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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