What are your best strengths and how do you feel when you talk about them?
On this episode of the Positive Leadership podcast, JP speaks to one of Europe’s leading practitioners of positive psychology, Dr. Ilona Boniwell, who helps him to understand his core strengths with a set of cards.
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JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I'm Jean-Philippe Courtois, JP, this is Positive Leadership, the podcast that helps you grow as an individual, a leader, and ultimately as a global citizen.
ILONA BONIWELL: Your time perspective is actually where do you spend most of the time? And in fact, the set shows that present hedonistic time perspective is associated with some aspects of well-being, with positive emotions, but not necessarily with life satisfaction, because, well, you end up doing some things that you might regret afterwards. And future time perspective is kind of a hit and miss a little bit because there are some aspects associated with wellbeing and some not too much because also future time perspective very often leads us to be far more workaholism oriented, and not necessarily taking enough time for ourselves.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Enjoy the day, yes. One of the themes I want to explore more in this podcast is the concept of time. We’re all in the same trajectory through time, but how we spend our time and how we perceive time are crucial components in the pursuit of wellbeing. My guest today is one of the leading practitioners of positive psychology in Europe, CEO of training and consulting company Positran, and professor at the University of East London, Ilona Boniwell. I was lucky enough to speak to her about so many different topics. How to deal with time crunch, that horrible feeling of being rushed all the time, which so many of us experience. How to build up your resilience and thrive under difficult, stressful conditions, and where to start with using psychological tools and practices. I even got a one-on-one coaching session with her. This episode is packed with practical tips for you to use wherever you are in your leadership journey. I'm super excited to be able to share our conversation so stay with us to the end.
So, you’ve been researching, studying, teaching, writing, coaching, consulting for 20 years, and I believe you were trained under Martin Seligman, often referred to as the father of positive psychology. So can you tell us about the origin of your interest in positive psychology, how you discovered that field, and why. I'm very interested always with my guests on the “why” you have decided to dedicate your life to it.
ILONA BONIWELL: Well, I was very fortunate to have discovered positive psychology in 1999, given that positive psychology only started in 1998. I was very fortunate to discover it almost by chance in fact. At the time I was still a young student studying psychology – psychology as usual – and organizing student congresses and conferences. So, when I was just preparing to organize my first student congress for the British Psychological Society, I asked my team members, what should it be on? And somebody just came up with this idea: Positive Psychology. I went, “So what’s positive psychology?” And he answered – this is Professor Alex Linden, a brilliant old person nowadays – and he answered, “Well, that’s about the scientific study of happiness and wellbeing” – which really makes sense to people, and how people can thrive. And I went, “Oh my God, this is amazing!” And so we did organize that conference on positive psychology. We organized another one a year later and a year later had a surprise encounter, because I was running yet another congress, that’s 2001 now, it takes a year to organize a conference usually, 2001, I keep running this student congress still, I'm just finishing my undergraduate studies and preparing for postgraduate, probably in clinical psychology. And I'm there all day long, and all day long there’s this guy sitting and listening to all the presentations. And he’s kind of not that young. I wanted to come and ask him if he’s a mature student and what brings him here.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: You’re curious.
ILONA BONIWELL: Luckily, I didn't, because at the very end of this conference he comes and actually shakes my hand and said, “Thank you very much, that was really interesting. My name is Martin Seligman. Would you like to have a coffee with me?”
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: And of course, you had heard about Martin Seligman at the time?
ILONA BONIWELL: Obviously, but this was pre-Google, pre knowing everybody’s faces. And so, we had that coffee, and he asked me this amazing question: “What can I do to help you start positive psychology in Europe?” I was like, okay, just keep asking. Well, we could bring together European congresses, we could bring together a European network of positive psychology etcetera, etcetera. He said, “Okay, well, go ahead and do it.” And what happened for me at this moment is that up until that moment I thought positive psychology could be a passion, that’s fine, but it couldn't be a career. And really this moment shifted, like the arrow, from impossible to possible. And I went, I can’t be a positive psychologist -- I can! So I actually went ahead and studied and did my PhD. The only way at that moment was to do a PhD in positive psychology. And so, this is how I became a positive psychologist.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It’s pretty amazing. It’s pretty amazing in the sense that, oh, one conversation,
ILONA BONIWELL: One conversation.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: With one person, with one question.
ILONA BONIWELL: With one question.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: One question set you on that mission for your life.
ILONA BONIWELL: Absolutely.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: That’s fascinating.
