LinkedIn + Positive Psychology: Applying Science To The Way We WorkShare
A lot of employers like to say that they are focused on employee well-being, but what does this actually look like in practice? LinkedIn, one of the most innovative companies and in-demand employers in the world, has integrated positive psychology into their culture, demonstrating their true focus on their talent.
This past year, I lived a double life. During normal working hours, I continued in my role as a consultant at LinkedIn, where I have the absolute privilege of working with the world’s very best companies to help them to define and execute upon their talent and business objectives. But in the very early morning, and into the late hours of the night, and all day every weekend, I put on my second hat, that of a graduate student. Once a month, I flew across the country to the University of Pennsylvania, where I was incredibly fortunate to learn from the most brilliant scientists, researchers and practitioners in the field of positive psychology, which is the scientific study of well-being in individuals, organizations and society.
While definitely taxing at times, this double life had some phenomenal benefits. The most powerful one was the chance to live my life at the intersection between research and application. At Penn, I learned the cutting edge science of happiness, meaning, motivation, and performance; at LinkedIn, I saw these concepts brought to life with my colleagues, clients, teams and leaders. I designed research-based programs intended to positively transform individual and collective experiences; once launched, I was able to measure the effects, tweak, and pilot once again. I also took my new research lens and overlaid it on top of my company, asking myself: what was LinkedIn doing as an organization that was really setting us apart, that explains the extraordinary passion and connection and meaning and results that I see here every day?
I have come to the conclusion that LinkedIn has succeeded at bringing many of positive psychology’s research findings alive in the messy, complicated realm of the real world. While we are not a perfect organization – nor would we claim to be – I believe that we are doing a phenomenal job of embodying positive psychology in the business world. In this post, I want to share what I see, in hopes that it will be inspiring and informative to both those inside and outside of LinkedIn, providing insights and ideas that might spark transformation at a personal, team or organizational level. (It is important to note that this is my particular experience of LinkedIn, and that well-being is a very complex, nuanced and individualized concept.)
When we begin to pay attention to what is right within a specific context, it has a tendency to amplify and grow beyond what we could have previously imagined. Imagine what our company might look like with an even more explicit and collective focus on these ideas - I invite you to consider and pursue the possibilities!
My professor Marty Seligman, one of the founders of the field of positive psychology, has argued that well-being has five distinct components: relationships, positive emotions, engagement, achievement and meaning; I will use this framework to look at some of the inner architecture of LinkedIn.
The most supported finding from positive psychology is that other people matter – relationships are the single most important feature of well-being.
- The very happiest people are distinguished by their strong and positive relationships. Positive social connection strengthens our immune system, leads to lower rates of anxiety and depression, higher self-esteem, and greater empathy.
- Unfortunately, if you lack positive relationships, there are some very real negative consequences. Research has found that the probability of dying early is 20% higher for obese people, 30% higher for excessive drinkers, 50% higher for smokers, but 70% higher for people with poor social relationships. Chronic loneliness has even been shown to compromise the way that a person’s genes are expressed.
Relationships are the living, beating heart of LinkedIn. One of our core values is relationships matter, and unlike many organizations that define a value but do not actually live it, this idea is integrated into our organization's way of being. Our website is founded in the idea that your professional network matters to you and that you matter to your connections. Our products are based upon the value of leveraging existing relationships and building new ones. Our leaders write and think and speak and write some more about it. Every other piece of our culture is founded in relationships: humor, results, transformation, and integrity are all about the ways that we relate to and partner with other people. Each employee even writes a self-evaluation twice a year about the unique ways in which they uphold and elevate our culture. Various internal programs also encourage this pursuit, including:
- Employee Resource Groups that foster diversity, inclusion and belonging
- Monthly InDays, where we are encouraged to step back from our daily responsibilities and participate in building our office “connective tissue”
- Bring In Your Parents Day, which is an opportunity to connect your real family with your work family
We are also surrounded by our amazing coworkers, many of whom elevate what it means to be focused on relationships, giving us inspiration about how we want to engage. A few people who have set the example for me include:
- The Cory Welsh: Always Say Hello. Cory never gets into an elevator without saying hi to its occupants, and usually by the time she gets to her destination, she has managed to forge a real connection. Cory teaches us to be the one who reaches out first.
- The Kevin Varadian: Be the Bridge. Kevin is a sales leader at LinkedIn who is focused on helping to build relationships between other people. He does this by connecting people who have similar interests, who can help one another, or who might simply get along. Kevin teaches us to focus on using our relationships to transform others.
- The Joel Christensen: Quality Time Matters. Joel is my sales partner and he is relentlessly focused on spending meaningful time with his clients so that he can better understand them, support them, and help them to meet their business objectives. I’ve never met someone who is more determined to connect with people and who makes it such a priority to do so. Joel teaches us to invest time with the people who matter most to us.
- The Prakash Raman: Be Present. Prakash is a phenomenal executive coach and leader at LinkedIn. Despite many demands on his time, he is extraordinarily present in all of his interactions, dedicating his full focus and energy to the other person, helping them to feel seen and heard. Prakash teaches us that when we show up, we should really show up.
