Why resilience and wellbeing are the keys to your team’s productivity – according to positive psychology expert Michelle McQuaid

With more than a decade of senior leadership experience in large organisations around the world, Michelle McQuaid is a best-selling author and workplace wellbeing teacher and coach.

At the 2016 Not-For-Profit People Conference, Michelle will be speaking about the importance of building resilience and wellbeing in staff and teams. We spoke to her to find out more about the journey that led her to pursue “positive psychology”, and why happiness shouldn’t be the holy grail at work.

Hi Michelle, thanks for chatting with us! Your interest in positive psychology was sparked at a challenging point in your life – can you share the story with us?

I was living in New York at the time, working for PricewaterhouseCoopers. I had spent a decade climbing my way towards it and I thought it was going to be my dream job.

About six months in, I started to really struggle to drag myself out of bed each day and into the office. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I wasn’t sick, I didn’t feel mentally unwell – I thought maybe I was just being ungrateful.

But I was having trouble keeping up with the life I had created for myself. And professionally, the work I was doing relied on changing people’s behaviours to live our brand values – but I realised a lot of what we did didn’t really work.

One night, a gentleman called Dr Tal Ben-Shahar appeared on TV to speak about his course in positive psychology at Harvard. I remember quite literally sitting bolt upright on my couch, thinking: “there’s a science to human flourishing and to how we bring out the best in ourselves and others?” I’d never imagined that such a thing existed.

The next morning I was lining up to buy his book and it opened up this whole field of how we could use this in our personal and professional lives.

Can you explain to us the difference between happiness and wellbeing?

This is really important. The founder of the field, Professor Martin Seligman, revised all his original theories on happiness to state that what we should be pursuing is wellbeing, not happiness.

That’s because happiness is a very pleasant state, but it’s also very fleeting. It comes and goes depending on what’s going on in our world, whereas wellbeing is something we can consistently improve.

Professor Seligman identified four pillars for wellbeing. The first is positive emotion – yes, that’s happiness, but it’s also things like awe, interest, pride and love.

Two: the chance to be regularly engaged in what we’re doing – to do the things we do best and actually enjoy.

Three: to have good relationships. More than anything else, the last decade of research has shown that when it comes to our wellbeing other people matter.

And finally, that we have a sense of meaning and purpose to what we do. That we feel we’re making a positive difference and can accomplish the things that matter most to us.

So you can really see that in these pillars you get much closer to that functioning, effective component that happiness alone doesn’t always bring.

So why is wellbeing so important in the workplace?

It enables our brains to function at our best. And when you think about what a precious asset people are in most organisations, you really want their brains to be functioning at their best!

There’s a growing body of evidence over the past decade that shows when our brains are experiencing happiness they’re broadened – we see more opportunities.

We’re also more innovative and creative, and we do a lot better in complex problem solving and analysis. And because positive emotions help us feel safer, our brains think much more about ‘we’, so we’re better at co-creation and collaboration.

And why are those qualities particularly important for not-for-profit organisations?

Like any workplace, people in NFPs really need resilience to deal with challenges.

And people are attracted to NFP work because it has a sense of meaning to them – but what we’ve seen is that we can have too much of a good thing. There’s some fascinating research that looks at when purpose becomes overwhelming for us – when it clouds everything else in our lives.

When our passions become obsessive, it starts to negatively impact our wellbeing over time – which means we’re less effective at the job. We can actually end up undermining the impact we want to have long term.

So what can managers and leaders do to instil resilience and wellbeing in their staff?

Number one is be resilient and well themselves! Managers are highly contagious – research shows that 20 to 30 percent of performance in any organisation is determined by the mood of the leaders, and that it takes less than seven minutes for a leader’s mood to infect an entire team.

Number two is to be able to do it for our teams as well. How am I helping creating heartfelt positivity? How do I bring out the strengths in my people – do I know what they are? Because most managers don’t! And how can I help design more of their work or give them the opportunity to craft more of their work around what they do best?

And just finally, what else will you be sharing about resilience and wellbeing at the Not-For-Profit People Conference?

I’ll be sharing a really practical way for people to understand where they and their teams are at in each of those wellbeing pillars, and the little busy-proof things they can do to bring out the best in their teams and themselves.

I’ll also be giving people access to a free tool to measure their own and their team’s wellbeing, and set little wellbeing goals – a bit like a psychological Fitbit so that they can feel good and function more effectively on a consistent basis.

Want to help instill resilience and wellbeing in your team? Join Michelle at the 2016 Not-For-Profit People Conference on November 21 and 22 – tickets are still available. Find out more and book your place here.

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