ILONA BONIWELL: Absolutely. I had a couple of those conversations in my life with one question, the importance of one question. So, when you think about coaching, for example, it’s very often not about the formal coaching session in fact, it is sometimes about asking this really important question in the right moment.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: To make you reflect and make you see deeply about it.
ILONA BONIWELL: Exactly.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Love it, and it’s a theme we’ve been discussing quite a lot in our podcast. A couple of guests, including my friend Michael Bungay Stanier as well, on coaching habits. One area of research that interests you greatly I think is perceived time use and time perspective. Can you explain to me the different time perspectives and build them out a little?
ILONA BONIWELL: Of course. In fact, when we talk about time there are lots of different theories and concepts, and actually to really understand somebody’s time, you need to probably dive into all of them. But I have a couple of preferences, the preferred ones. So, one of them is notion of time perspective. Time perspective is a notion that was originally developed in the 1960s, 1970s, and really picked up by somebody called Philip Zimbardo. So, the same Phil Zimbardo who’s done the prison experiment etcetera who really researched it quite substantially over the past 30 years. And so, the notion of time perspective, it’s really about where do you position your thoughts at any given point in time. Are you more focused on the future, on the here and now, in the present, or on the past? In fact, we’re talking about five different time perspective profiles. So, the future time perspective is really about constantly thinking what next – next goals – I completed something, tick off the box, done, next.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Done, next.
ILONA BONIWELL: Next, next, etcetera. The present time perspective has two orientations – the present hedonistic, which is really about enjoying the present moment. So, let’s say you have a really important meeting tomorrow, and you have a really great party tonight. So do you go to bed early because the meeting is really important –
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Or do you enjoy the night?
ILONA BONIWELL: Or do you enjoy the party, because we only live once. Right? That’s present hedonistic. It’s also about being oriented to the present but more in a sense that there is nothing you can do to control the future. So futuristic means there is nothing I can do to change what’s going to come, so what’s the point in trying, so let’s just, I don't know, keep playing video games, for example, because there’s nothing else to do. And then you have two past orientations as well. So past positive. Past positive is really kind of bringing back lovely memories.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Good memories.
ILONA BONIWELL: Good memories, nostalgic sometimes, like nostalgic stuff, really continuing the tradition, connecting with family, friends, usually having lots of friends who come from the age of five etcetera. And then past negative, it’s all the same, but mainly focusing on the negative events from your past, and actually having those memories as they come up.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Going back in your mind.
ILONA BONIWELL: Exactly.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: The term perspectives, the way we divide the flow of our personal experience into past, present and future is a central aspect of our psychological functioning. It’s something we all do unconsciously and automatically. And our relationship with time plays a significant role in our happiness. Many of our everyday decisions are influenced by our personal time perspectives. Recognizing your own attitudes towards time can help you overcome the hidden biases which might keep you too attached to the past, for example. Or make you obsessed with future goals. Understanding the relationship between time perspective and well-being is one of Ilona’s passions.
ILONA BONIWELL: So, the notion of the balanced time perspective is really about being capable to flexibly shift between this focus on the past, on the present – past positive, present positive, present hedonistic – and the future, depending on the current situation on the months. So, when you are with family in France, it’s a great idea to be in the past. When you are working, it’s a good idea to be in the future. But when you’re finished working, it’s a really good idea not to be in the future anymore when you’re falling asleep and not going through your list of things to do for tomorrow etcetera. It’s a good idea to actually focus on the present moment. So, it’s a capacity, it’s cognitive flexibility, and this capacity to shift between these sort of temporal zones, which does also affect the way we use our time.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It’s a great framework to actually reflect again whenever we can, and that’s something else we’ll discuss, and how we can enable ourselves to understand where we navigate in our mind on those five spaces.
ILONA BONIWELL: Absolutely.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Because in many ways our western culture places a strong value on future time perspective.
ILONA BONIWELL: Very.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Working towards future goals, rewards, often at the expense of present enjoyment. And as we know, it’s not enough to fulfil us and bring us satisfaction. And like so many facets of life, balance is the key. So how do you coach people to truly create a more balanced time perspective? So, they are not confused about those five spaces.
ILONA BONIWELL: Exactly. In fact, there are different ways to measure time perspective, so actually measuring will enable me to position somebody already where they are at. And really the start of the coaching here is to understand where the person is at. Because the coaching could be very different for somebody who’s really high on the future time perspective, or somebody, let’s say, who doesn’t have, or has a very, very low level of future time perspective, for example. So, if somebody’s really high, my coaching would be much more focused on the balancing it out with the present, on enabling, for example, to take time, enabling themselves, allowing themselves –
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Allow themselves, give permission.
