Leadership Well-being: Get Your PERMA On

Updated: Mar 3



What are we talking about here? Perms? That curly hairstyle of the 80’s? Or maybe Permafrost? You know, that layer of ground in the arctic that remains frozen throughout the year?


No. Neither. (Because those topics would make no sense to a leadership and team development blog.)


We are talking about well-being.


PERMA is the acronym for the five elements of the well-being theory developed by Martin Seligman, a leading researcher in psychology. He specifically focuses on the science of what makes life worth living, or Positive Psychology.


PERMA stands for positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. These five elements have been robustly studied and proven to be the core of what makes us flourish and thrive as humans.


Today is the last day of the year and we are about to begin anew for 2021. A clean slate is ahead of us. As leaders, our well-being and that of our teams needs to be at the center of our work this year. In fact, this blog will be dedicated to the intersection of leadership and well-being which will underpin each post throughout 2021.


To begin this work, we need to not only understand what well-being is but also how we apply the concepts to ourselves and the work of our teams. This includes blending the concepts of well-being with effective team performance.


PERMA, an overview

“A svelte model doing yoga on a mountain top at sunrise.”


“Meditation, vegans, and a good detox.”


“Don’t worry, be happy.”


These were a few of the responses when I asked friends and colleagues what first comes to mind when they think of well-being or Positive Psychology. Their responses conjured images of beauty, diet, and big open-mouthed smiles. Three things that may symbolize well-being but are all too narrow in a true representation of it.


It is easy for a concept like Positive Psychology to get lumped together with oft-used buzz words like self-care and self-help, but Positive Psychology isn’t all sunrise yoga, detox diets, and bubble baths – it is the very serious study of human fulfillment, happiness, and well-being through rigorous psychological research.


I know, you didn’t come here for a psych 101 lecture. But alas, understanding well-being itself is the first step toward possessing it. To do so, it is important to understand a little about psychology.


The field of Psychology has largely been dedicated to relieving human misery. It was and still is focused on helping people recover from past trauma. The word “therapy” means to heal. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that psychologists were interested in studying people who are not only “normal” psychologically but content, talented, and high performing. This was the very beginnings of Positive Psychology. Yet, the term wasn’t widely embraced until the mid-90’s.


“Positive Psychology is founded on the belief that people want more than an end to suffering. People want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”


There are five elements or building blocks that enable human flourishing, this means to grow and develop in healthy and positive ways.


Growing and developing is not just for children.


Rather, as adults, we need to continue to grow and develop too. This leads to fulfilling work and a fulfilling life.


These five elements make up the acronym PERMA:

  • Positive Emotion: This is the closest tie to “happiness” but having positive emotion is more than joy and delight. It is also about optimism and viewing life in a constructive and productive way. Not everyone will display positive emotion outwardly. It may be experienced through quiet contentment, appreciation, and gratitude.

  • Engagement: Have you ever “lost yourself” in something or been in “the zone”? This is also referred to as “flow”. There is a sense of bliss, satisfaction, or ease that comes with these activities and to tap this kind of engagement, we are leveraging our strengths.

  • Relationships: Positive and healthy social connections are an integral part of our growth and development. Conversely, isolation might be one of the worst things for our well-being. We are social animals. This is about being with, relating to, caring for, and being cared for by others.

  • Meaning: Having a connection to something bigger than ourselves is where we find meaning in our lives. We may find this in a religion, a social cause, raising children, or volunteering. Our work or career may provide us with this meaning as well. It is about a sense of purpose and helps answer the question “Why am I here?”

  • Accomplishment: We want to be good at something and subsequently feel accomplishment and mastery of it.

These are the five elements of well-being and what makes them unique is that we pursue these for their own sake and not because we will be paid, rewarded, or even recognized for it. These five elements are the bedrock of “a good life.” Notice they have nothing to do with diet, beauty, possessions, or wealth.


Most gratifying is the robust science behind the theory. If you are interested (or skeptical) and want to learn more see here, here, and here.

PERMA and Leadership

It does not take a researcher to tell us that when we are well, we perform better. This means that teams perform better in this state too. I was discussing PERMA with a client recently and she asked, “Do you know of companies who have used PERMA as a part of their leadership model?” My answer was no.


But that does not mean it is not being done or that we all can’t start now.


Leaders, first ask yourselves, how is your well-being? What elements of the model are currently present in your life? What elements of the model need to be turned up a click or two? What is missing entirely?


As a leader, you cannot foster your team’s well-being if you have not focused on your own. The proverbial “Put your oxygen mask on first.”

  • P - Do you experience positive emotion throughout your day?

  • E - Are you leveraging your strengths and able to focus on what fully engages you?

  • R - Do you have a confidant, mentor, or close friend who supports you and you support her?

  • M - Are you able to tie your leadership and your work to making an impact on a larger scale?

  • A - Do you feel success and accomplishment?

If you answer no to any of these questions, then you likely have some work to do on your well-being. Here are some evidence-based strategies that have been proven to increase well-being:

  • Write about a recent positive experience. Relive it and savor the positive impact it had on you.

  • Perform “random acts of kindness”. Do something nice for someone else.

  • Write someone a thank-you note or take a moment to be thankful. Gratitude is powerful. You can read more about it here.

If you need more ideas or would like to take an assessment to measure your well-being, go to https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/ and navigate to “Questionnaires”. If you want additional support, consider hiring a coach.


Now, think about your team:

  • P – Does the team routinely review what is going well? Are members recognized and thanked for their work?

  • E – Are member’s strengths recognized and are they able to apply their strengths in their work?

  • R – Do members have a confidant at work who supports them and vice versa?

  • M – What impact does the team’s work have on big picture or the corporate mission? Does the team talk about that impact regularly?

  • A – Is performance toward team goals reviewed and celebrated? Are member’s skills and expertise recognized?

These questions are intended to raise areas of opportunity to improve well-being on the team.


PERMA and Team Performance

This is important. PERMA is not a replacement for an emphasis on effective operations. Focusing on PERMA at work will be fruitless if the team lacks goals or direction and operations are unclear. How the work gets done is still a critical factor to success. Here is an overview of the essential components for a high-performing team.


However, effective operations and PERMA are related. For example, if the team lacks a process for resolving disagreement or roles and responsibilities are unclear, this will create stress and frustration on the team (negative emotion) and compromise performance. Also, it is difficult to embrace almost all the elements of PERMA if the work environment is not psychologically safe where team members feel accepted and respected. This means that the elements of PERMA are reinforced with a focus on effective team performance.


So, leaders, get your PERMA on in 2021. For yourself and for the team.


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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leadership and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm.


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