How can you apply positive psychology during change?


Podcast transcript:

So what is VUCA? And why does it matter during change?

Have you heard of VUCA? It’s not the nicest acronym, since it sounds slightly like verruca but it’s important in the context of change and that’s relevant to right now. VUCA represents how the world is at the moment and how people’s experience of the world and of work has become. It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.  So it’s fast-changing, we don’t know what will happen next, there’s a lot going on and it’s difficult to figure out what it all means.

That’s a lot for the human mind and emotions to take in. It does ebb and flow to some extent – at some points, we might feel that things are becoming fairly settled – with our team and our work. And then some other change happens…like there’s a restructure for example, and everything gets much more VUCA again.


Positive VUCA? VUCA Prime? Ok, hit me!

In today’s podcast, I want to give you some reflections and some practical tips on how you can apply positive psychology during change, in VUCA environments. This is relevant both if you’re a manager or leader, or if you’re not.

I’ll start by bringing you some positive VUCA. This is also known as VUCA Prime in the context of leading organisational change. Positive VUCA or VUCA prime is the idea that in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments, humans need to be clear on a flipped version of VUCA:

  1. Vision – to be able to see past the noise of now and towards something meaningful that is bigger than them
  2. Understanding – by experimenting and staying curious about what is happening, we can take a positive perspective into uncertain environments. The goal is to understand rather than to control
  3. Clarity – keeping it simple and working to a known set of values or principles can help people feel grounded when everything is moving around them
  4. Agility – when things are changing quickly, you need to be prepared to shift and flex and not stay wedded to Plan A. So best to stay ready and primed for the next change and have strategies to stay agile.

For me, what positive VUCA shows is that you can take a very concrete approach when responding to challenging situations by reframing and asking what you CAN do rather than getting hooked up on what you CAN’T.  It’s easy to get washed away in the belief that there’s nothing you can do when change comes knocking, but taking clear, practical steps allows you to make progress even when the situation is tough.

Which brings us to the wider application of positive psychology during change.  In no particular order, I’d like to revisit some of the topics I discussed in Season 11 episode 8 – What is positive psychology and how can it help you, and apply some of these ideas to change.  I’m going to cover appreciative inquiry, strengths, flow, positive emotions, growth mindset and well-being.  Let’s get going, coz this is going to be rapido.


What is appreciative inquiry? Does it do what it says on the tin?

Appreciative inquiry does pretty much what it says on the tin. It’s a way of approaching change that builds on what’s worked in the past and what’s working now in order to create a strong foundation for a different, co-created, future state.  Say you’re in a team that’s going through a restructure – new team members come in, existing team members leave, the team has a new set of objectives to meet. It all feels pretty out of control. But AI would take you through a 4 stage process:

  1. First of all, appreciating what is the best of what you have – in this case the skills and experience of team members, established work processes, etc. This first AI stage is called ‘discover’
  2. Secondly, the ‘dream’ stage is collectively working out what would work well in the future with the new team dynamic and the new team objectives.
  3. Stage 3 is to ‘design’, so to make an operational plan as to how to get there, building on the best of what you have and bringing in new approaches and thinking where you need.
  4. Stage 4 is ‘deploy’ or ‘do’, where you put the plan into action

As I say, the aim here is to rebuild the team around what works rather than focusing on fixing what doesn’t, because evidence shows that this approach gets you to a positive outcome faster. To get the best from it though, you need to look carefully at the ‘dream’ stage, to make sure that any issues or problems that are there are resolved by coming up with a new picture of the future that addresses them, by getting round the problems or coming up with creative ways of solving them.


How can you use strengths during change? Strengths were made for change

Strengths are the qualities which energise you and which you are great at or have the potential to become great at. In the stress and uncertainty of change, it’s often the case that people lose focus on what they CAN do and can start to feel trapped in negative patterns of thought and behaviour.

Strengths challenges this directly by inviting people to literally find the strength, or strengths, that will help them to get through a challenging period. Say that there’s a member of the team experiencing change that we’re focusing on whose job responsibilities have changed because of the restructure. On the face of it, that may well feel disempowering as you’re asking that person to move from a place of confidence and expertise into more of a novice mode where they will be less certain of themselves and their ability to deal with the challenges of the new role.

By asking them to look to their strengths to help, this can create more of a sense of can-do and control. For example, they could use Results focus to set themselves realistic learning goals as they gain confidence in new areas, feeling good about ticking these off one by one. Or they could use Optimism to look at the possibilities and potential of what the new job responsibilities offer as CV enhancers. Or they could bring in Collaboration to connect with people facing similar challenges and talk about what’s working for others, and how they’ve overcome difficulties.  Or maybe they could even use all 3!

There’s more on this topic in a podcast I recorded recently at Season 14, episode 3 – how to use your strengths to manage change and transformation. Have a listen if you feel it’s relevant.