ILONA BONIWELL: Giving permission to take time to enjoy, sometimes even just working out, what does it mean to enjoy? What does pleasure actually mean to you? What is pleasure etcetera? And very often somebody who has a really high future time perspective will always be in this constant optimization trap, thinking that they can optimize better and better and better.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: All the time, yeah.
ILONA BONIWELL: Absolutely, and they’ll be really, really passionate about all the time management tools. But that’s precisely what they don't need to do. But they’ll be really, really susceptible. So, “I can do it better, and I can do it in half that, and even better.”
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: And they never satisfy themselves, right?
ILONA BONIWELL: Absolutely.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: They’re only satisfied by what they can do –
ILONA BONIWELL: Exactly, because you can always go much faster, and much better, and optimize even more. And somebody who doesn’t, let’s say, have a really well-developed future time perspective, the focus is completely different. It’s sometimes about setting goals. I remember I had my very first coaching client; I had a sort of funny, interesting sort of situation. I remember I was being trained as a coach at the time and I was in front of her saying, so tell me what goal would you like to work on? And she looks at me and says, “Do you know, I understand the word goal, but I do not get it. I don't understand what it actually means to have a goal or to set a goal.” Well, I had a great coaching experience.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It must have been a very interesting discussion.
ILONA BONIWELL: Exactly. So that’s a really good example of somebody who doesn’t have a really well-developed future time perspective, so the focus will be completely different.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So, let’s keep building on the discussion, Ilona, and your fantastic book, Positive Psychology Coaching in the Workplace, you introduced the notion of “time crunch.” The feeling of being rushed. And some alarming, although not terribly unsurprising data, that 61% of the population reported never having excess time. Is this phenomenon of feeling rushed a new phenomenon, and have we got less time now? Or do you think it’s actually more about increasing demands on our time?
ILONA BONIWELL: What’s really interesting is that the recent research actually suggests that even more people are feeling time crunch or time famine. So, they’re talking about 70% or even 80% nowadays. So, this number is growing really rapidly.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It’s growing, yeah.
ILONA BONIWELL: Absolutely. So, it’s a relatively new phenomenon, new in the sense of a couple of two or three decades old, so we’re not talking about really, really old phenomenon. And what is really interesting about it, this phenomenon, this time crunch, does not necessarily correspond to time use data that sociologists, for example, collect. So when we look at how many hours people objectively work, and usually ask them to complete time diaries and we can actually measure the amount of hours, there is a real sort of difference between how much people work, and they work actually less overall, and what they think how much they work.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: The perception of the time you spend, yes.
ILONA BONIWELL: Exactly, the perception of time. And so, this is a really, really interesting paradox, absolutely amazing, it’s fascinating. And what’s really interesting is that even though people in fact work less, they feel they work more, so their perception of time famine, of time crunch, is really important. And this perception is actually linked to their stress levels. So even though the perception is not real, the outcomes are real.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So, this is where data matters a lot, right? To really measure time. Which I'm a big believer of actually.
ILONA BONIWELL: Absolutely. And what’s happening very often is why we have this increased perception of time crunch is because nowadays we cram many more activities into the same unit of time. So, we have many more emails that we try to answer, many more phone calls, or many more meetings etcetera. So, our perception of our time, our time is so dense and so full, that this is what’s producing this perception of time crunch.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Very interesting.
ILONA BONIWELL: And what’s more, we continue crunching a huge amount of activities into our leisure time as well. So, it’s not only related to work, but also to leisure. People used to just play golf on a Saturday. And now you have to bring your kids to one activity, and then do the shopping, and then –
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Or you do your workout and you listen to my podcast.
ILONA BONIWELL: Exactly. Well, podcasts actually are quite useful because that’s one of the solutions for the so-called wasted time we don't like, for example, let’s say, when you’re waiting for the plane boarding, for example, it’s a great time to listen to a podcast, right?
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: As you well know, Ilona, a number of management gurus have developed methodologies to be more productive. Of course, a very famous one, David Allen, and he’s built on five simple steps: capture, clarify, organize, review, and engage. And Franklin Covey has packaged this into a daily and weekly planner. And all of that of course is based on this old-time best seller author, Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Very Effective People”.
