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Why Positive Psychology is for Everyone with Dr Vikki Barnes

How do you get people to bring their authentic selves to work? By building a culture of psychological safety in the workplace, says clinical psychologist, Dr Vikki Barnes. 

With 10 years working in the NHS delivering psychology services to patients with mental health issues under her belt, and designing and leading the national wellbeing programme across the Virgin Group, Vikki subsequently set up her own business called Positive Wellbeing. 

With Positive Wellbeing, she tries to bring the science of clinical psychology of positive psychology to those organisations she works with and tries to help them get the best from their people. 

In this episode, Vikki discusses the Google programme Project Aristotle, how you can build psychological safety in the workplace, how to get people into flow, and how you can get people to be authentic and bring their best selves to work. 

So, to learn how you can implement positive psychology in your workplace, download and listen to The Melting Pot today. 

On today’s podcast:

  • The positive psychology movement
  • The business benefit of positive psychology
  • Getting into a state of flow
  • Learning happy hormones

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How to Get the Best Out of People with Dr Vikki Barnes

Dr Vikki Barnes is a clinical psychologist, who specialises in positive psychology. What is positive psychology? It’s the science of human flourishing, i.e. how to be our best, explains Vikki.

She spent 10 years firstly working for the NHS as a clinical psychologist with patients with various mental health difficulties, helping them through assessment and intervention and talking therapies.

She then had the opportunity to work with Virgin’s leadership teams, embedding positive psychology into their various organisations. A huge leap from clinical work to organisational work, but still using the techniques of positive psychology to help people be their best. 

Then, three years ago, she set up her own business, Positive Wellbeing, an organisational wellbeing consultancy, where she gets to work with organisations across industries and across the globe.

While Virgin and the NHS are still her clients, she’s also worked with the police, the military, estate agents, agriculture, and just about every industry there is. 

So why do people pick up the phone and call Vikki?

Why call Dr Vikki Barnes?

There are three reasons why people request Vikki’s services, she says:

  1. To help create a better positive culture. That can be through workshops for all the staff, or it can be focus groups for a particular group of people who are influencers or leaders in an organisation. 
  2. One to one coaching, which is normally executive coaching, when the execs or leaders want to hone their own skills in order to snowball that into the organisation. And they want to learn more about how to do that. 
  3. For speaking events. She gets asked to come and inspire and motivate. It’s all about happiness, she says. It’s all about positivity, mindset, resilience and change. 

The positive psychology movement

For the uninitiated, positive psychology is comparable to clinical psychology – CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), NLP (neuro linguistic programming), family therapy, couples counselling etc. 

Essentially, when you have a problem, you go and speak to somebody to try to get rid of the symptoms or alleviate the issue.

Positive psychology is at the opposite end of the scale, says Vikki, where there doesn’t even have to be a problem. It’s all about staying well, getting well, being better, and being happier. 

“No matter what you have going on, whether you have a diagnosis, whether your organisation is struggling, or whether you just want to make sure you’re on the right track and ahead of the curve and keeping people motivated and happy. Positive psychology is for everybody.”

The business benefit of positive psychology

The most common positive benefits that people have reported to Vikki include things such as increased employee productivity. And if people are more productive, morale is boosted, teams are more effective, relationships are enhanced, there’s more connectivity etc. 

Google carried out a huge research project a few years ago called Project Aristotle, where they discovered what made a team effective. 

“They found that the most effective teams tended to be those that were most psychologically safe. And what that means, essentially, is that people can turn up as themselves to work without fear of negative consequence. And I personally believe that if you are authentic at work, you’re bringing your strengths and your natural superpowers”

The reason being because people thrive in those kinds of environments, as opposed to people who are trying to fit into a system that isn’t quite working for them.

Rather than have people trying to hone their weaknesses and improve their weaknesses, they should be focusing on what they’re naturally good at, what they’re already really inspired and motivated to do. 

Which begs the question – can you ever be happy doing a job you’re not passionate about?

“There’s something about finding moments of happiness, no matter what you’re doing. And there’s always going to be something about whatever position and whatever situation you’re in, that gives you that sense of wellness. There’s a science behind it, which is all about happy hormones, and how to engage your happy hormones. And I think that flow is really important.”

Getting into a state of flow

If you haven’t heard of flow before, the best way to start thinking about it, says Vikki, is to think about what you know about mindfulness. Because we’ve all heard of mindfulness by now, it’s taken the world by storm.

Mindfulness is about being in the moment with whatever you’re doing, whatever conversation you’re having, and not thinking about other things that might be going on. It’s thinking about the positive impact that this one thing is having on you and the person you’re with right now.

And there has to be something you’re doing that allows you to get into that state of flow. 

“But what humans tend to do, because we have these massive frontal lobes, which are overworking and overthinking all the time, we tend to think about the billion other things that we’ve got going on.”

And if you’re not in the moment, you can’t get into the state of flow, says Vikki.

Discovering intrinsic motivation

“Think about it in relation to a hobby. If I wanted to get fitter, and somebody says, Okay, you need to go to the gym. I’m not motivated to go to the gym. But if they said, Okay, maybe do more surfing and wakeboarding and sea swimming, I would be all over that, because I’m much more interested. And it’s what it’s called intrinsic motivation.”

You’ve got to find what people in your organisation are intrinsically motivated to do. There’s always something, and then it’s finding that common ground and how you can get all of those different individuals’ intrinsic motivations to reach the same goal. 

However, what individuals tend to do is they get it the wrong way round, says Vikki. An organisation will say – here are our values and our behaviours that we want you as our people to live by. And that doesn’t work for humans, because we don’t want to be told what our values are. We don’t want to be told how to behave. 

What we crave from our workplace is to feel psychologically safe and be able to bring out authentic selves to work, and understand where we fit in the wider machine. 

Learning happy hormones

We tend to be more in touch with the feeling of our negative emotions, says Vikki. We all have so much on our mind all the time and we feel negative emotions like stress and worry through headaches, or shaking, or feeling flushed or sick. We notice these physical manifestations of negative hormones. 

“What we don’t spend enough time with is positive hormones and happy hormones. So they’re things like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. They’re the main ones. The physical manifestations, we don’t tend to recognise but it can be similar like a fluttery tummy or obviously, feeling like you want to smile or feeling excited, maybe your heart rate can rise and things like that.”

We need to learn to recognise how we feel when we’re happy, and learn to create more of these moments. 

But how can you do that at work?

We need to get better at playing, says Vikki. 

Play games at work

“When we’re young, we’re really great at everything, we’re really great at play, we’re really great at being authentic, we’re great at expressing our emotions, we just let it all out. And then society tells you that you shouldn’t do that when you grow up, because it’s inappropriate.”

And the workplace can be a really safe space to play. Try a board game at the start of a meeting. Pin the tail on the donkey if you’re trying to measure metrics, play snakes and ladders. Anything that involves a little competition and finding out more about one another is something we all enjoy. 

“The way to get to that is one question I often ask is: What did you love to do when you were a kid that you don’t do anymore, and people’s faces light up because they have these memories of when they were younger.”

Book recommendations


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