Create a positive culture with the PROPEL principles

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Jane was having trouble retaining the top performers on her work team. Departing employees gave polite excuses rather than real insight regarding their dissatisfaction. So Jane brought in an organizational psychologist to coach her on how to hold onto talented employees. Using the principles of positive psychology, the coach set about comparing how Jane’s group was operating to what optimal team functioning looks like.

In focus groups with the remaining employees the coach discovered that the most negative staff members were dominating the culture of the company. Jane was devastated to learn that a core group of people were poisoning relationships within her team with their hostile attitudes, critical cut downs, and uncooperative behaviors. These senior staff members were particularly hard on newcomers, especially if they lodged complaints. Good employees were so intimidated and disheartened that they had become disengaged.

When Jane was given the news she was overcome by despair. But her coach helped her to understand that she was experiencing the same emotions as many other employees. To give up, he told her, meant that the toxic employees would win. Using Jane’s strengths-based assessment, the coach pointed out how she could use her best qualities to be a great leader – someone who would help the good employees to be both successful and satisfied.

Jane’s coach taught her that emotion is simply energy in motion. Negative emotion is energy headed in the wrong direction – toward dissolution rather than solution. Negativity in human relationships often causes fight or flight reactions, neither of which solves problems.

In order to constructively respond the staff’s dissatisfaction, Jane needed to forge alliances with those people who shared her resolve to transform the group’s culture. Jane began by establishing collaborative relationships with the most positive people on her team. She and her coach met with this handful of employees to begin generating ideas for improving their workplace.

Data from change management studies shows that 40% of the success in transforming behavior is based what the individuals who actually have to make the change happen believe will work. Another 30% of what’s necessary is developing positive relationships among those willing to be involved in implementing improvements. Optimism about achieving a positive outcome and having a supportive leader each account for 15% of what’s necessary to be successful.

Jane and her handful of positive employees created a vision of their team functioning at its best. Then they began talking with discouraged teammates about how they could become key contributors to creating that positive outcome. The coach emphasized the importance of forging positive relationships with disengaged employees, as the number one reason that people stay with an organization is that they have a friend at work.

Jane and her positivity team learned to ask other people powerful questions to learn what ideas they had for improving the group’s performance. Rather than continuing their old pattern of focusing on who was at fault for the problems, employees learned to have constructive conversations about how to achieve positive outcomes.

These questions were based on six positive psychology principles known by the acronym PROPEL: Passion, Relationships, Optimism, Proactivity, Energy, and Legacy. The coach provided Jane and her team with a set of questions that research had shown to be effective in creating a positive culture.

1.       To generate Passion for creating positive results, Jane and her positivity team asked:
“What would make working here a great experience for you?”
“What would it look like if the group was effectively dealing with negative people?”

2.       To learn about creating collaborative Relationships, they asked:
“What ideas do you have for creating great teamwork?”
“Who could you count on to help build a high-functioning team?”

3.       To increase Optimism, they asked:
“What enables some people in our group to consistently overcome challenges?”
“When have we been at our best in solving problems in the past?”

4.       To help people become Proactive, they asked:
“What’s the most important first step we could take to improve our group?”
“What contribution could you make to help us take that step?”

5.       To generate Energy, they asked:
“What helps you to replenish your energy?”
“What could we do to take better care of each other?”

6.       To understand the Legacy people want to leave behind, they asked:
“What would make a meaningful difference with our customers?”
“What would you like to do to make your job more fulfilling?”
These questions put Jane and her employees on a road that led them to making their workplace positive and productive.