ILONA BONIWELL: Absolutely.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Where he demonstrated that a paradigm shift can help you achieve the big things in your to-do list while managing the little things. His philosophy consists in enabling people to have a deeper engagement with their lives. So, my question is, what is your advice about the practical steps people can take to plan their time so that they reach that level of wellbeing and satisfaction. It’s something I'm confronted with all the time myself, I'm coaching young entrepreneurs, impact entrepreneurs, and they are giving all of their lives to their mission, to the impact they want to see in the world, and yet there is so much stress about the future, the present. They talk less about the past, I would say, it's more the present and the future.
ILONA BONIWELL: Which is a shame, actually.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yes, it’s a very good point. But at the end of the day, it’s a discussion about what should they do? How can they actually shape their time in a way that is meaningful?
ILONA BONIWELL: So, it’s really about understanding one’s own time traps fundamentally. For somebody, a time trap can be over-motivation and believing they can absolutely do everything –
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Everything, every day.
ILONA BONIWELL: Every day, and they can function at their personal best all the time. For somebody else, time trap could be in fact being very scared to be over-stretched, for example, etcetera. So first of all, it’s about understanding your own time traps. That’s one, I would say. Second, I think it is about shifting the mindset and the value system in terms of what is the value we give to money and time. And fundamentally what we do know, people who are more satisfied with their time are actually giving more value to time than to money. So that’s a really quite important shift. It’s also about not valuing as much being busy, because being busy is a status symbol nowadays. And it’s about letting go of that. And that’s a really difficult one I must admit. I’ve been working on time for the past 20 years, and when people ask me, “How are you?” I keep saying, “Busy…” And then, no, no, stop saying busy.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Spending the majority of our time on things that are pleasurable or meaningful should make us happy. So, from a professional point of view, Ilona says having the chance to pursue your vocation is the first step towards time-related happiness. And if we have the feeling that too much of our time is taken up by others, we have no other solution than saying no. One exercise that Ilona uses to help people work out which tasks are worth skipping, and which ones to ditch, involves having them write a list of everything they do in their lives on little post-it notes. Then she sticks them on the wall and asks if there’s anything that doesn’t fit.
ILONA BONIWELL: Would you like to take it out? How can I take it out? Is there anything that’s not there that should be there? Something that’s meaningful and important for you that is not in your time bucket. What would you like to add? How? Very simple conversation sometimes. Sometimes producing some really interesting outcomes. So, it’s not one size fits all. It’s understanding your time personality and fundamentally constantly working on alignment, on alignment between your, of course, values, and what’s really important to you, and what it is that you are doing on a daily basis. And of course, not really falling too much into time management tricks fundamentally.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It’s actually very interesting in terms of starting to understand your own time patterns and your time diagnostic in a way before changing and shaping a bit differently your time.
ILONA BONIWELL: Absolutely. Fundamentally, behavioural change is always difficult.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yes. It’s one person at a time.
ILONA BONIWELL: Yes, and if it’s not based on an understanding of the current patterns, it wouldn't work.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Ilona has brought a set of strengths cards with her today. They’re a great resource for every positive leadership practitioner and can be used in any coaching setting, in a one-to-one or group work. 50 cards, each with a strength on, are spread over the table in front of us. Critic, equality, open-mindedness, social connection, detail, courage, curiosity, harmony, hard work, love, action, kindness.
ILONA BONIWELL: Could you possibly try to identify two or three cards which really represent your top strengths. Just two or three strengths. You might have seven or ten signature strengths.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I don't have that many but –
ILONA BONIWELL: I'm sure you do.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I'm just trying to put new things, yes. It’s actually surprisingly difficult to identify your own top strengths. And it’s easy to confuse strengths with competences. But as Ilona says, you want to think about things you are not just good at, but strengths that best describe the positive aspect of who you are. Things you find engaging, and importantly, energizing. In the end, I chose three strengths – leadership, learning and teamwork.
ILONA BONIWELL: So, could you give me a story for each of them please?
