven, or is it going to be hell? And if I am the manager, will I be held accountable for the outcome?

My answer is not to make the selection process more complicated. There is nothing to gain. If something is not predictable, then it is not predictable.

Rather put we should put our energy into managing the relationship.

  • Improve the working conditions.
  • Improve the job design to set clear boundaries.
  • Set up communication systems
  • Train
  • And coach ‘on demand’ (I mean it – be on call).

Above all, attend to why the manager is so anxious. Why do they believe they will be blamed? Most likely because there is no common ethos on what performance it is reasonable to expect. It would be better to work on the collective understanding of what is reasonable and to lower tensions all round.

  • We need HR people who understand job performance and what variations are manageable.
  • We need HR people who can be close to the work team and help them with the ‘pressure cooker’ existence of living in far too close physical proximity.
  • We need HR people who can grow the understanding of what is manageable and what needs to be worked through.
  • We need HR people who are credible because they focus our attention successfully on what can be done.

Will candidates look us up on the internet? I do hope so. Will they have Facebook profiles? I do hope so. Will they have a life outside work? I really do hope so.

But that is nothing to do with selection. In selection we deal with what is predictable. If it is not predictable, then exclude it from the selection process!

A place for everything and everything in its place.  There is a lot more to HR, management and leadership than selection.

UPDATE:  There are two other considerations to make when we use ambient data to make decisions about people.  First, remember issues of privacy.  If you look, you will record.  What did you record and do you have the person’s permission?  Second, employment is about a relationship.  Build one!  Use professionals to do the cold work of making probabilistic predictions on reliable factors.  You get going on building a warm, normal and trusting relationship.

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