Many projects encounter difficult project relationships but techniques from positive psychology offer a new way of designing and delivering projects in a way that facilitates positive emotions and good relationships. Positive Psychology provides some well researched, evidenced based techniques that you can use to increase the chances of your project being successful.

According to Seligman, Positive Psychology has three central concerns: Positive Emotions, Positive Individual Traits, and Positive Institutions. All of these offer ways for project managers to help improve project relationships.

[ribbon-light]1) The Value of Positive Emotions to Project Management[/ribbon-light]Positive Emotions are markers of well-being. When we feel well, we tend to engage more with others and with our environment. This means that when we are feeling positive we relate better to our team members and other stakeholders. The research shows that other people also relate better to us when we are feeling positive, probably because we seem more open and friendly. Project teams with higher levels of positive emotion are less likely to get into conflict situations with others and where conflict does occur, they are more likely to manage it well.

Research from the emotional intelligence field emphasises how our emotions affect those around us, so facilitating more positive emotions will act as a virtuous cycle and create even stronger relationships and more positive emotions in the project environment. This will facilitate greater levels of engagement/commitment to the project and higher levels of productivity.

When we experience lower levels of positivity we tend to lose our flexibility of responses. Negative emotions restrict our range of responses to fighting or running, whereas positive emotions enable us to choose from a much wider repertoire of thought and action (Fredrikson, 2005). This means that when we are feeling positive we are more creative and we are more able to engage in successful problem solving behaviours. Given the complex nature of projects, it is very important to have good problem solving skills and a creative approach.

In addition, positive emotions help neutralise the effect of lingering negative emotions and act as a buffer when dealing with negative situations i.e. they help make us more resilient to stress. Project management can often be very stressful and higher levels of positive emotion will protect the project team from the wear and tear on their physical and mental health that stress causes.

1a) Facilitating Higher Levels of Positive Emotions

When we hold project review meetings we often concentrate on things that did not go well and sometimes these negative elements are mentioned in repeated meetings as part of the review process. This is ok but it can evoke negative memories and lower mood. A better way forward would be to take an appreciative Inquiry approach. This methodology involves taking a positive focus and looking at what measures you can put in place to ensure that things work better in the future and not focusing on what went wrong. In other words, when reviewing the project, you would ask the question, “What worked well and how can we use this to help us deliver the weaker elements more effectively” as opposed to the more usual question of “What when wrong and whose fault was it”? Research by Losada and Heaphy (2004) demonstrated that the ratio of positive to negative comments in a group makes a huge difference to team performance.

1b) Using Gratitude

There have been lots of articles in all the press about gratitude and it is probably just worth mentioning here. Helping people makes us feel good and being thanked makes us feel good as well. Encouraging the project team to look for ways to help other team members/stakeholders and to thank team members/stakeholders for help given, is one easy way in which you can help to create higher levels of positive emotions and build better relationships and higher productivity.

1c) Facilitating Hope

Hope is a positive emotion and Alex Linley (2004) describes it as a positive psychological capacity. It has two components i.e. goal directed determination and pathways to meeting those goals and project managers can influence both of these in order to facilitate higher levels of positive emotion.

Goal Directed Determination

Emphasizing intrinsic goals (autonomy, relatedness, competence and community) is likely to generate more positive emotion than concentrating on extrinsic goals e.g. financial reward. (Kasser & Ahuvia 2002). This is because people put more effort in when they are working towards intrinsic goals.

Pathways to Meeting Goals

Achieving goals creates positive emotions. Consequently, in order to facilitate the positive emotion of hope, goals need to be broken down into bite size chunks that can actually be achieved. This is very much in keeping with the project planning process and the only additional task for project managers is to ensure that when they are dividing tasks up, the goals are actually attainable.
There is, however, another trick that project managers can use to help create more positive emotion and that is to encourage a greater focus on the planning process. The research into positive psychology has identified that taking pleasure in the actual planning process helps generate hope. This means then that project team members need to be encouraged to utilise strategy and develop alternative pathways to reaching goals.

[ribbon-light]2) The Value of Positive Traits to Project Management[/ribbon-light]Let’s move on to the second of Seligman’s three pillars of positive psychology, which is about facilitating positive emotions through strengthening individual traits.

2a) Individual Strengths

Our talents are an expression of the hard wiring in our brains and they tend to be things that we have a strong urge to do. Work carried out by Martin Seligman (2004) found that we are all happiest and most engaged when we are using our signature strengths. His research across many cultures identified a range of 24 character strengths that were common across all the cultures. The basic premise of Seligman’s work on strengths and other work that has followed it is that we all have unique skills or talents that emerge in our early life as a mixture of genetic and environmental factors. Seligman suggests that there is no point in trying to improve our weaknesses, our greatest happiness and well-being comes from building and using our signature strengths. http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx .

This suggests then that project managers should encourage their teams to identify their signature strengths using the website above and then look at how to divide up project tasks and responsibilities in a way that enables team members to use their particular signature strengths more. This will create more positive emotions and higher levels of engagement.

[ribbon-light]3) The Value of Creating Positive Institutions to Project Management[/ribbon-light]The final of Seligman’s pillars is about creating positive institutions. This includes a range of factors e.g.

  • Engaging Leadership
  • Improving Work Relationships and Interaction
  • Improving Meaning

3a) Engaging Leadership

The research into leadership suggests that a Transformational leadership style is the one which is likely to facilitate higher levels of positive emotion in the workplace. This suggests then that project managers should demonstrate the following leadership behaviours:

  • Emphasise Personal Autonomy
  • Facilitate Motivation/engagement
  • Provide support/empathy/guidance
  • Encourage development and self efficacy
  • Generate trust

3b) Improving Work Relationships and Interaction

According to Seligman, we need to feel that we are part of a social institution as an essential part of our well being so feeling connected is important. In fact, ‘Gallup’ found that having a friend at work was one of the main indicators of productive work groups and managing stress more effectively. Good relationships affect us at a physiological and hormonal level and give us a feeling of well-being. Having social support i.e. someone to talk to is a key element of emotional resilience and helps us to remain positive in adversity.

This means that project managers should look for opportunities to encourage social behaviour and bonding e.g. team bowling, team quizzes, basically, any activity that gets the team interacting with each other in a relaxed context.

3c) Improving Meaning

As human beings, we are hard wired to search for meaning in all that we do and we are more positive when we feel that we are doing something worthwhile. So how can you increase this feeling? Engage the project team in the wider goals of the project. Try to create a vision of what you are trying to achieve i.e. not just the end result of the project but how it is actually going to benefit someone/why it is worth having? Try to continue emphasising the links between what people do and the end result. It is important that the project team members/stakeholders understand that there is a clear link between their tasks and the final product or service i.e. how they are contributing to achieving that benefit.

[ribbon]Author: Sharon De Mascia[/ribbon]Sharon De Mascia is the Director of ‘Cognoscenti’ (Chartered Business Psychologists), www.cognoscenti.uk.com. She is a chartered occupational psychologist and an experienced (Prince2 qualified) project manager. She has 25 years experience of delivering change management and other organisational initiatives across both public and private sectors. Sharon is also a Chartered Scientist and a qualified coach. She is a supervisor for the global MBA at Manchester Business School and the author of Project Psychology published by Gower.