How Companies can Leverage the Power of Positivity for Happier Employees and Better Business

By DR. Claudia Rohde, Head of HR Development, Mast-Jägermeister SE

DR. Claudia Rohde, Head of HR Development, Mast-Jägermeister SEDR. Claudia Rohde, Head of HR Development, Mast-Jägermeister SE

When we use the term “positive HR development” at Jägermeister, we are talking about a research-driven approach that combines various findings, particularly from the field of positive psychology, and puts them into action. All of our concepts and activities are based on the clear, well-documented correlation between positive emotions and the further development of people and organizations. Positive emotions improve our ability to cultivate new skills and resources, which explains why happy people are often more successful. They have better relationships and are healthier. That is why having happy employees is in the absolute best interest of any company. Once companies recognize positivity or, more simply put, their employees’ happiness, as an essential factor for economic success, the next logical question is what can be done to maximize that feel-good factor at work – an important research topic in positive psychology.

The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, in which Barbara Frederickson summarizes her research, explains why positivity is so essential. Positive emotions open our minds and broaden our horizons. They make us more receptive to new ideas, opportunities and people, and, in the process, they broaden our scope of action. As a result, we become more creative, solution-oriented, adaptive, and more disposed to acts of kindness and altruistic behaviour. We improve our ability to form new relationships and deepen existing ties.

Negative emotions, on the other hand, focus our energy and restrict our perspective. They limit our scope of action to two basic options: fight or flight. Comparing these two outcomes, it is immediately clear that positive emotions contribute to a constructive company culture, while negative emotions are more detrimental in an organizational context. But negative emotions also have an important function: they keep us grounded and help us make decisions. So, with those properties in mind, the goal is not to cut out negative emotions altogether.

"Positive HR development is therefore not just about initiating activities and checking the boxes. Instead, it is also critical to have the right attitude"

To reap the benefits of positive emotions, we should experience at least three times as many positive emotions as negative emotions. That recommendation stems from what is known as the negativity bias. In other words, negative emotions have a much stronger impact than positive ones. We can start to get a better grasp of this relationship by picturing a sailboat. The mast, which holds the sail, stands for the positive emotions that help us keep moving forward in life. The boat’s keel symbolizes negative emotions; without it, we would lose stability and not be able to stay the course. Clearly, the mast needs to be much larger than the keel. Shawn Achor even suggests the need for a new worldview. We often used to think that hard work was the secret to success and that success would make us happy. But today, that belief no longer holds water. Instead, happy people are successful, or, as Achor puts it: “Success orbits around happiness, not the other way around.” Even resilience, which refers to our ability to recover from setbacks and deal with stress, is significantly enhanced by positive emotions.

Fortunately, we have more influence over our own happiness than most people think. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research shows that roughly 50 percent of our personal happiness level is genetically determined and another 10 percent depends on external circumstances. But that still leaves 40 percent that we can influence through our thoughts and actions. Lyubomirsky examined a wide variety of activities that people can pursue to consciously elevate their happiness levels. Her findings give companies numerous possibilities for helping employees to increase their experience of positive emotions.

One of the most important factors for a happy, fulfilled life is good social relationships. They boost our resistance to stress and give our lives meaning – plus, people who are thankful and who express that gratitude tend to be happier. Helping others also makes the people who do kind acts happier. From a management perspective, any and all activities that promote networking among colleagues have an inherent worth. Developing a trusting culture where employees feel comfortable asking for help and where gratitude is readily expressed will result in an increased sense of happiness among employees. And because positive emotions also make us more receptive to new relationships, a self-reinforcing process emerges.

Something similar occurs when we decide to let strengths be our compass. Having the opportunity to use and develop our strengths makes us feel good. Those positive emotions, in turn, make it even easier to keep honing our talents. As comprehensive research from Gallup shows, we can only achieve peak performance by cultivating our personal strengths. Though it may sometimes be necessary to work on weaknesses as well, those improvements alone will not produce exceptional results. That is why a consistent focus on strengths is a key component of positive HR development. For most people, the first step is to identify their personal strengths. At Jägermeister, we support employees in this process with the StrengthsFinder, a test that is administered at all levels and in different formats.

One unique situation in which we experience positive emotions is during states of “flow”. Discovered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this phenomenon is familiar to anyone who has ever become so absorbed in an activity that they lose all sense of time – and perhaps even themselves. What is special about this situation is that we feel so good while it is happening that the activity itself is our motivation; we need no further incentives. Flow can happen during various different activities, but only when certain conditions have been met. First, the demands of a given activity need to be such a good fit for our abilities that we are neither bored nor overwhelmed. Second, we need a clear goal, straightforward rules, and prompt, comprehensible feedback. Companies should therefore place employees in positions that correspond with their abilities. Finally, a clear strategy, well-defined roles, and regular feedback are additional prerequisites for experiencing on-the-job flow.

Further activities that can increase our happiness levels are sports, spending time in nature, mindfulness exercises, and meditation. Positive thoughts, such as reminiscing about fond memories or consciously looking forward to upcoming events, also elevate our happiness. Ultimately, people need to find the activities that are right for them as individuals. When the good ole company sports team, a time-honoured tradition in Germany, gets together to play football outdoors, those co-workers have successfully combined three different happiness-enhancing activities.

We are truly motivated when we have the freedom to make our own choices, the opportunity to learn and grow, and the ability to see meaning in what we do. Those are the main takeaways of the research findings compiled by Daniel Pink that allow us to derive clear principles and requirements for a motivating company culture and management. HR development can then use these guidelines to influence employee motivation, especially for activities that focus on managerial staff. For HR development, that can also mean giving employees a say and inviting them to collaborate in the creation of such tools and concepts. This requires close cooperation and an egalitarian approach – so transparency is essential. HR development can also support employees in their search for meaning, a topic of growing interest for younger generations, by crafting a mission statement, management principles, or other company-specific value systems. What is important is that these instruments not only be developed and communicated but also put into action. When employees are given the opportunity to come together and work on social or community projects, for example, the two criteria “fostering relationships” and “doing something meaningful” both contribute to their sense of happiness.

Ever since the discovery of mirror neurons, it is regarded as a scientific fact that the behaviour of each and every employee has an impact on their colleagues and therefore on company culture. In other words, everyone is capable of setting a good example. That is especially true for the people in HR development. Often, what we do is just as important as how we do it. Positive HR development is therefore not just about initiating activities and checking the boxes. Instead, it is also critical to have the right attitude. Even observers in candidate assessment centres can help ensure a cooperative, trusting atmosphere by projecting an open-minded, friendly, and appreciative attitude.

At Jägermeister, we are still in the early stages of implementing our positive HR development approach, but it has already resulted in many valuable impulses for our work. We have seen that in some areas, it confirms what we have been doing all along and in others it stimulates the development of new tools. Sometimes we only change or modify small details. Above all, it is about promoting the right mindset, since that is the foundation for concepts that truly support positive development for our employees and our organization.

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