January represents a clean slate and the chance to start fresh and do things better than we did last year. For many, this energy can empower us to come up with some great New Year’s resolutions, and we launch into their pursuit hoping they will lead to increased career success, productivity, and happiness. Then, despite our best intentions, many of these goals fizzle and die by the time February rolls around. Isn’t it time for a new approach? This year, why not swap out that tired list of resolutions in favor of building a mental capacity scientifically shown to help us tick each of these boxes: Psychological Capital (PsyCap).
What is PsyCap? It can be thought of as positive mental strength and flexibility. It is a powerful combination of four mental capacities:
- Self-Efficacy: The confidence to take on challenging tasks and put in the effort to succeed.
- Optimism: Believing we can meet challenges and succeed now and in the future.
- Hope: The ambition to persevere toward our goals, and when necessary, to change direction to achieve success.
- Resilience: Being able to cope, sustain, and bounce back when challenge strikes.
When combined and used together, these four capacities have a synergistic quality, giving us ninja-like goal-crushing capabilities. In fact, research links high levels of PsyCap with many of the outcomes we aim for when we make our New Year’s resolutions. It’s correlated with better job performance, more career success, higher job satisfaction, elevated levels of well-being, and a greater ability to overcome obstacles and handle stress.
PsyCap can be effectively and sustainably developed through deliberate practice and focused learning opportunities.
Self-efficacy is our level of confidence that we will succeed in a specific task. This might seem simple, but high levels of self-efficacy influence our intentions to take on challenging goals and to put in the effort needed to reach them. Think about it. If deep down we really don’t believe we have what it takes, it’s easy to tap out when the going gets tough. But, when our confidence levels are high, we are more likely to dig in and put in the high levels of effort and innovation necessary to get the job done. Self-efficacy pays off. It’s linked with job performance and satisfaction, reduced burnout and higher levels of well-being.
We can build our self-efficacy by trying four established practices. The first is to focus on our past wins and take the time to appreciate them. Identifying the strengths and skills we used to tackle a past challenge can go a long way to helping us meet a current one. Second, seek out constructive feedback from those we trust. A third option is to learn vicariously. Watching others that we identify with overcome barriers and achieve success can strengthen our belief that we can do the same. Finally, we can take time to understand and reframe our physical and emotional responses that often come with challenge. For example, nervous butterflies aren’t a sign that we don’t have what it takes. Instead, these feelings are our body preparing us to meet a challenge and succeed.
While it may sound fluffy, hope is essential to becoming a goal-crushing ninja. Best understood as a dynamic cognitive motivational system, hope is our belief that we can come up with many different strategies to overcome goal obstacles, and that we have the willpower to execute them to achieve success. Hope is a powerhouse. Hopeful thinkers achieve more, show higher workplace performance and satisfaction, and have better physical and psychological health than less hopeful people.
Hope can be developed if we deliberately focus on the quality of our goal-setting. Goals should be challenging but achievable, and have clear beginning and end points. Difficult or complex goals should be broken down into manageable steps that can be tackled along the way. Another important strategy is to practice identifying multiple routes to goal success. This includes anticipating possible obstacles and strategizing ways around them. Lawyers tend to be great at anticipating and overcoming obstacles for our clients, so this is a great opportunity to put this skill to good use for ourselves.
Setbacks are a normal part of the practice of law. But it can be easy to get bogged down and dwell on the negative instead of picking ourselves up to go again. This is where our resilience comes in. Resilience refers to our ability to bounce back from problems, failures, or even the stress of increased responsibility, and emerge stronger from having overcome them. People high in this capacity are flexible to changing demands and better equipped to deal with stress, key qualities for success. High resilience levels are also linked with job performance, satisfaction and happiness.
Resilience can be built through deliberate practice. When faced with a challenge, it helps to take the time to realistically assess the actual impact of a situation. Ask, what is the real risk? What options do we have? Could we look at the matter in a different way that might give us more options? Seeking out the viewpoint of a trusted friend or colleague can really help here. They can often spot something that we missed. Next, it helps to make a list of the skills and resources we have that can help us. These can include anything from knowledge, past experiences and work ethic to our finances, creativity and supportive relationships.
As lawyers, we can find optimism tricky. After all, we are trained to be professional pessimists. Spotting risk and potential downsides to protect our clients is what we are paid to do, and we are good at it. But unchecked pessimism can come with a cost. Pessimists tend to assume responsibility for negative things that happen, including things that are way outside of their control. It can be highly demotivating to approach goal-setting and challenge when our go-to approach is pessimism.
In contrast, optimists emphasize favorable events, see them as permanent, and attribute their causes to personal efforts. Thinking this way motivates us to make challenging goals, to commit to achieving them, and to adopt creative solutions if one path becomes blocked. It also has the benefit of minimizing our self-doubt. Don’t worry, PsyCap optimism isn’t an unchecked process of figuring that everything will somehow just work out. Instead, it’s learning to accurately evaluate a situation while also believing in our ability to be successful. It helps to create a habit of paying attention to our mindset and self-talk in times of challenge and to adjust if we are being overly pessimistic. The payoff for doing so can be big.
Channeling our New Year’s energy into building our PsyCap is a powerful way to help give us the goal-setting powers we need to dominate 2019 with increased performance, career satisfaction, and overall well-being. Interested in learning more? The Well-Being Tool Kit for Lawyers and Legal Employers, found here, contains a worksheet specifically designed to help lawyers build their PsyCap. You can find it on page 55.
About the Author
Martha Knudson is a graduate assistant instructor in The University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program. She also works with lawyers and legal organizations consulting and speaking on lawyer well-being. Contact her on LinkedIn.
For Further Reading
Resources for further reading on PsyCap and the four mental capacities that build it include:
- Avey, J. B., Reichard, R. J., Luthans, F., & Mhatre, K. H. (2011). Meta-analysis of the impact of positive psychological capital on employee attitudes, behaviors, and performance. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 22(2), 127-152.
- Luthans, F., Youssef-Morgan, C. M., & Avolio, B. J. (2015). Psychological capital and beyond. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Cenciotti, R., Alessandri, G., & Borgoni, L. (2017). Psychological Capital and career success over time: The mediating role of job crafting. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 24(3), 372-384.
- Knudson, M. (2015). Building attorney resources: Helping new lawyers succeed through psychological capital. Available from The University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons database.
- Knudson, M. (2018). Psychological Capital and Lawyer Success. In S. Levine (Ed.), The best lawyer you can be (pp. 151-157). Chicago: American Bar Association.
- A fantastic book on understanding and using our stress response to succeed is The Upside of Stress by Dr. Kelly McGonigal.
- Suzanne J. Peterson & Kristin Byron, Exploring the Role of Hope in Job Performance: Results from Four Studies, 29 Journal of Organizational Behavior 785-803 (2008)
- Youssef, C. M., & Luthans, F., Positive Organizational Behavior in the Workplace: The Impact of Hope, Optimism, and Resilience. Journal of Management, 33(5), 774-800.
- James B. Avey, Fred Luthans & Susan M. Jensen, Psychological Capital: A Positive Resource for Combating Employee Stress and Turnover, 48 Human Resource Management 677-693 (2009).