Can You Spread Well-Being Through Your System?

An interview with Peggy Kern.

Posted Feb 27, 2020

 enviromantic/iStock
Source: enviromantic/iStock

Our wellbeing habits, attitudes, and actions spread through a complicated web of social connections around us, both at home and at work. While studies are still discovering the best approaches for systemically supporting people’s wellbeing, researchers suggest looking for ways to improve wellbeing at the levels of “me” (individuals), “we” (teams), and “us” (your whole workplace, school, or community) to help people thrive more consistently. But how can we pull this off practically?

“Most research and interventions focus on improving individual wellbeing. However, you don’t exist on your own. You’re part of many different systems: your family, your workplace, your community,” explained Dr. Peggy Kern, associate professor at the Center for Positive Psychology at Melbourne University, when I interviewed her recently. “The multiple elements within and between each of these systems interact with each other to influence and impact on your wellbeing, and in turn, you can influence these systems. Therefore wellbeing needs to go beyond your individual self to consider the broader systems that constitute your being.”

For example, an organization may offer a workshop on interventions to boost workplace wellbeing and productivity, but if the workplace has a toxic culture where trust is low and employees undermine each other, then the program can be like putting a Band-Aid over a deep wound. While it may help in the short term, it can create larger issues that, at some point, may undermine the organization.

To help us apply system thinking to wellbeing theories, research, interventions, and practices, Dr. Kern and her colleagues are shaping a new field known as Systems Informed Positive Psychology (SIPP).

“SIPP assumes that humans exist inter-dependently with others and with their environments,” explained Dr. Kern. “It acknowledges and shines a light on the complexities of everyday life but differs from other System Science approaches that are tackling many of the wicked problems of life by drawing on a more optimistic bias and identifying ways to empower individuals towards collective actions, rather than helpless avoidance.” 

Of course, mapping the dynamic relationships that shape our wellbeing can leave us quickly feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of our connections and longing to reduce the consequences to simple casual explanations and solutions that feel more manageable. This is why one of the first recommendations to emerge from the SIPP research is that we embrace the idea of “Simplexity.” This can help us to stay alert to the complexity of things, and at the same time, look for simple entry points that will help you move forward, as opposed to freezing and avoiding action.

Kern also suggests trying to:

  • Act with mindful awareness – Often, there’s a tendency to be action-oriented whereby problems are identified and addressed in short timelines. However, short-term thinking can create unintended consequences and more problems. And the busier you get, the more you can lose sight of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Take the time to gain perspective by becoming aware of your assumptions about the world and others and how that impacts your expectations. As others don’t see and experience the world in the same way that you do, you need to become aware of multiple perspectives by listening to both the voiced and unvoiced needs, desires, hopes, and dreams of others within your organization. Using a causal loop diagram can help you map out how one thing influences another in your organization, understand the ongoing impact of activities, and be more mindful and purposeful about what you do.
  • Adopt a positive bias – Focus on what’s good, what’s working, and what is possible within your organization. When you’re constantly on the lookout for, and dealing with, issues and problems, you can become avoidance-oriented and defensive. Yet there are a lot of strengths within every organization and every person. Shifting your focus to what is working, and inspiring your workers to dream and co-create what is possible by using the Appreciative Inquiry tool, can be more motivating, opens up opportunities, and creates positive futures.
  • Let go of expertise – It’s easy to present ourselves as experts to fix things in an organization.  However, this doesn’t really fix anything – people may feel inspired and motivated for a moment, but just go on with their day to day work, and nothing ever changes. Instead, approach your role as more about facilitating and co-creating the solutions and come in with an “expertise to be part of the conversation” approach, where you bring your perspective and the research that you draw upon and recognize the knowledge and experience within the organization. Bringing these two together, and playing with them to see what evolves, empowers others to contribute and be part of the solution.
  • Be prepared to experiment – Working with people means you’re interacting in a very complex and dynamic space. Rather than trying to reduce things down to specific problems and single solutions, accept that things are constantly changing and that you need to be constantly updating and moving with the system. Be prepared to experiment and try different things until you find the right fit for the outcomes you want. Move forward with the best information you have, while humbly admitting that you might not have the right answers.  When people trust that they’re part of the process, and know that you’ll get there over time, if you work together, they’ll be more willing to experiment.

What are some possible, simple leverage points within your complex workplace system?