The Transforming Power of Positive Psychology

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Temkin Group works with a lot of companies striving to transform their customer experience. These efforts often require significant change in how employees think, believe, and act. But change isn't easy, or linear. Results come in fits and spurts, as people learn and acclimate.

A trait these companies share is a leader with a passion for change. This energy is essential for overcoming the natural inertia present within any organization. But this push for quick change, combined with the natural pacing of change, creates tension that can result in leaders feeling disappointed or frustrated, which in turn pushes them to fixate on problems.

But what if focusing on what's wrong, the negative, is actually counterproductive? Positive psychology is a new branch of psychology where the emphasis is not on fixing ailments but on helping people flourish. According to the Positive Psychology Center, the discipline studies "the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive," and was founded "on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play."

Temkin Group's leadership team attended the World Congress on Positive Psychology in Orlando, organized by the International Positive Psychology Association. It was a great event, featuring many of the industry's leading researchers. Here is a small sample of their insights:

Martin Seligman, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania. The latest research, Seligman said, is showing that helplessness is a natural reaction triggered by the brain, and rather than trying to unlearn it, it is possible to create a "hope circuit" in the brain by building an expectation of control or mastery of a situation.

David Cooperrider, Ph.D., Case Western University. Flourishing enterprises support the development and engagement of workers and have a culture based on sustainable values. As he put it, "Human beings are not a resource that gets used up, but are a source that can intensify and increase in value and contributions."

Tom Rath, Gallup Consulting. To sustain positive performance (effective performance, strong performance), people require three things: meaningful work, quality interactions, and energy.

Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., University of North Carolina. Her early research on the "upward spiral theory of lifestyle change" shows that the more you enjoy a behavior, the more you will have spontaneous positive thoughts about that activity, resulting in an increased passion for that behavior.

Our research confirms a lot of this. Employees who regularly receive positive feedback demonstrate, to a much greater degree, the behaviors required to drive change. They are more likely to help colleagues and stay late to complete projects on their own initiative, and far more likely to recommend their company's products and services, than employees who don't regularly receive such reinforcement. More telling, they show a greater emotional investment in the success of the company.


Here are three themes from the positive psychology discipline that leaders can infuse into customer experience transformation efforts:

Positive emotions support sustained behavior change. People are more apt to continue an activity if it results in positive emotions, which support more sustainable results than sheer personal willpower.

Positive emotions increase human capacity. People are more thoughtful, creative, and adaptive when they experience positive emotions; they also have greater physiological health and well-being.

Meaningful work amplifies positive emotions. People experience more positive emotions when they find meaning in their work, and this effect can be heightened when their work and efforts are appreciated.

Rather than always concentrating on what's broken, too often the natural management instinct, leaders can accelerate their change efforts by adapting lessons from positive psychology: Focus on having your employees flourish, and soon your customers will as well.

Bruce Temkin is customer experience transformist and managing partner of Temkin Group, a research and consultancy firm focused on enterprise-wide customer experience transformation. He is also the chair and cofounder of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org) and author of the blog Customer Experience Matters (experiencematters.wordpress.com).

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