Work is a critical context for leading a meaningful existence.
As an applied science, Positive Organizational Psychology can help us understand this important context within which our identities are defined, where we have opportunities to grow, interact and contribute to something greater than ourselves.
Creating and sustaining optimal workplace environments enables collective wisdom to come to life because it supports individual and collective human potential. Positive institutions strive to promote wellbeing of all of their members because they take to heart the role they play in how we define our lives through the work we do.
So what is Positive Organization Psychology and how can it help improve our lives at work? Read on to find out.
This article contains:
- What is Positive Organizational Psychology? (Incl. Definition)
- Topics from the Emerging Positive Organizational Psychology Literature
- Positive Individual Attributes
- Positive Emotions
- Strengths and Virtues
- Positive Relationships
- Positive Human Resource Practices
- Positive Organizational Practices
- Positive Leadership and Change
- Expanding Positive Organizational Scholarship
- Advances in Positive Organizational Psychology
- Books on Positive Organizational Psychology and Positive Leadership
- 12 Videos and TEDTalks
- A Take-Home Message
What is Positive Organizational Psychology? (Incl. Definition)
The impact of work on wellbeing has been traditionally a subject of occupational psychology but has recently come to be explored by positive psychology paradigm. When positive psychology shifted focus away from pathology to exploring optimal psychological states the world of business took note and turned their attention to the generative dynamics that enable extraordinary performance of individuals and organizations.
Positive Organizational Psychology was born out of the need to study systematically the array of positive organizational phenomena which until that point was being largely ignored.
Positive Organizational Psychology is a scientific study of what elevates and not only challenges employees and their companies. It proposes that we ask questions about what goes right, what gives life, what inspires and what is experienced as good, in addition to what is problematic and difficult in organizations.
Positive organizational psychology is the scientific study of positive subjective experiences and traits in the workplace and positive organizations, and its application to improve the effectiveness and quality of life in organizations.
Donaldson & Ko, 2010
Positive Organizational Psychology seeks to identify motivations, enablers, and effects of the positive organizational patterns, understand how they are facilitated, and why they work in the first place, all in the attempt to find ways to capitalize on their existence. This new lens magnifies a remarkably positive phenomenon in many organizations that leads to the development of employee strengths, fosters resilience, and brings healing and restorative power to the work environment.
We know today that positive organizing is possible in structures that pose specific characteristics, namely strong social networks, values and routines that enable individual action. Positive human potential is especially evident in the organizational practice of Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS).
There are two approaches to wellbeing at work from the perspective of positive psychology and they include positive organizational behavior (POB) (Luthans, 2002) and positive organizational scholarship (POS) (Cameron et al., 2003). Luthans defines positive organizational behavior (POB) as:
The study and application of positively oriented human resource strengths and psychological capacities that can be measured, developed and managed for performance improvement in today’s workplace. (2002).
Cameron and Caza’s approach to positive organizational psychology focuses more specifically on the aspects of the organizations that help employees thrive and define positive organizational scholarship (POS) as:
The study of that which is positive, ﬂourishing, and life-giving in organizations.
Although significantly overlapping in terms of subject matter, POB appears to focus on organizational benefits of employee wellbeing and is organization driven, while POS stresses employee wellbeing as an end in itself.
The emphasis on performance in POB’s perspective has created some opposition to its prioritizing business success and maximizing employee outcome, but as Zwetsloot and Pot (2004) argued, these two viewpoints do not necessarily oppose each other as many companies known for putting their employees first have proven to prosper. Nevertheless, positive psychology practitioners and this article gravitate toward the latter perspective.
Topics from the Emerging Positive Organizational Psychology Literature
What comes into the domain of positive organizational psychology is not defined by the nature of the phenomenon but more so by whether or not it represents a positive perspective. Adopting a positive lens does not deny the existence of adversities and difficulties but discusses them side by side with generative processes associated with wellbeing, success and flourishing.