Positive emotions are a brief experience indicating that you are experiencing well-being at a specific moment in time; these emotions include joy, love, awe, interest, serenity, gratitude, and pride.
Positive emotions do not just feel good in the moment, but also have the power to enable greater future well-being and growth over time. This is called the Broaden and Build Theory. When you experience a positive emotion, your thoughts and your actions are temporarily ‘broadened’ – your thinking becomes more flexible and creative. In addition, this momentary emotion ‘builds’ your psychological, physical, and social resources over time, leading to downstream benefits like greater resilience and altruistic behavior.
Most positive emotions are not experienced on one’s own, but rather, with other people. By focusing so explicitly on relationships, LinkedIn has also cultivated the conditions for enabling positive emotions: whether that is taking time to connect with our coworkers before a meeting, sit down to a convivial lunch, play a game of ping pong, or bond during our company events, these moments matter. Experiencing frequent positive emotions makes your employees more creative and more resilient.
In addition, positive emotions have a tendency to spread through our social networks (like mine, handily mapped in the above photo). Our highly social brains are wired to sense the emotional state of other people around us, and subsequently sync up with them; being near someone else who is in a good mood is enough to lift another person’s motivation and their performance. Other studies have found that when you are happy, it is likelier that not only your friends and family members will be happy, but that their friends and family members will be happy – your third degree connections can be influenced by your well-being, and vice versa!
However, it’s not smiles and laughs and hugs all the time: negative emotions do arise, and they serve an important purpose. LinkedIn offers us different ways that we can learn to notice, understand, accept, and leverage these negative emotions:
- Conscious Business is a program, endorsed by our incredibly inspiring CEO, which is focused on bringing greater awareness to the ways in which we do business. One of the modules within this program is dedicated to helping us to better understand and use our emotions productively, teaching employees how to cultivate better emotional awareness and acceptance.
- Many of our leaders speak openly about their practice with mindfulness meditation, a practice which has been found to increase emotional regulation, create more flexibility in cognition, behaviors and emotions, and increase well-being. Our wonderful wellness team run by Michael Susi includes ‘Thoughts’ as a core tenet of their program, providing many different suggestions for integrating mindfulness into your life.
By helping us to learn how to accept our negative emotions, LinkedIn has unleashed the powerful force of authenticity in the workplace. We are encouraged to learn about ourselves, how we react to certain scenarios, and how we might evolve to a more conscious way of working. The acceptance of ‘where we are today’ encourages us to imagine and pursue ‘where we might be tomorrow’, thus making space for all aspects of an individual’s self - both positive and negative - to show up and thrive at work.
If I were to ask you where you were happiest - at work or outside of it - what would you say? Most people would quickly say that they are of course happiest during their free time. Dilbert cartoons exist for a reason! However, some interesting research tells us differently. By pinging people at random times throughout the day, asking what they were doing and about their emotional state, researchers discovered that people were actually happier at work than they were in their free time.
Why is this? Work provides an environment that is conducive to flow, which constitutes the third element of well-being. Flow is that magical state where time seems to stop, you forget everything else around you, and you are utterly engaged in the task or experience at hand. Flow is characterized by a few common features: a challenging task with clear goals that requires skill to address and provides immediate feedback. Work tends to be the environment that satisfies these requirements. (I fell so deeply into flow while writing this that I forgot to eat dinner.)
We all have unique, personal paths to flow, and one that is particularly relevant is through our signature strengths. You can find out your signature strengths using this psychologically-validated assessment, or read more about how to apply them here. Strengths are very, very important to well-being:
Engagement is highly dependent on your individual role, the support from your manager, and your strengths. Crafting alignment between these three is critical, which can be accomplished through specific exercises and choices.
LinkedIn is focused on developing people and helping them to thrive in their respective roles, but individual contributors and managers can always look for new ways to integrate their strengths into their daily lives. A few examples include:
- My manager Kathy Tennant has made the identification and utilization of team strengths an explicit focus, dedicating an eight hour workshop to the topic, where the team learned about how to use our strengths in our roles and how to craft our jobs to fit these strengths.
- Managers at LinkedIn participate in a program called ManageIn, a three-day experience that teaches managers how to play to their own strengths, identify their employees’ strengths, help their employees to set appropriate stretch goals, and become better coaches.
- Employees are encouraged to take courses on our LinkedIn Learning platform and on our own internal Learning Center that align with their performance goals. Our culture is one of constant improvement: we should never rely just upon what we know, but always be seeking out new opportunities to grow; this enables even more flow as our ceiling for challenges rises with our growing skills.
