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Positive charge: Injecting happiness into leadership

Interview by David Pich CMgr FIML

Happiness. People either view it as something elusive or something trivial. What if you dedicated decades of careful study into this one abstract concept? That’s exactly what Tal Ben-Shahar has done. He’s an educator who once taught two of the most popular classes in Harvard University’s history: ‘Positive Psychology’ and ‘The Psychology of Leadership’. Attending the Ivy League institution himself, he studied Philosophy, Psychology and obtained his PhD in Organizational Behaviour. All that knowledge about positivity and leadership was not something he kept to himself having authored six books on happiness, including the New York Times bestseller Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfilment (McGraw-Hill). 

This internationally renowned speaker on the science of happiness and positive psychology caught up with IML ANZ Chief Executive David Pich CMgr FIML, ahead of the World Business Forum Sydney this November. They uncover the hidden strength that a positive mind can enable and why happiness isn’t as elusive as some believe it to be.

David Pich: You’ve worked with many organisations, and from what you’ve seen, what do you think the business case is for leaders to focus on happiness?

Tal Ben-Shahar: If I’d said to an organisation, “Look, I can come in and speak and introduce you and your staff to some material and, as a result, they’ll be happier.” They would say, “Great” and invite me to their Christmas party as an entertainer! But fortunately, there is much research showing that happiness is actually a good investment. It’s a good business investment because if you increase levels of wellbeing, even by a little bit, what you’re doing is increasing creativity levels. Innovation goes up, and productivity levels and engagement increase significantly with the rise in wellbeing. Teamwork and relationships, in general, improve when you increase positivity. And by the way, physical health and immune systems also strengthen. Where there is reduced absenteeism, turnover goes down. So there is a real business case.

DP: I sometimes think that we’ve got a terminology problem when we talk about ‘soft skills’ and ‘happiness’ in the business context. Did you find that the terminology makes it hard to get people across the line?

TBS: There’s a good reason for it, you know. Because for so many years, and the dominant paradigm within the field of wellbeing and happiness has really been the ‘self-help’ and ‘new age’. It’s only fairly recently that the science (of happiness) has entered the playing field. Our goal as psychologists, as thinkers and as writers in this area is to make a very strong case and ongoing connection to science – to evidence. And part of that is by under-promising and over-delivering. Because there has been a real issue with over-promising and under-delivering, so we need to counter that. If you look at it on the individual level, the bar is set as: if you read this book, you’ll be happy always for the rest of your life. Unrealistic. Over-promising.

DP: IML ANZ does a lot in the field of leadership development. And I think that’s the whole issue with leadership development. The organisation thinks you can put someone through a two-week course, and they come out and then suddenly they’re fantastic leaders. The reality is that it’s a lifelong journey, and it takes incremental steps.

TBS: Exactly. I think you hit the nail on the head with the two elements. First of all, it’s lifelong. It’s not a one-shot deal, and it’s over – it’s ongoing. And second, it’s incremental. It’s small changes over time. And small changes, if you apply them consistently, persistently, they will make a big difference. I often use the example of recovery. Probably half of the organisations that invite me cite burnout as their number one problem – an over-stressed organisation.

Surprisingly, stress in and of itself is not a problem. Stress is potentially good for us. Let’s use the example of lifting weights. When you go to the gym, and you lift weights, you’re stressing your muscles – not a bad thing because you become stronger. The problem begins when you lift weights and a minute later, more weights and more. That’s when you get injured, and you get weaker rather than stronger. So the problem is not the stress; rather, it’s the lack of recovery. We see the same thing in on the psychological level, as we see on the physiological level. We can deal with stress. We had to deal with the ‘lion chasing us’ kind of stress in the past, and today we have the ‘deadline’ kind of stress. We can handle it. We’re good at it.

The difference between past and present is that in the past, we had a lot more time for recovery. Today we can be on 24/7. And that’s not healthy. And this is what’s leading to the burnout. So when I talk about recovery, I often speak about taking a 30-second recovery for three deep breaths. But you do it three times a day. That actually can make a huge difference if you do it consistently. Small changes can make a big difference over time.

DP: You’ve written about the joy of leadership. How do you encourage leaders to be more joyful in their leadership?

