Positive Organizational Behavior: Applying Positive Psychology at Work

Positive Organizational BehaviorHave you ever dreaded going to work, feeling a heaviness in the air the moment you walk through the doors?

Successful organizations recognize that employees who resent coming into work will invest less effort into their job and be more likely to leave, taking their precious knowledge and skills with them (Nielsen & Einarsen, 2012).

In contrast, positive experiences at work can facilitate greater employee performance.

In this article, we’ll walk you through research exploring positive organizational behavior, highlight its applications in practice, and give you tips to embed the principles of positive organizational behavior in your firm.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your staff create actionable goals and master techniques to create lasting behavior change.

What Is Positive Organizational Behavior?

Positive organizational behavior (POB) is

“the study and application of positively oriented human resource strengths and psychological capacities that can be measured, developed, and effectively managed for performance improvement in today’s workplace.”

Luthans, 2002, p. 59

This definition’s reference to strengths and capacities points to several foci relevant to positive psychologists, including attitudes, motivation, and talents. Additionally, the definition orients POB as a scientific discipline characterized by theory and empirical rigor (Luthans, 2002).

Finally, the definition incorporates the notion of development, highlighting POB’s focus on malleable, state-like constructs that can be changed, such as emotions and behavioral intentions in the workplace (Luthans, 2002).

Later, Wright (2003) counterbalanced the above definition of POB, emphasizing the importance of employee happiness and health as essential goals for POB instead of simply utilitarian objectives like performance.

 

Positive organizational scholarship

Underpinning the application of POB in practice is a growing body of research known as positive organizational scholarship (POS).

While often overlapping with POB, POS mainly concerns positive features of organizations that allow employees to thrive (Bakker & Schaufeli, 2008).

In particular, the field centers on

“that which is positive, flourishing, and life-giving in organizations.”

Cameron & Caza, 2004, p. 731

POS rigorously seeks to understand the drivers of optimal individual psychological states in organizations that facilitate performance, healing, strength development, and resilience, using many of the same methods as those in the broader fields of psychology and business (Cameron & Spreitzer, 2012).

 

3 Positive Organizational Psychology Theories

Applying Positive Organizational BehaviorMany theories drawn from the field of psychology have been adapted and applied to strengthen our understanding of positive behavior at work, including those on psychological capital, self-efficacy, and motivation.

To illustrate, consider these three emerging theories that offer a broad sweep of the field.

 

1. Positive leadership theory

A positive leader typically spearheads the application of positive psychology principles in the workplace. Definitions of positive leadership have been integrated and defined as follows:

“an approach towards leadership that is characterized by the demonstration of leadership traits such as optimism… as well as leadership behaviors that entail the creation of a positive working environment, the development of positive relationships, a focus on results, and positive communication with employees.”

Malinga, Stander, & Nell, 2019, p. 214

Although an elusive concept, positive leadership has three basic components (Blanch, Gil, Antino, & Rodríguez-Muñoz, 2016):

  1. It focuses on people’s strengths and abilities, reaffirming their human potential.
  2. It emphasizes results and facilitates above-average individual and organizational performance.
  3. Its targets for action center on essential virtues of the human condition.

It is believed that all leaders lie somewhere on a continuum, depending on the extent to which they demonstrate behaviors that align with these components (Wooten & Cameron, 2010).

To significantly enhance performance, leaders with skills aligned toward the more positive end of this continuum effectively give employees the resources they need, such as feedback, well-designed work, and learning opportunities (Abdullah, 2009).

 

2. Job crafting theory

Job crafting is

“the physical and cognitive changes individuals make in the task or relational boundaries of their work.”

Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001, p. 179

An example of job crafting would be if a barista were to adjust the placement of the ingredients and equipment around the coffee machine to make preparing each drink a little quicker and easier.

Another example would be a city sanitation worker who cognitively interprets their role as one that involves beautifying the local parks and helping to preserve nature rather than simply picking up waste.

Through job crafting, employees are empowered to make their work more meaningful, better use their skills, and minimize strain. Consequently, these employees tend to exhibit greater motivation, are more engaged, and are less likely to resign (Zhang & Parker, 2019).

 

3. Work as calling theory

A third theory falling within the scope of POB is work as calling theory (WCT). This theory suggests that for some, working may be one way to live out a true calling in life.