People pursue accomplishment and mastery for their own sake, usually because we are interested in it and it matters to us. The workplace is the traditional venue for the pursuit and gratification of achievement. Organizations, due to their mandates, tend to over-index on the focus on accomplishment. In some respects, LinkedIn is similar to most every other organization: we care about results. But in other ways, we are atypical: we are also focused on making it enjoyable to achieve the results (as described above) and our leadership is careful to remind us that this is not all that matters. Mike Gamson, one of our senior leaders, describes success as being happy to go to work in the morning and happy to go home at night. Jeff Weiner, our CEO, talks about defining success through his pursuit of compassionate leadership and ultimately serving the world’s professionals. Most of our leaders recognize that if you give employees a chance to do what they are best at and what they are interested in, they will be more motivated and thus more likely to put more work in, which then makes it likelier that they will achieve their goals, giving you both the results and a happier employee.
We have also attempted to redefine traditional forms of accomplishment. Employees are encouraged to articulate what success means to them through our concept of the Tour of Duty, which states that employee-employer relationships should be contracted as what each will get out of the other for a period of time, creating an explicit win-win for both parties. At the conclusion of the tour of duty, both have the chance to evaluate the success of the tour and how to move forward.
Perhaps the most innovative way in which accomplishment is embedded into our organization is through the mission and vision of LinkedIn. We want to connect the world's professionals to make them more successful and productive; we want to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. This collective, inspiring, moonshot goal is what binds us together, what motivates our action, and what compels us to work persistently and creatively every day.
Psychologists recognize that the meaning of work and the meaning of life are deeply connected. Meaningful work has been extensively studied over the past twenty years, resulting in an absolute avalanche of research about its impact on specific outcomes, summarized below:
Meaning and purpose at work matters a lot. Once that was confirmed, researchers turned towards investigating how an individual can choose to craft meaning in the workplace. Amy Wrzesniewski, a psychologist at Yale, has found that there are three fundamental orientations to work:
- A job, where you are focused on work as a source of income. These people are less likely to have a connection to their work.
- A career, where you are focused on getting the next promotion. These people are more engaged in their work as a source of achievement.
- A calling, where you find fulfillment from the work itself, because it is integral to you as a person, it is a form of self-expression, and it has a positive impact on the world. These people view work as an engaging, life-enriching, generative activity. They report higher life satisfaction, job satisfaction, identify more with their teams, have more commitment to their teams, and practice healthier group processes like communication.
Across many different roles – including hospital janitor and college administrator – the population is roughly split between people who view their work as a job, career, or a calling. It turns out that some people are capable of turning even the most presumably ‘transactional’ jobs into something that is deeply meaningful and fulfilling - it is your relationship to your work that matters more than the type of work that you do.
If I asked LinkedIn’s employees to take Wrzesniewski’s assessment, I hypothesize that we would find a much higher percentage of people who consider their work a calling in comparison to the general population… because of the way in which meaning is embedded into our organization:
Our leaders have crafted an incredibly compelling purpose for us at work in order to enable the experience of greater meaning in work and thus, meaning in life. When you ask LinkedIn employees what they do for a living, they typically respond with higher-level answers rather than describing their duties. They say things like:
- "I’m helping to transform the world’s economy.”
- "I'm enabling successful professional experiences for members of the global workforce."
- “I’m connecting talent with opportunity.”
- “I’m helping thousands of people to find jobs that ultimately give them the chance to live better lives.”
- “I’m enabling the economic graph.”
The economic graph is LinkedIn’s big moonshot: the attempt to digitally map the global economy in order to help every professional to experience economic opportunity, in hopes that their lives and work will be transformed. I saw just how real this connection to the vision was in the days following LinkedIn's acquisition; the major concern I heard was whether or not this meant that we would be hampered in the pursuit of our mission and vision!
How extraordinary is it for that to be the main concern of an organization’s employees following an acquisition? That people are mostly concerned about whether or not this will impact a major source of meaning in their lives? That we have all come to care so deeply about it that it has been incorporated into our own vision, held sacred as our purpose? This organizational calling is what truly sets LinkedIn apart.
Every individual at LinkedIn sees these five aspects of well-being manifest differently - this is the beautiful thing about an organization, that there is such diversity of experience and perspective. Marty has described the five components of well-being as a control panel: you have the opportunity to turn the dial up or down on each one, based upon what you value, your future goals, and your particular context. For example, I’m all about meaning: I make many of choices based upon whether or not I think that it will increase my meaning in life. My coworkers might be more inspired by engagement, or positive emotion, or relationships, or accomplishment. It is a beautiful thing to have the autonomy to spin the dials towards a direction that serves you, and we at LinkedIn are truly supported in our pursuit of the right personal setting. Our organization gives us the opportunity to craft and cultivate the self and the life that serves us most, and for that, I find myself extraordinarily grateful each and every single day.
LinkedIn employees, I’d love to hear from you: how do you see relationships, emotions, engagement, accomplishment and meaning contributing to or amplifying your experience here? How might you use this research in your own life? What do you find to be most special about our company?
Employees from other organizations: Many of the things that I have described can be quickly applied or integrated into your team or organization. Do you see potential for integrating positive psychology into your own organization, or is it already embedded? If so, how? What possibilities do you find most inspiring?
Article originally appeard at linkedin.com