TBS: First and foremost, it would be about finding a sense of meaning and purpose. Because individuals that experience a sense of meaning and purpose in whatever they do – it could be at work, it could be in their personal life – tend to experience that domain as joyful. Joy in that respect is a much deeper sense than what people colloquially mean. When they talk about happiness, they think of ‘happy go lucky’ or smiling all the time. That’s not the kind of joy that we’re talking about in leadership because leadership is challenging. There are inevitable difficulties along the way, whether you’re successful or going through a hard time. So the sense of meaning and purpose is critical.

One other element is focusing on strengths. If I regularly exercise my weaknesses – think swimming upstream – then there’ll be very little joy in what I do. Whereas when I adhere to my nature, to my natural inclination, to my passions, then there’ll be a great deal of joy. Again, not joy in the superficial sense – but a deep sense of happiness. Another thing that’s related to a sense of joy is time to recover. Because when I’m energised, that’s when I’m more likely to be joyous versus when I’m fatigued, tired, burnt out – which are the antithesis of joy. So joy comes from a sense of meaning, from pursuing our strength and from managing our energy.

DP: This year there hasn’t been a lot of joy. On a personal note, how do you cope when there isn’t much joy and happiness if you’re in the field of joy and happiness?

TBS: The field of happiness studies can help us feel better when things aren’t going well. When we’re experiencing painful emotions, as so many of us are now, you can be the most amazing person with the most amazing people, and it’s still challenging. So what do we do with these painful emotions? This is where the science of happiness can help us a great deal. It can help us become more resilient, but it can also – even more importantly – take us towards what I’ve come to call resilience 2.0. Anti-fragility to my mind is resilience 2.0. – taking resilience to the next level. So resilience is the ability to bounce back to where you were before. Anti-fragility is about going to a better higher, stronger place than you were at before. And the whole field, as I see it, of the science of happiness is to help us create the conditions that will increase the likelihood of anti-fragility. Not guarantee but increase the likelihood of an anti-fragile process.

DP: You’ve written and talked about resilience in difficult times. And here we are, in probably from a social and leadership perspective, the most difficult time that many of us can remember. In the short term, there’s going to be significant readjustments in the workplace. And that is challenging for leaders because let’s be very honest, it means potentially downsizing. What is your direct advice to leaders who are looking to lead through these troubled times?

TBS: Back in the 1970s, Robert Greenleaf came out with the idea of servant leadership when he realised that the greatest leaders throughout history saw themselves as servants. The examples he gave are Moses, who served the Israelites and then Jesus, who saw himself as the servant of the people. Fast forward to the 20th century, and you have Nelson Mandela coming out of prison after 27 years. What are the words that he has for the South African people? “I am your servant.” Jack Welch described himself as playing the role of a secretary, very often reminding his managers of their role in supporting others. Anita Roddick of The Body Shop exemplified servant leadership. And servant leaders essentially take the organisational hierarchy, and they flip it, so they are there at the bottom. And what Robert Greenleaf identified was those servant leaders are the extraordinary leaders. These are extraordinary times. When I address an audience these days, I remind them that unless they’re 102 years old, they’ve never been through anything like this. So these are extraordinary times, and we need extraordinary leadership, and I think more than anything we need servant leadership.

Now, Robert Greenleaf identified the characteristics of servant leaders. Number one characteristic: listening. This ought to be our battle cry; during this period we need to be there to listen because we can’t necessarily solve the problem. The best we can do is just be there, listening. Whether it’s to our colleagues, employees, partner, children or friends. And just as we listen to them, we also as leaders, as managers, need to be listened to. So, we need to really draw on our support system. Be there for others and have others be there for us. There is a real onslaught right now of emotions, anxiety for example and frustration. What do we do with this flood of painful emotions? Based on all the research that I know in the field of positive psychology; we need to permit ourselves to be human. In other words, we need to fully embrace these emotions because there is a paradox at play. When we reject painful emotions, they intensify. Whereas when we accept and embrace them, they actually weaken, and they don’t overstay their welcome. And this is why listening and being heard is so important because one of the ways to express emotions to give ourselves that permission to be human, is to talk about them. And we need a psychologically safe environment to do that.

Tal Ben-Shahar will be speaking at the World Business Forum Sydney, taking place on November 10-11, 2020. IML ANZ members enjoy a 10% discount using the code IML. For further details please visit


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