What is flow and why is it relevant here?

Related closely to strengths is the idea of flow. And this is very important during change. Flow is a state of immersion and absorption in a task, where time flies and you forget you’re at work because your skills are well-matched to the challenge of the task.  To achieve flow, you’re probably going to be using your strengths somehow – the trick is to work out how and then do it more.

As a line manager, and particularly during change, it’s really important to keep talking to team members about whether their skills and knowledge are matched with the tasks they’re being asked to complete. Where there’s a mismatch, someone might experience boredom and disengagement (when they’re too skilled) or stress and anxiety, even burnout (when they don’t have the skills, or capacity).

To get people closer to flow, you need to bring more of a balance to that skills-challenge match and then think up creative solutions to get there.  And bringing in strengths can really help here – to get people more quickly to a sense of mastery where their skills aren’t yet at the required level, and to encourage people to take a different approach to tasks where they’re bored or switched off because it’s too easy, again using their strengths.

I covered Flow in more detail, and I included a practical line management tool that can help in Season 11, episode 10 – What is flow and how can you use it to manage stress?  So head there for more detailed info.


How are positive emotions useful during change?  And how can you get there?

Let’s move on to positive emotions. In a VUCA environment, it’s all too easy to slip into a negative emotional state. Particularly when colleagues are grumbling, nothing seems certain and you’re feeling under pressure to deliver against new objectives in an unfamiliar job role. In fact, it’s completely understandable. And helpful, because it’s giving you data about the challenges you’re facing and how you’re coping with them. Over time though, being in a negative emotional state can become corrosive – for you and for others around you.

Remembering that it is within your power to shift your state, for example by celebrating successes within the team, by reflecting on what you’re grateful for and also what you’re most proud of, by having fun at work and with your team.  In fact, by experiencing positive emotions of all sorts, you can literally open up neural pathways in your brain that aren’t open when you’re in a negative emotional state. And that makes problem-solving, learning and managing our work relationships far easier. Remembering to go positive from time to time is the key.


Is growth mindset relevant during change? What is growth mindset anyway?

Growth mindset is the idea that there is no one way to get to a solution, that the most important aspect of failure is learning and that you need to stretch beyond your comfort zone to develop and improve. During change, taking a growth mindset approach brings real benefit because it’s going to get bumpy, it’s not going to be possible to keep the status quo and to stay agile, you need to be prepared to mess up, to learn from it, and keep going.

Fixed mindset (and I believe most of us are socialised towards fixed mindset through parenting and schooling) leads people to want to attain a level of competence or skill and then protect it, often by not pushing themselves into areas where they may risk what they see as failure. And that’s really limiting.

So growth mindset is a very helpful approach to take during change, as long as leaders are prepared to create a psychologically safe environment for people to experiment, fail and learn rather than expecting perfection from the start.  For more on growth mindset, scoot over to Season 9, episode 11 – what is growth mindset and how to develop one. Hope you like it.


What does positive psychology have to offer on well-being?

Positive psychology has a specific model which supports well-being all the time, and that’s super relevant during change. The PERMA model stands for positive emotions (which we’ve covered), engagement (and we pretty much covered that when we talked about ‘flow’), relationships, meaning and accomplishments.

So let’s go to the final three elements of the PERMA model to consider how these can help during change.

First up, Relationships – having a strong social support network has been scientifically proven to positively affect mental health in all aspects of life. But when people feel stressed by change, they can sometimes isolate themselves and avoid people as a stress response. Try not to do that – instead reach out, connect, share anxieties, challenges and concerns because you won’t be alone and people love being trusted to help and support.

Secondly, meaning. I mentioned this in positive VUCA…it’s the need for a vision, something clear that people can drive towards that means something to them. Meaning really is about connecting to something bigger than you. It could be the success of your team. Or it could be what your organisation is for…the good it does in the world.  Failing that, having something outside of work that you can lean on during change to give you a sense of contribution can work well too.

Finally, accomplishments I sort of touched on when I covered positive emotions, as well as growth mindset. Specifically, this is about getting good at stuff – being successful and feeling that you’ve mastered something.  You can’t get there without the pain of failure and learning, hence the need for growth mindset, and it can feel stressful when you seem to be taking two steps back and only one forward sometimes. Line managers can help here by noticing progress and giving team members specific positive feedback on how they’re doing, as well as celebrating wins for the team as a whole.


In conclusion – positive psychology is geared for change, so tool up

Wow, that feels like a lot of information, a lot of ideas and hopefully some concrete actions that you can apply during change. All of it coming from the world of positive psychology. Strong recommendation from me, if you’re interested in any of these approaches, it’s worth reading up a little more on them, but the value of them is that they are essentially pretty simple to put into action. As long as you remember to go there when the pressure of change is on. And that’s the challenge. Are you up for it? Till next time, stay strong.