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Well, okay. Leadership is certainly something I got to understand the concept of leadership by doing it, by being a first line manager at Microsoft in my 25, 26 years old age at the time. And since that time, I’ve been enjoying so much what I'm calling the privilege to be a leader. And by the way, I think that anyone can be a leader. I don't mean you need to be promoted to be a leader. But to get back to maybe a story, because that’s the exercise, clearly what I learned at Microsoft in the sense of what it takes to transform an organization to a different mission. The story in Microsoft is that 8 years ago we are a software company with a mission at the time which was that one day there would be actually a PC on every desk in every home. But we thought that was not enough, and that was not relevant any more in a way in the world we are living in. So as a company we embarked on transformation. Long story short, a new mission to empower every person, every organization on the planet to achieve more. Which means, back in 2015, 2016, that we were considering changing, rewiring Microsoft completely to become a cloud and AI first company. And I was in charge of the salesforce in the company at the time, the global salesforce. And in many ways, it was about asking 35,000 people across the planet to evolve from being great sellers of software licenses, to become actually the trusted advisor to customers to their digital transformation. That’s like a gigantic reinvention of yourself. And at the time, I decided – and I'm going to make this long story shorter because I discuss a little of that in some of the podcast episodes, particularly with Michael Bungay Stanier on coaching. I decided to try to learn myself to become a coach, so I could learn myself the new skills needed for all the 35,000 people to be successful. And I decided to jump and dive into that learning, a very uncomfortable space, of changing my behaviours, of rewiring the skills, hard skills but a lot of soft skills, on how should I change the way I manage people, the way I live with people across the globe, to become myself a trusted advisor. And to get them to grow and to show them that they are developing themselves with a lot of very incredible smart people to reinvent themselves as a trusted advisor of the customers. So that’s the way I think about leadership, and the way I think about leadership being hopefully trying to be a role model, example yourself, and kind of doing what you’re asking your people to do. And being in the middle of the trenches as well.
ILONA BONIWELL: That’s beautiful, and I can hear already another of your strengths coming through the story.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So maybe learning? A little bit of learning? I love learning. I think I’ve loved learning for many, many, many years in my life, decades in many ways. In a way, I learned from my dad who I could see himself reinventing himself in his life as a doctor, and after retired, becoming an author of a book, and learning Spanish, learning new things when he was retired. I said, wow, that’s kind of actually exciting and inspiring. So, all along my career, but probably even more so I must admit, I wasn’t not necessarily great at that for many years, I decided to invest and dedicate a lot more of my time now, for sure a lot more, to all the changemakers in the world. The people we call social entrepreneurs, we call these days impact entrepreneurs. So, for the last decade in a way I’ve been spending voluntarily a lot more time connecting with such people, learning from them. Learning from the great role models, from the founder of Ashoka, Bill Drayton – I had on my podcast actually – to many incredible social entrepreneurs, changemakers in the world, to learn, number one, what has been driving them to do it, to dedicate their life – back to our discussion before on time and purpose. Wow, those people are purpose-led big time. And then to learn from them what it would take to actually use that energy to build my own foundation with my family, which I did seven years ago, called Live for Good. And what I did there was – and it keeps going – an incredible learning community where I keep learning both from the coaching sessions and having some young entrepreneurs, because they learn as much as hopefully, they learn from me as well. But also, with the beneficiaries of all their causes and enterprise they do, which are wonderful. Whether it’s people with handicaps, or people who are recycling plastics to have a more sustainable society. So, I love learning and I keep building on it.
ILONA BONIWELL: Absolutely beautiful, and I could listen to your story and keep listening.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I think the third card I picked is teamwork. Because I think since very young, actually with my favourite sport, which is football, I’ve loved always being part of a team. And all along my business career as well, being in the middle of the teams, shaping teams, creating not just a high-performance team but high purpose-led teams, a team that reinvented themselves. I gave you an example of Microsoft on the other card, but in a way I'm kind of trying to do the same with my own foundation today. I’ve got a young team, a very diverse team which is kind of incredible, and being able to hopefully inspire them, to coach them and to inject a number of the learnings I’ve had all along the way, so that they create by themselves very thoughtful and very driven teams where they can bring the best of themselves every day in what they do. And they love what they do. Talk about engagement and wellbeing, I can see the two blocks being there all the time. And that gives me so much energy. Understanding your personal strengths and seeing them as accessible is a great way to encourage growth and effective learning. When we talk about our strengths, our body language actually changes and our voice becomes different.
ILONA BONIWELL: When people talk about their strengths they change. They become far more confident, affirmative. Their gestures become different. So, what happens very often with this type of exercise, I would usually do it in a group. I would do it in a group of people – usually people who know each other –
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: That would be great.
ILONA BONIWELL: So, the team members, for example.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yes.
ILONA BONIWELL: And what happens is that when people talk about their strengths, everybody wants to listen.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Of course.
ILONA BONIWELL: Because these are great stories, these are interesting stories. These are stories that actually make sense.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yes.
ILONA BONIWELL: And then there is another round usually when all the people talked about it, and this really only can work very well when people know each other well. Then I would ask people to also give other strengths to the same person.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: To the same person, yes.
