Psychology, the workspace, and Innovation

When we think of psychology, we tend to think of the mentally distressed patient lying on the couch discussing their neuroses as the psychologist takes notes. Quite often, the objective of psychotherapy is to bring the individual from a -7 to a -3. This is fantastic for the 1 in 5 that suffer from a psychiatric condition, but what about the rest of us?

And thus positive psychology was born.

Well okay, not exactly. But you get the picture. Let me be clear. Positive psychology is not about positive thinking or about how a well-timed inspirational quote or platitude can substantially improve our mood.

It’s much more than that. So much more.

Positive psychology is the acknowledge of the fact that, contrary to Freud’s earliest work, we can strive to hope to have a mental life that goes beyond minimalizing our suffering and misery and towards a state of flourishing or well-being. Simply put, It’s the notion that we can thrive, rather than just survive.

Accordingly, Martin Seligman (a pre-eminent psychologist), and his colleagues proposes that give measureable elements contribute to this state:

Positive emotions. Research shows that positive emotions, though fleeting in nature, can be markers of flourishing. For instance, when we regularly experience positive emotions such as joy and awe, these positive states trickle down and to increase our capacity to be more creative and cooperative.

Engagement. In the context of positive psychology, engagement is synonymous with the concept of flow – or a state of “optimal experience” in which we feel alert, in control, and operating at a peak level of performance. It’s a transient state of absolute concentration where we simply lose track of time or feel “in the moment”.

Relationships. The idea of humans as a social creature isn’t just a philosophical proposition, it’s an empirically supported or scientifically backed claim. The acknowledgement that we are hard-wired to connect with others comes at an obvious cost – that at least on some level, our happiness and wellbeing is affected by those we associate ourselves with.

Meaning and purpose. Research shows that the self or individual is an impoverished source of meaning – that we are at a best when we dedicate our time to something greater than ourselves. It’s the pursuit of causes that are congruent with our own values and provides us with the motivation to go one step further.

Accomplishment. Whether it be learning a new instrument or clearing an achievement within a video game, people often strive to find activities that are intrinsically rewarding. Interestingly, there’s research to show that having regular accomplishments acts as a buffer against low self-esteem because there is a readily available source of counter-evidence.

perma model

So how does this model fit within innovation?

It is no secret that the workplace of the 21st century is a different world. On top of globalisation, the advent of new technologies has paved the way for a number of changes including the rise of the knowledge economy, hyper competition, and the ever increasing demand increasing demand to meet a triple bottom line. To keep up with these changes, companies now place a premium on creativity and innovation in order to gain a competitive edge. Since innovation and creativity is uniquely a human endeavour, human capital and talent management practices are thus at the forefront of an organisation’s strategic objectives.

Although Innovation is commonly cited as a core strategic objective, organisations generally only go as far as hiring innovative or entrepreneurial individuals. Yet research constantly shows that an innovative organisation is one that, at a cultural and team level, is open and inclusive – where social interactions are positive and ideas are encouraged, shared, and incubated. Innovative organisations are also marked by engaged employees – employees that are constantly engaged and find their work meaningful. If it’s starting to sound familiar….it should. A flourishing individual does not substantially differ from a flourishing or innovative organisation. Indeed, just as the effects of wellbeing cascades into other domains of the individual’s life, a flourishing organisation tends to be more innovative, profitable, and socially conscious.

The Link Between Psychology, the workspace, and Innovation

While its commonly understood that factors like leadership, organisational structure (e.g., flat vs. vertical), and access to technology, has a large role within creating innovative environments, less is known about the workspace. For example, one of the biggest changes to work environment within recent history is the open-plan workspace design. Whereas open plan designs can create more collaboration, and helps to build positive relationships and potentially fosters positive emotions through social connection, engagement or flow might be impaired as a result of noise and visual distractions. By extension, open plan offices may overload the brain’s limited working memory capacity and create a situation in which individual performance measurably declines. In turn, this affects the ability to gain a sustained sense of accomplishment and potentially diminishes the individual’s overall well-being.  And what about introverts — those who, by nature, are energised by working in solitude? As Susan Cain, in her TED2012 talk puts it, half society is comprised of introverts and the workplace must consider their unique needs. The key question that remains is; how do we design workspaces such that individual differences in human nature and psychological needs are met? While the solutions are debatable amongst academics and practitioner; one thing is clear. We need to measure and assess people within their workspace.

In the same way that psychology has gone from focusing on just minimising suffering, organisations now need to go above ticking boxes towards a more sustainable practice in which human potential and wellbeing is maximised. Everything from culture to the physical workspace to organisational processes, and everything else in between can redesigned to meet this objective. Organisations, for better or worse, are the co-architects of our wellbeing and we have to acknowledge that not enough is being done.

It’s time to take ownership and flourish.

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