Recently, I attended the 3rd World Congress on Positive Psychology in Los Angeles, where Marty Seligman, the co-founder of Positive Psychology, gave a talk that relates to performance management.

Positive Psychology has been around for a dozen or so years, after Seligman popularised the idea that knowing what heals someone who is (psychologically) wounded (to put numbers on this, to get from a negative state, say -1, to being ok, or at point 0) is not the same as understanding what gets someone from getting by to truly thriving (from 0 to +1). Ever since, “positive psychology” research has been growing, focusing on topics such as what genuinely helps people reach their goals or how to sustain your motivation. And so there is now an increasing amount of evidence-based insights for those interested in raising their own or their teams’ performance.

Marty’s presentation could inspire a stronger forward-looking focus in performance managment, for two reasons.

  1. Researchers have been using Big Data to predict people’s wellbeing (or lack thereof) with increasing accuracy. A recent study by Andy Schwartz and colleagues* analysed Tweet language in 1300 US counties to predict life satisfaction (another word for subjective well-being) surprisingly effectively. Here’s an image of the top ten Tweet topics most correlated with well-being (top) and two (in red, at the bottom) negatively correlated with life satisfaction.


Words such as “training”, “money” (of course), “skills” and “experience” are strong correlates of people’s perceived well-being. Conversely, language pointing to disengagement, anger, and especially lack of social support predicted dissatisfaction with life.

This matters for performance management because there is increasing empirical evidence for the strong link between subjective well-being and career outcomes, job satisfaction, and income levels.

If language matters so much in predicting people’s well-being, then leaders and managers should use protective and supportive language carefully and strategically, to help overdetermine the success of their subordinates. This is not to say that managers should gloss over subpar performance or brush problems under the carpet. Instead, a supervisor should make maximum use of communicating support and shared purpose when providing any feedback (positive or negative) on performance.

2. Experiments demonstrated that people’s thoughts are much more future-oriented than previously assumed: when asking one group to think about the future, and another to do nothing, researchers found that both groups had the same brain regions light up. In addition, brain researcher Daniel Schachter found that we use the same brain regions for memory creation as those to project our future. This means that our brains are considerably more malleable than we had thought, and we learn and change our thoughts continuously. And interestingly, we are more likely to feel bad when thinking about the past while tending to be optimistic when projecting the future. Most pertinently for managers, however, people perceive topics to be most meaningful when these link the past, the present, and the future.

What does this mean for managing performance more effectively?

It suggests that spending a larger proportion of performance review meetings discussing a person’s future performance (and working out what specific steps are needed to reach agreed targets) than going over the activities of the past months (or year, as so many performance reviews are held far less frequently than they should) would be fruitful. The more forward-looking we are in managing (our own and) our subordinates’ achievement, the more likely we work with the latest insights into human nature – if humans really are not prisoners of the past and actively project themselves into the future every day, then let’s not keep them there. Instead, let’s work with these new insights in the most productive way.

What do you think?

Jutta Tobias

* Schwartz, H. A., Eichstaedt, J. C., Kern, M. L., Dziurzynski, L., Lucas, R. E., Agrawal, M., Park, G. J., Lakshmikanth, S. K., Jha, S., Seligman, M. E. P., & Ungar, L. H. (2013). Characterizing Geographic Variation in Well-Being using Tweets. In Seventh International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM). Boston, MA.

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