ILONA BONIWELL: And actually, build on the story and go perhaps a little bit further in the story.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yes, yes.
ILONA BONIWELL: At the moment I'm looking for a couple of strengths that I would love to give to you.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Ah, really?
ILONA BONIWELL: But obviously with the limitation that I don't necessarily know you that well. So, the strengths I'm looking, one of them is personalization, for example. And the reason I’ll give you personalization is just listening to you and having had a couple of conversations, is that you are extremely good in learning about people and really in ingesting and really asking just the right questions. And other strengths I'm looking for, it’s actually the strength of spiritually. And the reason I picked out spiritually is when we talk about it, it’s not necessarily about any religious orientation, it’s really contributing to the world and this world awareness. Because on numerous occasions when we talked, you keep coming back to this positioning of me and the world, and the importance of interaction between me and the world. Whether it’s through the ecological awareness, for example, or leadership consciousness. So, I think that’s another absolutely amazing strength of yours.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Wow, thank you so much, Ilona. And I believe like you that I think doing that with a team and people who know you I think is a wonderful way to start really building on your strengths.
ILONA BONIWELL: Absolutely.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I believe it’s a core fundamental of the philosophy of leadership as well.
ILONA BONIWELL: And what’s even more, what’s really important is not to do this type of exercise just as a one-off, because what usually happens in a team, eventually everybody cries. So, this I can promise. And hug etcetera, etcetera, this is great. But actually, not to stop there. Because where we do really see changes in the way we lead and the way the team functions is when this language of strength becomes integrated. So, it’s not just something you do to make people feel good. Which is part of it, of course.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yes, yes.
ILONA BONIWELL: It’s really about using the strengths and reconstructing the way our teams function, for example, on the basis of understanding of each other’s strengths.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Of each other’s, yes.
ILONA BONIWELL: So, what are your best strengths? Because we know that if we adjust our work tasks to our best strengths – not just to our competences, and especially not to our weaknesses –
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Agree.
ILONA BONIWELL: And manage to align, really align the tasks that we do, the projects that we’re responsible for with our best strengths –
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: This is so powerful.
ILONA BONIWELL: We get the optimal situation of really full engagement and wellbeing, and people being fully flourishing in their work roles. So, it’s important not to stop here, and keep building on the dynamic of understanding and integrating strengths into function.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Love it, and a big believer in that, and fully a practitioner as well, Ilona. So, let’s shift gears a little bit if you don't mind. Ilona, I was talking to Paul Pullman, the former CEO of Unilever on a podcast a few months ago, about the need to scrap the old leadership paradigm of command and control, in favour of a more collaborative servant leadership approach, which puts a greater emphasis on purpose, impact and wellbeing at work. There’s no question that we need a new leadership model, I'm very convinced of that, particularly given the impact and trauma of Covid, and all people are reflecting on that. And even using an acronym to describe the issues relating to today’s workforce: VUCA. V-U-C-A, which stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Can you talk about some of these workplace changes that you are seeing as you’re consulting, as a deep engaged of course coach of those organizations, that you see having an effect on wellbeing and positive psychology coaching can help.
ILONA BONIWELL: Yes, of course. We can almost say that VUCA has intensified with the pandemic. It’s been VUCA already for quite a while, and became just much more VUCA, right? So, changes are just so rapid, so difficult to plan. So, what we are seeing of course much more, we are seeing much more stress overall, stress linked to this unpredictability, ambiguity, increased very often, increased workloads sometimes, or perceived workloads as well. So, we are seeing much more social isolation for some parts of the working population. So, we know during Covid there were people who were more affected than others, so younger people actually got far more affected than older people. And especially younger people, females sometimes.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Living on their own as well.
ILONA BONIWELL: Living on their own etcetera. Males as well in fact depending on their demographic situation. We are seeing the whole trend of the great resignation and people losing fundamentally the meaning or projection towards the future, especially with the same companies etcetera. We are seeing trends of now difficulty of bringing people back to the office. So, what is the office actually offering to people to bring them back?
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: What is the reason?
ILONA BONIWELL: What’s the point?
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: What’s the point of bringing back? Yes, exactly.
ILONA BONIWELL: What is the reason etcetera. In our work what we found perhaps the most important over the past few years really was to focus on resilience fundamentally and on meaning, I would say, and also on some aspects of wellbeing as well. Of course now we’re… So the reason resilience, because, yes, I mean, how do you not just cope with stress but how do you finally thrive under VUCA conditions and increased stress? So, we’ve been using a lot of the program called SPARK Resilience with many leaders and teams and individuals all around the world.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: What is it? Can you just explain a little bit on SPARK?
