In 1998 I and a business partner were working as sports psychologists with one of the top five Tour Professional Golfers in Europe. He turned out to be an eager early adopter of the positive psychology and neurobiology breakthroughs that were changing paradigms around then. His intelligent and committed exploitation of what we were sharing with him was extremely impressive, and gave him a very real edge over the competition who as yet were ignorant of what could be achieved. As a result, he went on to more than double his winnings in the subsequent season, shooting up in the world rankings as a result.
Eight years later I was working with another talented tour pro. A young man at the start of his career with internationally impressive statistics in the amateur game. He shared a manager with our 1998 client, and their manager rated him as every bit as good a ball striker. However he was not finding the transition into the professional game easy – in the amateur game he could rely on his raw talent to rise to the very top. Competition is an order of magnitude higher on the European Tour however and he was finding motivation a real challenge. We worked together for a while on exactly the same material as our 1998 client, updated by the intervening 8 years of research. Sadly this golfer could not bring himself to make the effort needed to master the new psychology, and I called it a day. He went on to lose his playing rights and dropped out of the European Tour for some years.
The contrast is stark. In 1998 one exceptionally talented pro used sports psychology to gain competitive advantage over other top player in the world and achieve global success. In 2006 another pro who was also more talented than 95% of the pros on tour decided not to adopt sports psychology and was not even able to keep up with lesser players who were using it. By 2006 sports psychology was main stream and the majority of tour pros were using it. Nowadays it is 100%.
The situation in business psychology is analogous. When I first started in 1997 positive psychology had not yet begun, neurobiology was still experimenting with neuroplasticity, and applied emotional intelligence was very new. The evidence we all now take for granted linking positivity and corporate performance did not exist. Fuelled by the outlandish claims of mid-century positive thinking adherents, there was widespread scepticism and mistrust in the corporate world of mind-brain science. Which gave early adopters of the emerging knowledge a very real performance advantage and many of our clients were able to steal a march on their competition.
Exactly as with sports psychology from 1998 to 2006, things are now completely reversed. The evidence has been out there for some time, and most business leaders are at least aware of it. Positive cultures have been part of how very conspicuous market disruptors have broken the mould. Middle management take it for granted that treating people well and caring for their happiness and wellbeing are essential.
What I’m saying is this. The days when positivity gave competitive advantage are waning. It is fast becoming a must-have just to keep pace with the competition. You should assume your competitors are doing everything they can to exploit the enormous potential of individual psychological development. Unless a company is on top of the area they now risk losing their playing rights just like my 2006 client, the equivalent in business being to find themselves leading a target not an acquirer.
There is still time. Not every board room has bought in yet. No-one knows how long that will last but please consider this. In 2000 when I founded my company no-one had heard of mindfulness, and most business leaders regarded techniques like visualisation as unproven at best if not as outright meaningless psychobabble. Now when I meet a new class of middle managers and ask for a show of hands as to who in the room has knowledge and experience of mindfulness and visualisation, I get a 90% positive response. Future senior leadership is all over this.