Applying positive psychology to business with Keith Gatto of UC Berkeley

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Positive psychology, the scientific study of strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive, is a field that you might associate more with personal development than with leadership and business. Here Keith Gatto, The Positive Psychology Fellow for the Fung Institute of Leadership at UC Berkeley, describes how he has applied his research in this area to a practical business context to create positive work cultures where innovation can flourish. His Positive Leadership and Innovation program is part of the university’s College of Engineering Executive Education offerings.

The power of positive psychology

Keith Gatto had been following a program in organizational leadership. When it came to his dissertation, he wanted to do something that people would benefit from. Often, dissertations do not make the transition into direct application in the world.

“When deciding on a dissertation topic, I wanted mine to be something that people could use, something that would change the work environment for the better. I came across positive psychology, which looks at the human condition and how you can apply that in different situations to enable people to flourish.”

“The whole idea of positive psychology is to create a better life through well-being, so I wanted to see how you can apply that to a work environment, and who is the most pivotal person in the work environment? The leader or manager! I decided to focus my research and dissertation on ways leaders can create more positive environments. However, I knew there had to be some sort of ROI for the company. Therefore, I focused on creating positive environments where innovative work behavior would flow naturally and be a part of the cultural fabric.”

The focus on innovation is an important part of selling the concept and linking it to ROI. While there is a general acceptance of the importance of a positive company culture, ultimately businesses are concerned with the bottom line.

As Gatto explains, a lot of the underlying concepts that support the tenets of Positive Psychology and the creation of a life of well-being have been around since Aristotle. It seemed to work, and people agreed that it should work — but there was never any empirical data to prove it.

This became the foundation of the new field of positive psychology when it was developed in 1999 by Martin Seligman, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, and Christopher Peterson. They have encouraged researchers to apply empirical and quantitative rigor to the field of positive psychology.

And that’s what Gatto’s dissertation aimed to do: it was a quantitative analysis of how you can leverage your character strengths — who you are as a person — to deliver better results at work. This dissertation became the basis for the Positive Leadership and Innovation program.

This isn’t a yoga class!

The challenge that Gatto came up against was that people might not automatically associate the idea of positive psychology with business, innovation or ROI. The data and concepts needed to be packaged in a way that was palatable to people in leadership positions in the corporate world.

“Although much research had been done in the areas of Positive Organizational Scholarship and Positive Organizational Behavior, getting people familiar with the idea that there was a connection with innovation was my first challenge. Many people associated positive psychology purely with self-development, education and creating happiness. I had to convince people that there was scientific validation to this. That’s where the tech field came in. Silicon Valley is known for its technological innovations and forward thinking. So it was no surprise to me that many companies within the Valley were not only open to the concepts but already implementing many of them in various ways within their organizations.”

Gatto also realized that while he brought his own strengths of conducting robust research and creating a cohesive framework, it was through collaboration with people in the industry that he could overcome any challenges and biases and create a meaningful program. Together with the program’s Industry Advisory Board, he created a bridge between industry and academia to package the scientific knowledge into tangible, bite-size chunks. In this way, they could move from positive psychology being seen merely as a ‘nice to have’ to something that was worth investing in.

“For instance, we’re doing a leadership development plan as the program deliverable — this is something that a lot of companies do with whomever they’re grooming for leadership. Leadership development is about how you’re going to lead but it’s also about finding out who you are, it’s about self-discovery. We’re taking these concepts and molding them into tools that are familiar to these companies.”

In addition to the framework of positive psychology, the program also gives prospective leaders exposure to other related concepts, ideas including appreciative inquiry, neuropsychology, and mindfulness. The goal is for the leader to gain insight into him- or herself as a person and then utilize those insights to create positive cultures.

Applying the learning

The people who have gone through the Positive Leadership and Innovation program have so far found it very beneficial. During the program, they find out more about themselves and how they can leverage their character strengths to become a better leader. They can also use what they learn to create an effective team that leverages different people’s innate strengths.

“This was among the best educational programs I’ve attended … the juxtaposition of cutting-edge research and real-world implementations was thought-provoking.”
– Juliette Hirt, Associate General Counsel, Sierra Club, USA

“The combination of excellent academics and world-class industry experts provided me the opportunity to gain new insight into leadership and the innovation process.”
– Andrés Cabezas Corcione, Ph.D., CEO-Founder Latin-American Center of Applied Positive Psychology, Chile

“…an extremely useful toolkit for any professional who wants to create a high-performing organization, foster creativity, innovation and inspire leaders.”
– Paul Racine, Founder, Life Lab, France

The idea behind the program is also to make sure that people walk away with concrete tools. They’re encouraged to connect with other participants to share how they’re experiencing and deploying the material and to use accountability buddies to keep the learning going. The aim is to really create a positive culture in their organizations.

Looking ahead

“I don’t think the workaround creating positive work cultures will ever be done, because people, and the culture we live in, are always changing. Therefore the leadership techniques must change to meet the new challenges.”

“Our basic wants and desires as human beings haven’t really changed in 2,000 years but how we express and create those values in our lives has changed a lot. A program like this helps you understand how those time-honored values are expressed in relation to the work culture of today. It’s a continual and ageless process… and the research to understand these changes is continual too.”

Gatto is particularly proud of the students who have come through the three-day program and the transformation that he sees in them during and after the program.

“When you transform yourself as a leader and work from your strengths you cannot help but transform the cultural environment you’re in — just by emphasizing your strengths differently.”

“There’s an old saying: you can’t change people’s behavior, you can only change your response to their behavior. If you know who you are, you know your strengths and you know how to use those to respond to various people, then you’re going to create change in an organization’s culture. And as a leader, that’s your job!

If you’re interested in learning more about positive psychology and how it might apply to the business context, Gatto recommends reading one of the many books on positive psychology, checking out the magazine Happiness, or looking at online resources such Greater Good Science Center and Positive Psychology News.

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