The Five Pillars of Well-Being

In which environment do people flourish and what makes them wither? And what essential categories are there, anyway, to influence this process. Where can leadership exert its influence? The PERMA model by psychologist Martin Seligman offers some very good answers.

Lead­er­ship requires con­text rather than con­trol. The chess mas­ter retired a long time ago. Today there is a demand for lead­ers who, like gar­den­ers, cre­ate an envi­ron­ment in which peo­ple flour­ish and their ideas grow well in the pur­suit of a com­mon mission.

The expe­ri­enced gar­den­er knows the strengths, weak­ness­es, demands and pref­er­ences of the plants. He knows which ones com­ple­ment each oth­er well and which ones do not get along at all. And he knows that it depends on the loca­tion and espe­cial­ly on the light, water and soil. A good gar­den­er thinks and works in these categories.

What is already not quite triv­ial with plants, as every hob­by gar­den­er can tell from painful expe­ri­ence, is incom­pa­ra­bly more com­plex with humans. In which envi­ron­ment do peo­ple flour­ish and what makes them with­er? And what essen­tial cat­e­gories are there to influ­ence this process? In short: Where can lead­er­ship exert its influence?

The ques­tion of a ful­filled, suc­cess­ful and hap­py life has been mov­ing peo­ple for a long time. Philoso­phers have always tried to give answers to this ques­tion, while psy­chol­o­gists have always been more con­cerned with prob­lems and more with the failed or at least the life that is per­ceived as failed. Since Mar­tin Selig­man took up the con­cept of “Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy”, intro­duced by Abra­ham Maslow in 1954, and pop­u­lar­ized it in the 1990s, psy­chol­o­gy has now also been able to offer some inter­est­ing and empir­i­cal­ly proven answers.

P is pos­i­tive emo­tion, E is engage­ment, R is rela­tion­ships, M is mean­ing and A is accom­plish­ment. Those are the five ele­ments of what free peo­ple chose to do. Pret­ty much every­thing else is in ser­vice of one of or more of these goals. That’s the human dashboard.

Mar­tin Seligman

Mar­tin Selig­man sum­ma­rized his find­ings in the PERMA mod­el. PERMA stands for Posi­tive Emo­tions, Engage­ment, Rela­tion­ships, Mean­ing and Accom­plish­ment. These five com­po­nents of a ful­filled life pro­vide the first indi­ca­tions of what lead­er­ship should do in order for the com­pa­ny to become a work­shop for pros­per­ous life.

P – Positive Emotions

Of course, pos­i­tive emo­tions such as joy, grat­i­tude, hope, fun or pride con­tribute to our well-being. But the real insight of the PERMA mod­el is that this is not the sole dimen­sion, but only one of five.

How we expe­ri­ence our life is to a large extent in our own hands. Vik­tor Fran­kl put it in this sim­ple for­mu­la “There is a space between stim­u­lus and reac­tion. In this space lies our pow­er to choose our reac­tion. In our reac­tion lies our devel­op­ment and our free­dom.” In par­tic­u­lar, we have the choice of what to focus our atten­tion on.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we tend to rather per­ceive the neg­a­tive in our envi­ron­ment and focus on prob­lems. This so-called “Neg­a­tiv­i­ty Bias” caus­es us to expe­ri­ence neg­a­tive things much more inten­sive­ly than pos­i­tive ones. This ten­den­cy can be con­scious­ly coun­ter­act­ed, e.g. by tak­ing some time every evening to recall the pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences of the day.

E – Engagement

Being able to use and devel­op one’s per­son­al strengths is an essen­tial fac­tor for moti­va­tion and sat­is­fac­tion. We have all expe­ri­enced what it is like to be enthu­si­as­tic about some­thing and to burn for it, and while work­ing on it to get into that state that the psy­chol­o­gist and author Mihá­ly Csík­szent­mi­há­lyi described as “flow”.

An essen­tial pre­req­ui­site for flow is that chal­lenge and skills are well matched: dif­fi­cult enough to exert a stim­u­lus and easy enough for par­tial suc­cess to sus­tain moti­va­tion. Lead­er­ship in this sense means on the one hand to make strengths pro­duc­tive and weak­ness­es irrel­e­vant and on the oth­er hand to offer peo­ple appro­pri­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties to expe­ri­ence flow and ulti­mate­ly to grow.

R – Relationships

Man is a social being. Belong­ing to a group or an extend­ed fam­i­ly used to be essen­tial for sur­vival. An out­cast indi­vid­ual was at the mer­cy of the forces of nature and an easy prey. For­tu­nate­ly, this is dif­fer­ent today, but what remains is our long­ing to belong to a group and our long­ing for mean­ing­ful relationships.

Lead­er­ship can become effec­tive imme­di­ate­ly by pre­vent­ing the still wide­spread and now because of the cri­sis erupt­ing cul­ture of fear and unhealthy com­pe­ti­tion, and by striv­ing for psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty instead. In fact, this psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty turned out to be by far the most impor­tant ingre­di­ent for effec­tive teams in Project Aris­to­tle at Google. Super­stars alone do not make a good team. In tru­ly effec­tive teams, there is a high lev­el of secu­ri­ty so that mem­bers dare to speak their mind and take risks.

M – Meaning

It makes a dif­fer­ence whether I haul stones just because of the dai­ly wage or because I am work­ing on a cathe­dral. Being able to see our own work as a con­tri­bu­tion to some­thing big and impor­tant is very impor­tant for our well-being. Com­pa­nies that have turned prof­it into an end in itself have unfor­tu­nate­ly lost in this dimen­sion and should not com­plain about employ­ees behav­ing like mercenaries.

Lead­er­ship pro­vides ori­en­ta­tion by offer­ing a mean­ing beyond prof­it that appeals to peo­ple and which they then hope­ful­ly feel drawn to. This is pre­cise­ly why the third the­sis of the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship is called “Pur­pose and trust over com­mand and control”.

A – Accomplishment

A sense of achieve­ment by reach­ing (just high enough) goals nat­u­ral­ly con­tributes to the over­all well-being. Suc­cess­es and par­tial suc­cess­es must be rec­og­nized and cel­e­brat­ed (e.g. through the Kudos cards to the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship). How­ev­er, where there is too much envi­ous com­pe­ti­tion, this is not pos­si­ble or only dis­hon­est­ly pos­si­ble, because the coop­er­a­tion with­in the com­pa­ny becomes com­pe­ti­tion and is then erro­neous­ly regard­ed as a zero-sum game: If the oth­er guy wins, I lose.

Every­thing about a large cor­po­ra­tion felt alien. Peo­ple were afraid to the point of paral­y­sis. They were afraid that some­one might get pro­mot­ed before them. Afraid to chal­lenge their boss’s bad idea. Afraid of mak­ing a mis­take. Afraid of not being invit­ed to the CEO’s golf out­ing. Afraid of build­ing any­thing with­out first pitch­ing it in a Pow­er­Point deck.

Gre­go­ry Larkin, 2018. This Might Get Me Fired (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate-Link)

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