Leading with optimism is hard, especially during challenging times, but when Genesis Medical Center-Davenport launched a positivity intervention amid cost-reductions and layoffs, the medical center saw declines in burnout, as well as dramatic increases in employee morale and patient satisfaction, Shawn Achor and Michele Gielan write for Harvard Business Review.
Achor is an international consultant focused on workplace positivity and the CEO of leadership coaching company BetterUp, and Gielan is positive psychology researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
How Genesis Medical Center-Davenport infused optimism into the workplace
In 2017, Genesis Health System, a five-hospital health system, was not achieving a profit, and few leaders were focused on workplace happiness. Genesis' largest medical center, Genesis Medical Center-Davenport, was about to undergo two rounds of cost reductions and layoffs while also asking staff to take unpaid time off and reduce hours, Achor and Gielan write.
But the medical center's president, Jordan Voigt, decided the center needed to make positivity a priority—and worked with Achor and Gielan to create and implement "a series of positive psychology interventions" tailored to each department's unique needs, they write.
One of the main interventions was to associate a color—in Genesis' case orange—with positivity, Achor and Gielan write. For example, people returning from vacation in some departments saw their offices covered with orange Post-It notes with words of appreciation. They also launched Spark Awards to recognize employees who spread "happiness through a kind act" and encouraged leaders to begin meetings with positive discussions or creating praise and recognition programs. The organizational behavior department even purchased caterpillars for each department in the medical center so they could together release the Monarch butterflies "as a symbol of change."
Achor and Gielan write that the interventions were implemented "department by department so we could test the effectiveness compared [with] groups that had not been exposed to the interventions"—and the results were staggering.
Six weeks after the implementation of Genesis' positivity programs, the percentage of team members saying they were "very expressive of optimism at work" increased from 23% to 40%, and the percentage of team members saying they were happy at work increased from 43% to 62%.
Meanwhile, individuals reporting they "often" felt burned out dropped from 11% to 6%, and those reporting "high stress at work" dropped by 30% after participating in workshops on creating a positive mindset.
Genesis also saw patient experience rates almost double within a 12-month period following the programs, and Genesis Medical Center-Davenport became profitable again in 2019, exceeding their operating budget by 35%. Moreover, in October 2019, the medical center reported $114 million in gross revenue—a first-time record for the facility.
4 tips on leading with optimism
For health care leaders interested in starting their own positive psychology interventions, Achor and Gielan highlight four keys for success.
1. Be a role model for positive change
Often, Achor and Gielan write, leaders say a positive mindset is important but are then too busy to show up and attend their own leadership workshops. "This signals to the rest of the organization that a positive culture is in fact a much lower priority than they claimed," Achor and Gielan write.
At Genesis, Voigt was visibly involved in the process. He started off each workshop personally and closely reviewed each round of data to figure out which interventions were working and which were not.
2. Connect employees before asking them to change
"A positive mindset at work is often a collective exercise," Achor and Gielan write. To get employees working together before changes were implemented, Genesis held workshops in which employees brainstormed new work routines and led discussions on developing positive habits and culture. This provided participants with a sense of ownership of the new mindsets and routines.
"It's imperative that leaders help people feel connected first and then deputize them to make positive change," Achor and Gielan write.
3. Make new changes into a routine
Instead of just telling staff to be happy, leaders should work to develop reinforcing patterns, Achor and Gielan write. This can include making celebration part of a routine, or starting every staff meeting with each person saying what they're grateful for. For example, one department, which had a 35% vacancy rate, began holding regularly scheduled potluck lunches—and has achieved a 0% vacancy rate over a six-month period, Achor and Gielan write.
4. Track the outcomes
If there's no data justifying the changes you're making, the change won't easily happen, Achor and Gielan write. By doing a staged rollout that allowed them to clearly see the results, other teams at Genesis started proactively asking to be included.
"Even in the face of dire circumstances, you can create a positive mindset at your company—one that will help your people and your customers," Achor and Gielan write. "When is the best time to start talking about positivity at work? Maybe right now" (Achor/Gielan, Harvard Business Review, 6/4).