Positive Psychology is one of the biggest of the big ideas to emerge during my adult lifetime. It starts with an even bigger idea: that insights into the way our minds work can help us address problems. And then it turns that idea on its head.
The impact has been no less than phenomenal. Yes, it has spawned a vast and growing library of books and self-help programs. But it has also genuinely helped people.
Not only has positive psychology given us the tools to live a more fulfilling and happier life. But it also equips us to make workplaces better, more sustainable, and more productive. So, if that doesn’t interest you, I do wonder just how big an idea has to be to grab your attention.
Teresa Amabile was born in 1950 and went Canisius College in western New York State, to study Chemistry. After graduating in 1972, she shifted direction and enrolled at Stanford University to take an MA in psychology, and stayed on to defend her PhD thesis in 1977.
She returned to the East coast to take up an academic post as Assistant Professor of Psychology at Brandeis, where she stayed until 1994, having become a full professor in 1990. There, she became an authority on creativity.
Her 1983 book, The Social Psychology of Creativity, republished in 1996 as Creativity in Context, is considered a classic research text for serious students. It reviews a wide and complex topic. Some of her own findings are most easily accessible in a 1998 Harvard Business Review article, called How to Kill Creativity, which is well-worth reading.
In 1995, she moved to Harvard to become the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration, a chair she continues to hold emerita. There, Amabile opened up a second, related front in her research, looking at motivation, mood, and our inner life, at work.
Teresa Amabile sees creativity arising out of three components:
Expertise, or knowledge in all its forms
Motivation to solve a problem. Self-motivation (or ‘intrinsic‘ motivation) is far more important than external (‘extrinsic‘) motivation, which can even stifle creativity.
Creative-thinking skills. Amabile asserts there is a capability here and she describes it in terms of flexibility, imagination and perseverance.
Managers can influence the development and deployment of these three components, and in her HBR article, Amabile lists six ways.
Managers need to provide tasks that challenge and stretch their employees, rather than allowing them to remain in their comfort zone. Notice how this relates to Csikszentmihalyi’s conditions for Flow.
People thrive best when they are able to work independently on their assignments. This reflects one of the three components of Self Determination Theory: Autonomy.
We know constraints help creativity and time pressure boosts it too. But these are likely to do so by also increasing intrinsic motivation. Amabile finds that, without sufficient time and material resources, creativity is held back.
Managers can create the local conditions for creativity by encouraging enthusiasm, mutual support and, vitally, a respect among team members for each others’ diverse abilities and contributions.
In a finding that is mirrored by Amabile’s more recent work on inner work-life and motivation, she concludes that managers who encourage and praise team members get more creativity out of them. (Shock horror!)
She argues that this goes further. A culture of creativity needs full-on organisational support behind that of the team’s immediate managers. People need to feel their creativity is valued and will open up opportunities.
The Progress Principle
Amabile’s most recent work into our ‘inner worklife‘ has caught the attention of the business press. Her findings show a complete conflict between what people think motivates them at work, and what actually leaves them feeling satisfied at the end of the day.
In questionnaires, Amabile found a very low self-assessment of the importance of making progress in overall mood and job satisfaction. But when she carefully analysed thousands of personal journal entries, she discovered that a sense of having made progress during the day offered the single greatest positive correlation to feeling good at the end of the day. And setbacks in work likewise had an adverse effect on end-of-the-day mood.
I can’t help thinking that David McClelland would hardly have been surprised that this is true of the people he described as having a high ‘Need for Achievement’. But Amabile showed that this applies to almost everyone. And this makes progress a very powerful and equally simple lever of motivation.
And… it is one that managers can easily manipulate. As a project manager, I have always advocated the use of more, rather than fewer, milestones on my projects. Each milestone is a point of recognition of progress. As a manager, you can set more progress indicators for your teams, and expect them to feel better about their work than if they had long periods between conspicuous successes.
There is far more to Amabile’s research than this. But she is an eloquent and clear speaker, so take a look at her describing the Progress Principle, in a 2011 TEDx talk, in Atlanta…
Teresa Amabile at TEDx
Here is Amabile speaking about the progress principle at TEDx, in 2011.
