Shifting Our Focus

I was recently in a seminar where the speaker, Tal Ben Shahar, showed a complex graphic and asked the audience to count the number of geometric shapes we saw there.  Everyone had plenty of time to look it over in detail…and when we finished counting, the answers ranged from 5 to 95…amazing how differently each individual saw the same picture, even when everyone was asked to look for the same thing.  But the real insight came when Ben Shahar asked us, “In the same picture, how many children were riding in the school bus?”  Although the bright yellow school bus was prominently and clearly part of the picture, virtually no one in the room had seen it, let alone knew how many children were riding in it.  We had all been too busy looking for geometric shapes to notice what else was in the picture.

The questions we ask shape our perception of the world around us.  If someone asks us to look for geometric shapes, we look for those shapes and perhaps miss the yellow school buses that are in plain view.  Similarly, if we ask the question, “What are we doing wrong?”, or, “Why are those employees failing?”, or “Where does he/she need to improve?” we direct our focus to performance gaps rather than performance success.  If we spend our time putting our shortcomings under the magnifying glass, we may miss the signs of potential excellence that are there in plain sight.

How could you reframe the questions above so that you begin looking for strengths rather than weaknesses?  How have questions shaped your perceptions?






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Happiness is…

OM….Just got back from an incredible week at Kripalu, a peaceful yoga retreat center in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where I spent a week studying the subject, “What is Happiness?”  The residential week is part of a 10-month positive psychology certificate offered through Kripalu and taught by Tal Ben Shahar, a leading expert in this growing field.  Some of the highlights: identifying characteristics of people we admire as a basis for developing our “ideal self” profiles; getting loose with yoga dance every day; linking physical and psychological in a process called “reflaction”; exploring new ways to listen consciously; expanding perspective through systems thinking; looking for the authentic self and connecting that to leadership; focusing on strengths versus weakness; learning journaling techniques and developing rituals for enabling real change.  I happily recommend it.

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Ten Tips for Building a Strengths Based Culture

It’s easy to see how an individual can be proactive about utilizing their strengths. When we work in areas where we have natural strengths we feel more productive and engaged with our work and are less likely to want to leave our jobs. But how do we take the next step and integrate strengths into the workplace?

At a recent meeting of the Society of Pharmaceutical and Biotech Trainers, three corporate leaders – from Stryker, Genentech, and Celgene – discussed the nuts and bolts of how they built a strengths-based culture within their companies.  Here are their tips for making strengths stick:

  1. Begin with leaders.  Ask for their support, and offer them training and 1-on-1 coaching around strengths.
  2. Take your time and roll out the program slowly.
  3. Maintain leadership buy-in by measuring results via engagement scores, turnover ratios, productivity measures, or other means.
  4. Ask leaders to demonstrate their support by participating in meetings and incorporating strengths into their communications.
  5. Pick an assessment that is supported by available training materials and coaching guides.  Select a vendor with the capability of accrediting individuals within your organization and, if needed, supplementing your internal team with facilitators and coaches.
  6. Avoid the “one-hit-wonder” syndrome by planning ahead to incorporate strengths-based training and coaching at all levels of your department or organization. Keep it fresh by starting each meeting with a strengths exercise.
  7. Identify champions on each team that can help build momentum.
  8. Communicate that adopting a strengths based approach is not an excuse for competency lapses.  Develop strategies for addressing limiting weaknesses.
  9. Build strengths into the professional development process.  Provide strengths based feedback at performance reviews.
  10. Use strengths based team development to improve communication and cooperation between team members.

The audience takeaway was that while it clearly takes time and energy to build a strengths based culture, the payoff of a more engaging workplace is definitely worth the investment.

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Getting into the Flow

This morning I woke up early to spend some time in my garden.  We’ve had blisteringly hot weather over the last week, and I find that I have to water twice a day to keep my flowers and vegetables from looking as droopy and wilted as I feel in 100+ degree temperatures.  The garden is the place where I frequently find myself getting lost in the simplicity of watering, pulling weeds, digging or pruning. The harder I work, the more satisfied I become.  Time passes without me being aware of it, and before I know it, hours have gone by.  I find my attention focused in, laser sharp, on the aphids I discovered on the back of a maple leaf or the new fiddlehead that has emerged from the ferns I planted.  In the garden, I reliably feel a deep sense of exhilaration, enjoyment, and connection to nature – in short, I’m happy!

Psychologist Mikhaly Csikszentmihalyi has a name for this state of full engagement – flow.  In his book, Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi proposes that happiness is found when we become fully involved in the details of our lives and invest our attention and energy toward accomplishing goals of our own choice.  In flow, even hard work and boring routines can become enjoyable because they help us organize our lives and focus our thoughts.

When have you experienced flow?  Can you recreate that experience?


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A New Adventure in Self Improvement

Can you choose to be happy? How does happiness affect performance? And if people can choose to be happy and happier people perform better, can you teach people and organizations how? As someone who has Self Improvement as a top strength, I’m on a mission to find out. Starting in July, I’ll be pursuing my certification in Positive Psychology with Tal Ben Shahar from Harvard University’s Positive Psychology program. I’m eager to know more about the scientific evidence that is the foundation for the strengths based performance work Agentive has been doing for the last 5 years. My intention is to share what I learn with you, via this blog, and I am looking forward to hearing your opinions as we go along. Let’s start the conversation with a question: “Can you choose to be happy?

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