ILONA BONIWELL: Yes, of course. SPARK is an acronym explaining the process of resilience. It’s also an acronym that enables us to attach different skills associated with resilience in such a way to make it easier for people to remember and to use. So SPARK stands for Stress, Perception, Affect, Response and Knowledge. So, a stressful situation is always interpreted. So, let’s say I'm late for our meeting and I don't have your phone number to call and I'm stuck in traffic, I'm feeling stressed. But why am I feeling stressed? Well because my interpretation would be, “Oh, I should have left earlier,” for example. So, this interpretation and not the stressful situation would produce certain affect to the feelings and emotions inside of me, for example, certain reaction, what it is that I do, and certain learning that I actually will take from that situation. And so, when we work on the development of resilience, we work on the development of different type of skills. So, when we target “P”, the perception, we are working on the development of cognitive skills – cognitive skills of how do you change that perception. So, the cognitive skills may be de-catastrophizing for example, or it may be cognitive diffusion, or it may be refraining. So in “A” we’ll be working on skills associated with emotion management.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: As in your own emotions, yeah.
ILONA BONIWELL: Exactly. Labelling emotions, for example, is a really powerful strategy, or using mindfulness, for example. In all we’ll be working on skills associated with behaviour, so more behavior change. Things like, for example, assertiveness skills, or goal setting skills. And “K” we’ll be working on more metacognitive skills like, for example, development of a more flexible mindset, or meaning making, or meaning finding, etcetera, things like this. So basically, SPARK is a framework that enables us to understand what’s going on, and at the same time, enables us to learn associated skills. And not everybody would need all of the skills because some skills might be just completely natural to you, but it’s about also pinpointing and understanding what skills would really make a difference for you.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Super helpful. Super helpful because I think many people have a very hard time again to actually apprehend what resiliency is all about and making sense of that for themselves. And giving them some practical tools to actually somehow manage that is quite critical, I think.
ILONA BONIWELL: Very important at the moment, absolutely.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: We’ve been talking about well-being and engagement of course, but increasingly people want more than that. They want more than well-being, they want to find a purpose in their jobs, in their lives actually. So, they’re seeking happiness. So, you’re involved in a very special and very exciting project with the government of Bhutan, a nation which has a unique approach to happiness, and which developed the idea of a gross national happiness. So, the GNP for happiness to guide the government. So, what did you learn from this incredible project?
ILONA BONIWELL: Yeah, that was a fascinating, absolutely fascinating event and I learned so much from it. Probably the basic thing, the most interesting, is the whole notion of sustainable happiness that we get from Bhutan. Sustainable for the individual, and sustainable for whom? For the planet. Because if there is no notion of sustainability, well, there will not be happiness, in the very close future in fact. So, the whole notion of sustainable happiness, and they were really the country that advocate the concept and bring it to the attention of the United Nations, that sustainability and happiness in fact are not contrasting notions, but notions that have to work hand in hand. And another point that I learned, the importance in fact of public policy. Public policy, organizational policy, by sometimes but very simply putting some relatively straightforward rules in place, or policies in place, we can really facilitate and change those well-being conditions for the individual. So that’s another important learning I would say.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I wanted to ask Ilona a couple of questions that I’ve been reflecting on for a while. I’ve lived in America for a few years, and I found that in the past when I’ve talked about positive leadership in my home country in France, I was searching Europe more generally, I sometimes encounter a certain amount of scepticism. Some people claim that as a rich philosophy, it is too rosy. That is, it does not address the really tough problems you have to deal with in the business world as a manager where you have to make tough decisions. Though actually my own experience has shown me that a positive leader can do a much better job than a conventional leader addressing the toughest situations in business life. So, I wonder if there’s something that makes Europeans particularly to the idea of positive psychology and positive leadership. Is it a question of cultural sensitivity?
ILONA BONIWELL: Well, I think it very much depends on how you define positive leadership.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yes.
ILONA BONIWELL: And what model you would take as a core. So, for example, we can take some of the most traditional models of positive leadership and focus on the positive relationship and positive climate, for example, and positive communication, which is great, and here it’s all positive. In fact, it’s more complicated than that, of course, but it just sounds very positive, and sometimes when they bring this concept, leaders are petrified. Like, “okay, listen, sometimes I need to fire somebody, okay?”
