HUMANITY IN THE WORKPLACE

Jennifer Hanson-Peterson

Staff meeting

Each term at Geelong Grammar School, the Institute of Positive Education runs professional learning sessions for all teaching and non-teaching staff across its four campuses. These sessions assist our school community to action the ‘Learn It’ process of our implementation framework for Positive Education. We call these one-hour sessions ‘PosEd4U,’ and it is our aim that this professional learning opportunity is a ‘gift’ to our staff, allowing a time to pause, learn and enhance their understanding of Positive Education and, as a result, positively impact their experience of working at the school.

The focus of our most recent PosEd4U sessions has been on exploring human virtues. In their seminal work, Character Strengths and Virtues (2004), Professors Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman defined the virtues as the core characteristics universally valued across history and cultures. They identified six such virtues: Courage, Temperance, Transcendence, Wisdom, Humanity, and Justice. The virtues are important because they help us better understand what it means to “live a good life”. It is suggested by moral philosophers, religious thinkers, and positive psychology researchers alike that the more virtuously we behave, the greater our wellbeing is likely to be and the more fulfilled we feel.  

This term’s PosEd4U session focused specifically on the virtue of Humanity. The virtue of Humanity involves interpersonal strengths that enable us to befriend others and tend to our relationships (Ruch & Proyer, 2015). Under this virtue, Peterson and Seligman (2004) categorised the Character Strengths of Love, Kindness, and Social Intelligence – three tools or distinguishable routes we can access to help us live out the virtue of Humanity.

Our PosEd4U session on Humanity began with pondering this question: “What factors impacted your performance at work today?” How would you answer this question?

You may be surprised to learn that culture - the way that people in a group interact with and relate to one another, and the norms that guide their interactions - is one of the most influential factors on work performance. The field of Positive Psychology is starting to uncover how culture impacts our output and efficiency, and helping us understand what can be done to maximize our performance. When we collectively display the virtue of humanity and get our workplace connections [relationships] right, our teams become greater than the sum of their parts.

Drawing on New York Times best-selling author Daniel Coyle’s book, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, and Professors Jane Dutton and Emily Heaphy’s work on High-Quality Connections (HQCs), in our PosED4U session we explored the ‘secrets’ of connected, cooperative teams who repeatedly outperform expectations. What does it feel like to be part of such teams, how does the team culture impact us personally and professionally, and what do these teams focus on and pay attention to?

The benefits of a well-connected team

Jane Dutton’s research reveals that when we are experiencing HQCs at work, we experience a range of positive benefits. We often experience positive energy and emotions, we feel highly engaged in our work, and we feel known and even loved by our co-workers. HQCs are also associated with greater physical wellbeing and sense of positive purpose - we have stronger immune systems, we even live longer, and we feel ‘part of something greater’ than ourselves and strive to meet team goals.

A positive team culture also positively impacts our collective team performance. Coyle describes  Harvard researchers Kotter & Heskett’s (1992) groundbreaking study, in which companies that deliberately cultivated positive team cultures greatly outperformed similar organisations, enjoying, for example, an average net income increase of 756% over a ten-year period!

Vulnerability in well-connected teams

Bring to mind a well-connected, high-performing team of which you have been a part. If your team was anything like the teams Daniel Coyle has studied, you may recognise that deliberately cultivating high-quality connections and sharing honest, accurate information are among the key practices of positive teams. Ultimately, at the heart of connection and honesty is vulnerability. Brené Brown, author and research professor at the University of Houston who became well known after her popular TED Talk: The Power of Vulnerability, describes vulnerability as being “about showing up and being seen”.

‘Being seen’ involves us sharing openly and willingly of ourselves. Often we mistakenly feel like we need to build rapport before we can trust others and be vulnerable. However, in the most effective teams, the strong relationships and the powerful rapport at their core comes as a result of vulnerability. As Brown has eloquently and honestly put it: “Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection”. She has also famously said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”. If we want to enhance our workplace relationships and performance we need to be willing to make mistakes, own up to our mistakes, and share our hopes and concerns with our co-workers. It is about bringing our ‘true self’, warts and all, to the table.

Tips for cultivating a well-connected team

At the end of our PosEd4U session, we spent a significant amount of time answering in pairs ‘Questions for Closeness’ - 36 questions that require a vulnerable response from each person. Dr Arthur Aron, a researcher from the Interpersonal Relationships Lab at Stony Brook University in New York who developed these questions, has discovered through his research that answering these questions with another person has a significant

Other evidence-based practices you could use to bring a little more vulnerability into your workplace include:

  • Celebratory Love or ‘What Went Well’ - This is about celebrating others’ good fortune. Begin your team meeting acknowledging good things that have happened to colleagues. (Fredrickson, 2013)
  • Reciprocity Ring - The method was developed by University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker and his wife Cheryl at Humax. A team forms a circle and each member identifies a professional need that he or she would like help with (e.g., "I have always wanted to learn how to make more engaging PowerPoints. Can someone teach me how to do that?"). Other members of the group have the chance to offer their skills to help each member achieve their goals. (Cameron, 2013)
Other tips for generating vulnerability and creating safety, which come from Daniel Coyle, include:
  • Interacting with an 'open' face – be receptive, warm, interested, engaged.
  • After a project has been completed, performing an After-Action Review (AAR) where your team explores: “What Went Well?”, “What Went Wrong?”, and “What Will We Do Next Time?”
  • Sending a two-line email to your teammates, asking: “What do you want me to keep doing?”, “What do you want me to stop doing?” The Finance and Administration Manager at GGS recommended a third line: “What do you want me to start doing?”

As Desmond Tutu once said, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” We encourage you and your co-workers to practice being ‘human’ together, being more vulnerable, and reaping the resulting benefits of better workplace relationships and performance.

REFERENCES

Aron, A & Melinat, E & Aron, Elaine & D. Vallone, R & Bator, Renee. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 363-377.

Cameron, K. S. (2013). Practicing Positive Leadership: Tools and techniques That Create Extraordinary Results. San Francisco. CA: Berrett Koehler.

Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code: The secrets of highly successful groups (First edition.). New York: Bantam Books.

Dutton, J. E., & Heaphy, E. (2003). The power of high-quality connections. In K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton & R. E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline (pp. 263-278). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive Emotions Broaden and Build. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology47, 1-53. 

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Ruch, W & Proyer, R. T. (2015). Mapping strengths into virtues: the relation of the 24 VIA-strengths to six ubiquitous virtues. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(460). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00460

Jennifer Hanson-Peterson 2016
Jennifer Hanson-Peterson


Jennifer Hanson-Peterson is a Trainer and Content Developer for the Institute of Positive Education. She completed her Masters in Human Development, Learning, and Culture, with a concentration in Social-Emotional Learning and Development at the University of British Columbia, Canada. She has extensive experience conducting research on the impact of positive psychology initiatives on student wellbeing and developing tools to improve social connections for disadvantaged youth.