The New Psychology of Change

Imagine you are a fly on the wall of pretty much any workspace in the public sector at the moment. Take a look around, what do you notice? Probably confusion, anxiety and uncertainty, causing a lot of friction and impacting negatively on energy levels and productivity.

Understandable given the scale and pace of change that has hit the public sector recently but not necessarily helpful, given that clients are still there and their needs are no less demanding.

We believe positive psychology, can provide some helpful insights into how leaders and organisations can respond to this challenging environment.

First let’s think about what happens to people under pressure. Stress can prompt a fight or flight response. The fight response often manifests itself in an oppositional attitude, while the flight response leads to people shutting down and mentally running away from problems. It’s as if people are thinking with blinkers on, as stress closes their options down to two, not very constructive choices.

And the effect of this? Just when organisations need people to look ahead and be creative – they get the opposite. Which starts a classic vicious circle. Without creativity and optimism decisions are likely to be poor. This makes people feel worse which impacts negatively on their future decision making ….. and so the cycle continues.

So how could positive psychology help?

Let’s consider a very basic introduction to what it is; if we consider people’s well being on a continuum from -10 to +10, then psychology has been most interested in people towards the bottom end of the continuum. Positive psychology focuses on people across the spectrum and is interested in how we can all fully realise our potential.

We’d like to concentrate on two discoveries made by positive psychology research that could be really helpful to public sector organisations as they face up to change on an unprecedented scale.

Firstly research suggests that the application of positive psychology can act as an antidote to the effects of negative stress described above, reversing the flow and creating a virtuous circle. This is because people are able to think more broadly, further ahead, more collaboratively and more creatively in a positive environment. They are therefore more likely to come up with great ideas, leading to better results, which makes them feel even better, reinforcing their creativity and so on.

But how can you create a positive environment in the midst of all the doom and gloom? By applying another discovery of positive psychology – the 3 to 1 rule. The key to accessing all the benefits of positivity is to have a ‘psychological credit balance’ of above 3 positive things happening to you in relation to each negative. And the best part is that many of the things you can do to shift the balance beyond that magical 3 to 1 tipping point are free and immediate. For example recognising performance, giving positive feedback, saying thank you, asking people for their ideas and listening empathically. Each deposit builds up the credit balance of positivity. To complement this you can also focus on reducing the number of negative experiences, which further tips the balance towards positivity. It’s not about denying bad things that happen but it is about choosing how we respond to them.

So let’s finish off with a quick practical example. You have an ‘away day’ arranged for your team to tackle the challenges posed by budgetary cutbacks. Why not take the first half of the day to have some fun and engage in some activities to raise the mood of the team? Then use the positivity you create to invest in developing constructive responses later in the day. You will be surprised how far the positive energy can take you.

For more on the 3 to 1 ratio and the benefits of positivity have a look at the work of Barbara Fredrickson and Tal Ben-Shahar.

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