It’s not how intelligent you are that matters,says Dr Howard Gardner. Rather, what really matters is how you are intelligent. Howard Gardner is an eminent psychologist who gave us the theory of Multiple Intelligences, and is now working on an even bigger topic; what it means to be good.
Howard Gardner was born in 1943, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His parents had fled Nazi Germany before the war. He was a scholarly and musically able student and in 1961, he entered Harvard College to study Social Relations, gaining his AB in 1965. After a year spent studying Philosophy and Sociology at the London School of Economics, Gardner returned to Harvard University to study for a PhD in Social Psychology.
In 1967, during his doctoral studies, Gardner joined the new Project Zero research team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as a research assistant. He has remained a part of that project throughout his career, becoming a director and now Senior Director of the project. As a major research centre and intellectual powerhouse for researchers into education, it has been a superb base for much of Gardner’s research and thinking.
In 1979, Gardner was among a number of Harvard researchers who collaborated in the Project on Human Potential. This opportunity led directly to Gardner fully developing and publishing the theory he is best known for. That theory is the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which he published in full, in 1983, with his book, Frames of Mind. This model has been widely welcomed in educational circles, although it has also been criticised, especially by some psychologists and researchers into intelligence. We covered multiple intelligences in an earlier article.
Gardner’s ample academic career is marked by hundreds of articles (both scholarly and popular), around 30 books, dozens of awards, a CV (dated 2012) that runs to 87 pages (!) and steady progress up the academic career ladder:
1971-72: Post-doctoral research at Harvard Medical School, into Aphasia
1972-86: Lecturer at Harvard
1986-98: Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
1998- now: John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education
In 1996, along with psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon, Gardner co-founded The GoodWork Project – now The Good Project. This collaboration researches into the meaning of good work, effective collaboration, digital citizenship, and civic participation. It sits within Harvard’s Project Zero.
Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences continues to dominate his reputation, and justly so. Wherever you sit on the scale of critic to convert, it has clearly had an impact on education in many places. And whether the model turns out to have an underpinning in the neural structure of our brains or not, the over-arching principle – that people have different abilities in different areas – is hard to deny. If that means we are better at valuing people for their various talents, rather than deprecating their lack of ability in one or two arenas valued by a selective system, that must be a good thing.
And Gardner continues to weigh in on many big debates in educational theory; not least the nature versus nurture debate. I suppose the biggest critique of Gardner’s approach – particularly in his work on Multiple Intelligences – is his focus on observation over experimentation. Much of his analysis results from careful intellectual (and therefore subjective) analysis of observation. But careful is the operative word. For many years, he has resisted wrapping new intelligences into his framework of eight – despite much advocacy from varying quarters. he does not find their cases compelling enough. However, his criteria are not clear and do not seem to have any testable, quantitative under-pinning.
The Good Project
In The Good Project, Gardner and his co-workers are interested to understand what makes ‘good’ work, ‘good’ education and so on. In this, he seems to be returning – with psychological and sociological methods – to the Greek fascination with what makes a good life.
Their conclusions can be summed up in three words. Being good in all the endeavours they have studied requires:
Interestingly to me, the first two very much echo the ideas Csikszentmihlyi developed in his theory of Flow.
Howard Gardner at TEDx in 2015
Here is Howard Gardner, ranging across his two primary interests; multiple intelligences, and what makes good work. You will see he refers to the work of Angela Duckworth.
Donald Schön (Schon for the rest of this article) differs from other thinkers and managers in this series, because he was more a philosopher than a business thinker. Therefore, his ideas are subtle, but no less important for managers and professionals to understand; at least in outline.
Very Short Biography
Schon was born in 1930, in Boston and grew up nearby. In 1951, he gained his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Yale and went to France to study music at the Sorbonne. He returned to the US to pursue philosophy at Harvard, where he earned his PhD in 1955.
After a short spell teaching philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Kansas City, he joined consulting firm Arthur D Little in 1957, and remained there until 1963 (AVGY).
From then on, he produced a series of books, joining the faculty of MIT in 1968 and becoming Ford Professor of Urban Studies and Education in 1972. It was in the years that followed this that he collaborated fruitfully with Chris Argyris.
Donald Schon’s Ideas
Within Schon’s writing are three big ideas that are especially relevant to managers and professionals.