Stemming from the field of transpersonal psychology, WCT suggests that callings have three characteristics (Duffy, Douglass, Gensmer, England, & Kim, 2019):

  1. A sense of individual meaning and overall purpose
  2. Opportunities to help others or contribute to the common good
  3. A sense of being compelled (internally or externally) toward that work

When workers feel called to their line of work, perceive few obstacles to pursuing that calling, and fit well with their environment, positive work and individual outcomes tend to result (Duffy et al., 2019).

These include reduced turnover intention, greater work engagement, and greater life satisfaction (Duffy & Dik, 2013).

To better understand how the related field of positive organizational psychology fits into positive organizational behavior, be sure to check out our dedicated article.

 

5 Real-Life Examples of POB

Here are five real-life examples of actions taken by organizations whose human resource (HR) departments used POB approaches to manage their people (Geiman, 2016):

  1. Rather than relying on lengthy policy manuals, POB organizations may use guidelines and core principles rooted in an organization’s values to guide the behavior of employees.

  2. POB organizations are committed to identifying and hiring employees whose natural strengths and talents align with their work.

  3. As soon as layoffs become a possibility, employees are immediately made aware, and leadership remains in close communication with the workforce.

  4. Employees in POB organizations are fairly compensated for participation in company-wide meetings, huddles, and development activities (i.e., activities peripheral to the core work role).

  5. POB organizations set clear expectations during performance reviews, regularly coach staff, and provide feedback on a quarterly or monthly basis, rather than annually.

Taken together, these measures led to several desirable outcomes, including greater profitability, productivity, employee engagement, and morale (Geiman, 2016).

 

Applying Positive Organizational Behavior in the Workplace

Positive organizational scholarshipSo far, we’ve looked at several theories and applications of POB in the workplace.

Let’s now consider the process for implementing POB as a workplace intervention.

The HR departments in Geiman’s (2016) study drew on several established POB activities and methodologies to drive POB practices:

  • Crucial Conversations techniques
  • Succession planning
  • The Art of Hosting method
  • The Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, Conscientiousness (DISC) Assessment
  • 360-degree feedback

Among the most commonly cited methods was appreciative inquiry, a collaborative, strengths-based approach to change in organizations and other human systems.

This approach, developed by David Cooperrider in the 1980s, is widely used in organizational change initiatives and represents an alternative to earlier schools of thought that likened people to machines and centered on correcting people’s deficits.

 

Developing and managing psychological strengths

A central tenet of appreciative inquiry and most other POB approaches involves the identification and development of employees’ psychological strengths.

Focusing on employee strengths rather than deficits has a range of benefits, including increased speed of development, lower turnover, and increased morale (De Groot, 2015; Rigoni & Asplund, 2016).

But how do you get started?

To begin, select a psychometrically validated strengths-assessment tool you can use to assess your employees, team, or leaders. Commonly used options in business settings include the CliftonStrengths™ Assessment and DISC Personal Assessment Tool.

Next, craft an initiative that will help your employees better leverage their existing strengths.

For instance, consider whether you can put employees with differing and complementary strengths on the same team. Or perhaps you might steer a leader with a strength in emotional intelligence toward the needs of a distrusting and uncertain team.

Throughout this process, be sure to include those who engage with the work itself, not just the supervisors and managers, in discussions about a strengths-based initiative, as those on the ground floor will often have unique insights that those at the top might not see.

For instance, shop floor workers may recognize a needed competency that is lacking within a department or an opportunity to better utilize somebody with a particular strength.

Finally, be sure to measure the effects of any initiative you implement. For instance, if you hope that by adjusting the composition of strengths within a particular team, you can reduce interpersonal conflict, then be sure to follow up with team members using interviews, meetings, or even surveys to assess whether the change has had its intended effect.

 

3 Proven Benefits of Positive Organizational Scholarship

Businesses have increasingly turned to the field of POS not only in service of their bottom line but for myriad other reasons, too.

Here are just three proven benefits of initiatives that have been continually reinforced in findings from the literature.

 

1. Positive organizational scholarship sustains motivation

Employees working for firms that value POS derive more enjoyment from their work each day, resulting in sustained internal motivation.