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yeah, exactly.
ILONA BONIWELL: Sometimes I need to make cuts. Sometimes I need to make… So positive, yes, I can express it in a positive way, but that just does not go far enough for me. So, there’s another notion of positive leadership very often used in terms of positive leadership is about – and it’s a model we’ve developed with Eugenie Olson, it’s about fundamentally really tightening up and developing your own personal resources, but also your resources as a motivator, by which means do you motivate? How do you motivate using intrinsic means, meaning relationships, and mastery, and meaning, for example, rather than intrinsic means, so that’s another one. And then perhaps there is another layer, and it’s my leadership model that I really prefer, positive leadership model, and this one comes from Bob Quinn. And he’s talking about positive leadership is fundamentally being able to manage contrasting tensions. Very interesting model, very different, in fact, because it means that positive is not just about being nice. It’s about being able to hold things which are contradictory. So, growth and stability, for example. Or creativity and procedural compliance. Audacity and humility. And being able to speak both of these languages. And most as really positive, what means positive, is being able to speak the language of tradition rather than throw it in the bin, and everything that we know from the hard management science. And at the same time, speak and use the language of modernity. Meaning creativity and openness, openness to opinion, involving others, coaching conversations etcetera. And being able to bring these two together, both being positive, in fact. And the positive being also the outcome of balancing those contradictory tensions. And in fact, all of these positives can become negative if taken too far. So, creativity taken too far becomes chaos. Or organizational compliance taken too far –
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Bureaucracy.
ILONA BONIWELL: Becomes bureaucracy, etcetera. So, it’s about being able to hold, integrate and use these sort of competing positions, and that’s what positive leadership is about. And when they bring this notion of holding those tensions, contrasting tensions, somehow everything in the room changes.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yes.
ILONA BONIWELL: And somehow every single leader I’ve ever spoken to or presented this model to, just said, yeah, that’s exactly what I seem to be doing most of the time is holding those contrasting tensions. But also, being aware when I'm going in overdrive –
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Too far
ILONA BONIWELL: This way or that way.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yeah, thanks so much. I think it’s great that you addressed that elephant in the room, because it’s there. And I think indeed that the authenticity you can bring yourself as a leader in those tough moments, which happen all the time, by the way, in a business life, personal lives as well, is super critical in building on the strengths of others, yourself and making sense situation collectively. Now last question. What role do you see positive psychology touching, will it be having a workplace in the future, and what will be the advice you give to all of the listeners to take a first step in their lives to embrace it? Where do we start with that?
ILONA BONIWELL: I think in the current, very transformative period of time that we are living in, positive psychology coaching and positive psychology-based training are incredibly important. And I think they will be still playing a very important significant role in years to come. However, it is not about discarding other ways of coaching, or other ways of training, but rather about integrating. Because positive psychology coaching is appropriate for some specific questions, for some specific outcomes. So, when they’re dealing with resilience, when they’re dealing with engagement, when they’re dealing with wellbeing, or even with meaning, which is like really the core question, I think both positive psychology coaching and positive psychology training can really provide us with a huge amount of tools, resources, scientific understanding. And where to start? Well, where to start, I think start by reading. Start by reading critically. And of course, then bring it back and experiment.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Great piece of advice there from Ilona. There’s a constant flow of new scientific research into positive leadership and science-based models, tools and resources that you can try to see if they work for you. Lots of the reading is really accessible. In fact, if you head over to my newsletter, Positive Leadership and You, you’ll find tips and resources and recommendations for books and articles. You can subscribe on my LinkedIn page any time. Our conversation left me with lots of things to think about, but the way I think about and relate to time and how that affects my wellbeing and what core strengths I can work on and build up. And I love what Ilona said about positive leadership. It is not just about being nice. It’s about being able to hold things which are contradictory. Growth and stability. Audacity and humility. And being able to speak both of those languages.
Thank you so much for having played with me, with some cards, but also having done a fantastic job of walking all of our listeners on this wonderful trajectory and travel you’ve been having yourself. And I also want to thank Martin Seligman for having this cup of coffee with you a few years back and asking you that precise question that got you here today. So, thank you so much, it was wonderful.
ILONA BONIWELL: Thank you, that was a pleasure.
JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: You’ve been listening to the Positive Leadership Podcast with me, Jean-Philippe Courtois. If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, then do please give us a rating or comment and tell your friends about us. I’ll be back with another inspiring, insightful conversation in two weeks. Until then, goodbye and take care.