The Learning Society
The rapid pace of technological change means that our systems and technologies no longer provide a stable base for society or its organisations. This means that we need to be constantly learning. This idea was picked up by Peter Senge in his writing on the ‘Learning Organization’. We need to be constantly learning lessons as we go and the same is true for society as a whole and organisations within it. Yet governments and organisations both like to centralise their policy making processes, isolating them from the people who have the experiences to understand and therefore solve the new problems that emerge.
Schon wrote about how powerful a metaphor can be in framing the professional response to an issue. Schon suggested that the challenge is often less in problem-solving, and more in problem-setting. How we state a problem dictates the type of solution we find. So, for example, if the problem of poor communication is fragmentation, then we look for a solution of co-ordination. An example he gave from the social sphere was when we refer to the problems of a neighbourhood as a ‘blight’ and therefore frame our response as a treatment for disease. This is something that is the subject of current research, not least by Paul H Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky. I have written about the dangers of metaphor choice elsewhere.
Reflection in Action
Perhaps Schon’s most important contribution was in thinking about the process of learning. In addition to his collaboration with Argyris – which led to three books and the idea of double loop learning; he also focused on reflection.
He started by setting out reasons why what he termed ‘technical rationality’ is a poor model of professional learning. This is the process of filling new students and professionals-to-be with knowledge at the start of their careers, and expecting them to apply that knowledge. The common response to this approach was then ‘reflection on action’. This is the process of stepping back after each piece of work, project, or experience, and reflecting on what we have learned from it.
We know that this is an excellent route to developing wisdom, but Schon argued that professionalism requires something else, as well: the ability to think o our feet. For this, we require the ability of ‘reflection in action’ – reflecting while we are carrying out our tasks and exercising our skills. This seems to me to be intimately linked with both Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of ‘flow states’ (in which we lose ourselves in activities where we are able to constantly monitor our progress) and Kolb’s idea of ‘Experiential Learning’(in which we learn through a constant cycle of experience, reflection, generalisation, and application).
Csikszentmihalyi was born to a Hungarian family in a city long disputed by Hungary, Italy and Croatia – now called Rijeka and part of Croatia; it was, at the time of his birth in 1934 a part of Italy, named Fiume. He emigrated to the United States at the age of 22, and got a BA and PhD from the University of Chicago, going on to become a a professor and chairman of the Department of Psychology. He is the founder and a co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center – a non-profit research institute that studies positive psychology.
Flow, in a Nutshell
Csikszentmihalyi’s signature research was into Flow States – those states of mind when we are totally absorbed in an activity, and can therefore want nothing else in the world, at that time, than to continue uninterrupted. He describes these Flow States as the optimum states for a human being, and catalogues the three conditions under which they arise:
The task has a clear and worthwhile goal
The task is sufficiently challenging to stretch us to our limits (and maybe a little beyond) but not so challenging for us that we find ourselves anxious and hyper-alert for failure
The task offers constant feedback on our progress and performance levels
In the book, he relates interviews with over 90 creative people from many fields of the arts, sciences and humanities. From those, he distils a great many lessons. For me, one of the simplest is most valuable, his five steps to creativity:
Becoming immersed in a problem that is interesting and arouses curiosity.
Ideas churn around at an unconsciousness level.
The “Aha!” moment when the answers you reach unconsciously emerge into consciousness.
Evaluating the insight to test if it is valuable and worth pursuing.
Translating the insight into a workable solution – Edison’s ’99 per cent perspiration’.
This to me explains why we seem to get our best ideas when out walking, sipping a coffee, or in a shower. These are not the times when we solve our problems: they are the times when our conscious mind is sufficiently unoccupied to notice the answers that our unconscious has developed.
What does this mean for managers?
If you want creative thinking from your team, I think it tells us four things:
You need to give people time to understand and research the problem, making it as interesting and relevant to them as you can.
You need to let people go away and mull, allowing a reasonable period for ideas to incubate.
You need to bring people back together with no distractions and pressures, so that the ideas can naturally emerge.
You need to create separate stages of your process for evaluating the solutions and then for implemental thinking, when you hone the preferred solution into a workable plan.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at TED
Here is an excellent video from 2004 of the man himself…