Harnessing Psychological Capital to Make Work Better

Positive psychology, the science of human flourishing, has a lot of valuable contributions to make to the pursuit of good work. One of the key constructs that has been developed as a result of this focus on the positive end of the psychological continuum is something called Psychological Capital, or PsyCap. It's a construct composed of the synergistic relationship between hope, resilience, optimism, and self-efficacy. The research shows that these four states, when taken together, result in more than just the sum of their parts. The fact that it is state-like means that it isn't fixed like personality but is more variable on a moment to moment basis (but not as transient as something like mood).

I think PsyCap has a myriad of applications in the world of work, particularly for indie workers (in fact, my in progress thesis heavily draws on the research done on PsyCap). Take a moment and think about how each of the four constructs that make up PsyCap impact your work life. Ever have anything terrible happen at work or make a mistake that knocked you on your butt? Your resilience taps into your ability to come back from that setback. Have you ever been given a task to do or taken on a project that seems completely beyond your ability? You were likely feeling the effects of low self-efficacy. Do you go to work each day thinking about your goals and the multiple pathways you could take to achieve them? That's hope. Do you take credit for the good things that happen in your life and don't let the bad things jeopardize your self-concept? You have optimism.

One of the best aspects of PsyCap is that it's developable. This makes it particularly interesting to companies and anybody who is interested in being as happy and productive as possible. Since it is comprised of multiple constructs there are multiple approaches to improving it. Here are a couple ideas:

1. Develop self-efficacy via personal/professional development, mentorship, or seeking other support.

Self-efficacy refers to whether you believe you're capable of achieving something. When you have high self-efficacy you feel like you have the necessary skills and abilities to reach your goal. In the realm of organizational psychology research, self-efficacy has been shown to be one of the best predictors of job performance. Developing your self-efficacy requires constantly striving to take on projects and assignments that are slightly outside your comfort zone. I say slightly outside because it forces you to develop your skills in order to keep up but it also won't crush you. Having mastery experiences, essentially deliberately practicing, is one of the best ways to develop your own self-efficacy. You can also develop it by seeking guidance and assistance from those who have greater experience or skills than you. Supportive mentors and colleagues are great places to turn when looking to increase self-efficacy.

2. Develop hope by setting meaningful goals and brainstorming the potential barriers you'll face in achieving them and multiple ways to overcome those challenges.

Hope colloquially refers to the belief that everything will turn out alright in the end. Academically, it refers to having agency (self-directed behavior) in the pursuit of goals and the ability of generating alternative ways of reaching those goals (pathways). A good way to develop your hope is to spend some time getting extremely clear about what exactly you're trying to accomplish -- your goals. Push yourself to make them specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (commonly known as a SMART goal). Once you've gotten particularly clear about what your goals actually are, then you can begin brainstorming various ways of achieving them. Think about the barriers you're likely to face as you work toward these goals. What can you do to go around or break through these barriers? How will you know when it's time to change paths? Take notes while brainstorming and review these notes at a regular interval as you work toward your goals.

3. Develop optimism by taking a larger perspective when looking at failures and by taking credit for success.

Optimism refers to an explanatory style where you are comfortable ascribing personally relevant reasons for the good things that happen in your life while mitigating the personal impact of negative events. For example, an optimistic explanation for getting a promotion is, "I worked really hard the last six months and I really deserved this," whereas a pessimistic explanation would be, "Wow, I got lucky that my boss didn't notice all the screw ups I've made recently," or, "Everybody else must really suck in order for me to get a promotion." In the case of a negative event like making a major error on an important piece of work optimism is still possible, "I made that error because I've been extremely busy and stressed out for the past few months. I know I'm not always like this and I can make sure it doesn't happen again." It's not about burying your head in the sand and not being accountable for the bad things that inevitably happen in life but explaining them in such a way as to not let them be commentary about who you are as a person.

Look back on 2-3 "good" and "bad" things that happened to you in the past few months. Why did they happen? Practice writing out an optimistic explanation for why these events happened. Try to notice the type of explanation you're using the next time something particularly good or bad happens.

4. Develop resilience by deliberately practicing the art of "bouncing back."

Resilience refers to the ability of being able to get back to your previous level of well-being or even better after something bad happens. One way to develop your ability to be resilient is to have a plan of action in place and ready to go in case something bad happens. One of my coaching clients developed the excellent strategy of creating an "Emergency Drawer" that she filled with some of her favorite things and she would only open it when something bad happened. This helps because it helps get you thinking more positively in the midst of negativity. In a similar vein, focus on getting the next small "win" after a significant setback. Being resilient doesn't mean you instantly bounce back or that you can't experience negative feelings. Instead, it means you're able to snap yourself out of negativity and turn the tide toward recovery and growth. Getting that first win can help you begin building positive momentum again.


Do you think you're particularly strong in one of the four components of PsyCap? Do you struggle with one of the components? How else might this cornerstone of positive psychology be applied to your life?

Photo by Alex: