Over the last two decades, a new branch of psychological study has taken academia, education and workplaces by storm. Known as ‘positive psychology’ it is basically the study of what makes life worth living. Rather than focusing on helping the sick to ‘get well’, this area of science is concerned with ensuring that life is fulfilling.
Positive psychology should not be confused with positive thinking. Unsurprisingly, there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that if you think positive thoughts, good things will happen to you. However, there is a growing body of evidence that there are small, practical actions you can take to improve your chances of flourishing.
As mentors, some of the tools and ideas coming out of positive psychology can help you to ensure that your mentees are not simply surviving in their job, but thriving. This has obvious benefits not only for the mentees, but also for the entire organisation.
In his book, Flourish, Professor Martin Seligman, a leading positive psychology researcher, identifies five pillars of wellbeing: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment, now referred to as PERMA.
If you feel your mentees are not flourishing, one place to start is the PERMAH Workplace Survey. Developed by Dr. Peggy Kern from the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, this survey measures the well-being factors identified by Seligman, and adds health to the mix. The survey results will help you and your mentees to identify what needs to be addressed, to enable your mentees to consistently thrive.
Depending on the outcomes of this survey, here are some ideas and tools that can help you work with your mentees.
No one can be happy all of the time, but if your mentees are not regularly experiencing positive emotions at work, then something has to change.
Explore with your mentees whether they are actively using their strengths and talents in their current roles. Consider asking them to prepare a personal SWOT analysis and then use your session together to brainstorm ways that they can better employ their strengths in their current role, or possibly explore a new career trajectory.
It’s not always necessary to think in terms of major career decisions. Focus on the small stuff as well. Take time to identify what brings joy to your mentees and explore ways that they can tap into that in the workplace. For example, if they love being surrounded by nature, consider bringing plants into the workspace.
If your mentees are the ‘glass half-empty’ sort of people, help them to find ways to shift their perspective. For example, get them to make a habit of finishing each day by noting down a few things they have done well. Regularly practising this sort of thinking will counteract their natural bias to ruminate about what went wrong.
In order to truly thrive, it’s important that your mentees feel engaged in their careers.
Quite often, disengagement is less about big picture career goals and more about an inability to focus. So if your mentees are struggling to engage you might start by helping them to minimise distractions. In today’s world this usually involves setting guidelines around personal technology. This short video offers some simple, but effective ideas on improving concentration.
We spend a lot of time at work, so it’s important that we build a strong network of good work relationships. Sometimes, that can feel difficult in a fast-paced competitive workplace.
It may seem obvious, but simple acts of kindness and showing genuine appreciation are very effective ways to start building relationships. Not only do they make people feel better about you, they tend to also make you feel better about yourself. If your mentees are feeling isolated at work, explore the small steps they can take to start establishing rapport with others in the workplace.
You don’t have to be curing cancer or stopping global warming to find purpose in your work. Almost any job can be meaningful.
Your mentees may feel unclear about what gives them meaning. A great question to ask in this case is, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid.” The answer will often provide strong indicators of what your mentees really want to do and it will help you to provide guidance.
You can also help your mentees to find the meaning in their job. Ask why they do what they do, and who benefits from their work. Everyone has difficult or mundane aspects to their job. But when viewed as an act of service, even the most routine task can feel meaningful.
In the PERMA model, achievement is less about actual success and more about internal recognition and appreciation of success. There are a number of ways that you may be able to help your mentees improve their sense of achievement. Help them to celebrate their successes, however small. Perhaps insist that they email you a list of three wins each week, and then drink a toast to the biggest wins at each meeting. Explore whether your mentees make a habit of comparing themselves to others.
It’s easy for one’s own accomplishments to feel diminished in the shadow of grander successes. Help your mentees to recognise the significance of their own achievements by exploring the fears they may have to overcome, or the new lessons they have had to learn.
While you are working with your mentees, keep in mind that mentoring itself is a form of positive psychology. As mentors, you symbolise the degree to which the organisation cares about your mentees’ development. You provide a place where your mentees can let their guard down and be honest. You offer support and guidance when your mentees are faced with stressful situations.
Simply by being there, you are helping to promote positive psychology. Give yourself a pat on the back!