In particular, employees will exhibit greater intrinsic motivation when engaged in work that aligns with their values (a concern that is front and center in POS approaches). That is, the act of working will be driven more by sustainable internal motivations, such as enjoyment, as opposed to external motivations, like praise or financial incentives (Ghazzawi, 2008).

 

2. Positive organizational scholarship supports mental wellbeing

Cultures embedded with the principles of POS help minimize stress and increase mental health among employees. This was shown to be especially true in cultures characterized by minimal workplace bullying (Lutgen-Sandvik, Hood, & Jacobson, 2016).

 

3. Positive organizational scholarship drives prosocial behavior

Finally, employees whose qualities align with the principles of POS tend to exhibit greater concern for others and their broader environment, manifesting as prosocial behaviors.

Andersson, Giacalone, and Jurkiewicz (2007) found that white-collar workers who experienced higher levels of hope and gratitude felt a greater sense of responsibility for their colleagues and for social matters beyond their core duties.

 

3 Techniques and Tips for Your Work Environment

Positive work environmentLooking to build the principles of POS into your workplace?

Here are three tips and techniques you can apply to get started.

 

1. Build positive organizational scholarship into the work environment

The sub-field of work design, falling within the scope of organizational behavior, provides many recommendations for designing work environments that facilitate POB.

For instance, work design that allows employees to use various skills, take on a range of different tasks, and provide social support creates the context to have positive experiences at work (Morgeson & Humphrey, 2006).

With these and other positive attributes in place, organizations can enjoy benefits including reduced absenteeism and workplace accidents, as well as increases in financial revenue, performance, and innovation (Humphrey, Nahrgang, & Morgeson, 2007).

 

2. Train effective feedback delivery (and receipt)

Clear and open feedback is critical for employees to develop their skills, learn from mistakes, and work more productively with one another.

Likewise, people may differ in how they receive feedback. Some may find it challenging and a threat to their self-perception of worth or effectiveness, while others will accept it with an open mind.

To learn more about giving and receiving feedback, check out our dedicated blog posts detailing how to give negative feedback in a positive way and strategies for providing positive reinforcement at work.

 

3. Pay close attention to interdependent workers

Taking steps to ensure a positive work environment is especially important when individuals’ work is highly interdependent. The more employees are reliant on one another to perform their tasks effectively, the more these employees and the organization will benefit from a culture characterized by POS.

For instance, airline attendants working together on a series of long-haul flights will inevitably depend on the shared understanding and trust inherent in their company’s culture to perform well much more than an independent freelancer who works from home.

Therefore, pay extra attention to those employees who are dependent on their colleagues to do effective work, ensuring a culture that supports positive interactions.

 

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

Looking for more tools to embed the principles of POB in your workplace? Check out the following free worksheets and activities.

  • Adopt A Growth Mindset
    This worksheet helps employees recognize instances of fixed mindset in their thinking and encourages them to develop alternatives rooted in a growth mindset.

  • Back Writing Exercise
    This activity is both a fun ice-breaker and a light-hearted way to invite feedback on how team members view one another.

  • GROW with your Team
    This worksheet guides teams through a four-step process to define a goal and explore options and avenues to achieving it.

  • Workplace Strength Cards
    These nine double-sided cards are a simple way to spark discussion and shared appreciation for individual strengths within a team.

  • Job Crafting for Ikigai
    This worksheet applies the Japanese concept of ikigai, or reason for being, to help clients identify small changes they could make to strengthen the meaning they derive from day-to-day work.

  • 17 Motivation & Goal Achievement Exercises
    If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others reach their goals, check out this collection of 17 validated motivation and goal achievement tools for practitioners. Use them to help others turn their dreams into reality by applying the latest science-based behavioral change techniques.

 

A Take-Home Message

With the proliferation of positive approaches to psychology, it’s no surprise the world of business is now seeking a slice of the pie.

And why not?

When leaders craft workplaces to prioritize both profitability and happiness, organizations gain reputations for being great places to work, and their staff will flourish.

We hope this article has inspired you to delve further into the science and scholarship of POB.

Likewise, if you’re an organizational leader, we invite you to consider how you might implement one strategy or technique explored above in your company to create a more positive experience for your workers today.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.

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About the Author

Nicole is a behavioral scientist and writer based in Perth, Western Australia. Her research interests lie at the intersection between wellbeing, personal energy, and positive psychology, and her work appears in several top business journals, including the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

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