How to activate your best self and what happens when you do
Dan Cable sheds light on the science behind positive psychology
Life is short but it’s the only thing you’ll ever do. You get one shot. When reflecting on life in old age, many people’s memories are full of regret. To make the most of your life – of which over 30% is spent at work – it may be possible to activate your best self more often.
The 1.7 million employees, in 101 companies from 63 countries, in Gallup’s database were asked the question: at work, do you have the opportunity to do your best every day? The results were humanistically appalling. Just 20% said they had the opportunity to be their best. In fact, the data showed that as people reach higher levels of seniority and responsibility, they’re less likely to do work that plays to their strengths. Many leaders feel trapped in work that isn’t meaningful to them, to make money to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t even like.
Put into perspective, the average person feels unfulfilled for 72,000 of the 90,000 hours they spend at work over their lifetime. Add to the mix 13 million lost working days in the UK caused by stress-related illnesses and you begin to see the problem for people and the organisations they work for.
There’s a growing body of research to show that best-self activation can improve people’s emotions, physiology, cognitive functioning, and relationships. When people are affirmed and feel better about themselves, they’re more resilient to stress and more resistant to disease. People become better at creative problem solving, performing under pressure, and they’re more likely to form stronger long-term relationships with their employers.
What is the self?
Psychologist William James said that the self is the source of wilful action because “connecting an idea or an action with the self implies making it self-relevant, moving it from the vague, the global, or the abstract to the personal, the individual, or the concrete”. It means that the self isn’t a “fluffy feeling”: linking an action to the self increases the chance of change occurring and sustaining.
Here’s the sweet spot. I believe that the competitive organisation of the future is one that builds a partnership with people and unlocks their human potential in a way that goes beyond the immediate job or even the organization. What are the benefits to organisations when they create environments in which employees can be their best? My research, co-authored by Francesca Gino (Harvard Business School) and Bradley R. Staats (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) with Wipro BPO, a business process outsourcing company in Bangalore, India, revealed telling insights.
The organisational benefits of best-self activation
Wipro, which provides telephone and online chat support to companies like HP, had a quitting problem. Imagine hiring all of your staff from scratch approximately every 18 months. That’s what Wipro was dealing with back in 2011. How can a company expect to delight its customers if it’s continually training new workers?
Wipro’s onboarding process was typical of many organisations we see today: it focused on job processes. For example, employees learned about the products they needed to support, and they received voice training to ‘westernise’ their voices. So our study looked at what happened to performance and retention when new employees were offered an alternative approach on their first day at work. As well as measuring a control group that received the normal introduction, we implemented two methods:
Organisational identity – where organisational values were emphasised. Afterwards, employees were asked to discuss which values made them proud to be part of Wipro
Personal identity – where new employees were asked to reflect on and then discuss who they are when they are at their best.
After six months, the results showed that when the organisation focused its initial welcome on new employees’ personal identities, the newcomers were much less likely to quit their jobs – 57% less than the control group — and there was statistically greater customer satisfaction.
Asking “who are you when you’re at your best?” takes one hour, and it’s free. Why does it work so effectively? When people alter their unique values to fit into an organisational culture, they can suffer from identity conflict. When people are empowered to express their authentic best selves, they are less anxious and less likely to suffer from exhaustion. Employees who are stressed and unwell are less likely to perform effectively and more likely to quit. Meanwhile, the customers they serve are also dissatisfied. When people activate their best selves, they bring more energy into the workplace and invest more in the company they work for.
Physiological, creative and performance benefits
Best-self activation has the ability to change the narrative that employees develop about work and about them. The study with Wipro, combined with many other studies, shows that best-self intervention has lasting personal and organisational benefits.
So if it’s so good, why have societies and organisations not excavated routes for telling others when they’re at their best? Why is it so hard, and so rare, to tell someone about the times they make their best impact? Despite the benefits, we save the best stories about people until they’re dead, which we call a “Eulogy.” Wouldn’t you like to hear a description of your best self from people you love before you die?
When others tell us who we are at our best, it creates a chemical chain reaction of positivity. You might feel positive emotions like joy, enthusiasm, excitement, pride, awe, inspiration, and compassion. I’m fascinated by how these positive experiences and emotions can change who we become, and how we act. New research published in top Science journals shows that positive emotions change the very way our cells perform to keep us healthy.
A body of data is beginning to suggest that when people’s signature strengths and extraordinary contributions are made more salient:
- Their physiology changes for the better
- Creative problem solving improves
- Their ability to perform under pressure increases
- Social relationships become more effective
According to the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, positive emotions not only feel good but build people’s resources for survival – known as the ‘broaden and build’ theory. When we broaden our minds, we’re more likely to experience an undoing effect, so that positive emotions wipe out the negative effects of stress. This means that when organisations invest in activating the best selves of their workers, people are healthier, happier and more efficient. In reverse, if you’re making your team unhappy, you’re making them unwell.
A staggering 40% of employees at work say their job is “very or extremely stressful”. Physiologically, best-self activation can undo the cardiovascular responses associated with stress and therefore increase people’s resilience and performance under stress.
So improving performance doesn’t start with a focus on people’s weaknesses. Psychological threat and fear doesn’t spark innovation. Highlighting people at their very best could be just the competitive advantage your organisation needs.
There are many questions to answer. For example, if we only bring our best selves to work, is it possible to overuse it, so that it becomes brittle? Are there ethical issues with organisations commoditising employees’ best selves? But, I believe that companies should be in the business of unlocking human potential, and helping employees understand who they are when they are at their best so they can be their best selves more often.
Reproduced with permission: Dan Cable June 2016
Dan Cable is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School. He is a two-time winner of the “Best Article in Organizational Behavior” from the Academy of Management and author of ‘Alive at work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do.’ Published by Harvard Business Review Press ISBN: 9781633694255