Today there is a large number of topics that positive organizational psychology concerns itself with, but all speak to the same goal of understanding how we thrive at work and what creates work environments where we feel vigorous and functioning at an optimal level. Some of the most frequently discussed and written about topics include:
- Positive Leadership
- Positive Organizational Development and Change
- Positive Individual Attributes
- Positive Emotions
- Strengths and Virtues
- Positive Relationships
- Positive Human Resource Practices
- Positive Organizational Process
- Psychological Capital
- Organizational Virtuousness and Ethics
- Employee Work Engagement
- Workplace Wellbeing
Theory, Research, and Application of Positive Psychology in the Workplace
When applied to organizational context adopting a positive lens means that the interpretation of phenomena is altered. Studies show that challenges and obstacles can be reinterpreted as opportunities and strength-building experiences rather than as tragedies or problems (Gittell, Cameron, Lim, & Rivas, 2006; Lee, Caza, Edmondson, & Thomke, 2003; Sutcliffe & Vogus, 2003).
Positive organizational scholarship also brings attention to variables not previously recognized or seriously considered in the organizational science of human behavior, and some of them include:
- positive energy (Baker, Cross, & Wooten, 2003);
- moral capital (Godfrey, 2003);
- flow (Quinn, 2002);
- inspiration (Thrash & Elliot, 2003);
- compassion (Dutton et al., 2006);
- elevation (Vianello, Galliani, & Haidt, 2010); and
- calling (Wrzesniewski, 2003).
Studies show that people think about a greater number of positive things and for longer period of time than negative things and are more accurate in remembering and learning positive concepts than neutral or negative terms (Kunz, 1974; Matlin, 1970; Taylor, 1991).
Although negative events have a greater impact on human beings than do positive ones of the same type, positivity prevails over the effects of the negative by sheer force of numbers (Baumeister et al., 2001; Fredrickson & Losada, 2006). And it is for this reason that positive organizational psychology has much to contribute to making our work lives better.
Positive Individual Attributes
Organizational sciences like human resource management and organizational development, although familiar with the concept of positivity, have largely focused on the stable traits and selection-based approaches.
Positive organizational scholarship as a science responded to the growing need for a developmental approach to the study of organizational behavior and took on the optimal performance orientation in hope to build and nurture positivity in the workplace while bringing more focus to psychological resources that can have a quantifiable impact on performance.
Psychological Capital and Prosocial Motivation
Most recognized, research-driven and measurable of positive psychological resources that relate to desirable work outcomes and performance are hope, efficacy, resilience, and optimism, and they together form what is known as psychological capital or PsyCap (Luthans, Luthans, & Luthans, 2004; Luthans & Youssef, 2004; Luthans, Youssef, & Avolio, 2007).
The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship defines psychological capital and its core constructs as:
An individual’s positive psychological state of development that is characterized by:
- having confidence (self-efficacy) to take on and put in the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks;
- making a positive attribution (optimism) about succeeding now and in the future;
- persevering toward goals and, when necessary, redirecting paths to goals (hope) in order to succeed; and
- when beset by problems and adversity, sustaining and bouncing back and even beyond (resiliency) to attain success (Luthans, Youssef, et al., 2007, p. 3).
In work settings, brief interventions that can increase the development of psychological capital include training and skill development that improves mastery of job-rated tasks, setting goals, cultivating of future-oriented thinking, and pathway planning for potential obstacles and setbacks (see Luthans, Youssef et al., 2007).
Psychological capital shows relatively greater stability over time when compared to temporary positive states such as pleasures, moods or fleeting positive emotions (Luthans, Avolio et al., 2007). This relative stability or state-like nature of PsyCap makes the return on investment (ROI) in its development more sustainable in the workplace and utility analysis using real data showed that return on investment in PsyCap development can be as high as 200% (Luthans, Youssef, et al., 2007).
Prosocial motivation is another important attribute that builds and broadens the productive capacity of individuals and groups. When accompanied by intrinsic motivation and trustworthy management it predicts persistence, creativity and performance, particularly in employees that exhibit high core self-evaluations and proactivity (Grant, & Berg, 2012).
Prosocial motivation can also lead to affiliative citizenship behaviors and is an important force behind many individual and collective accomplishments at work. Increasing the importance placed on the significance of tasks, fostering anticipatory social emotions of gratitude and encouraging of perspective taking are some of the psychological mechanisms that support prosocial motivation (Grant, & Berg, 2012).
“On a day-to-day basis most jobs can’t fill the tall order of making the world better, but particular incidents at work have meaning because you make a valuable contribution or you are able to genuinely help someone in need.” – Ciulla (2000, pp. 225–226).
When individual psychological capital is combined with prosocial motivation and supported by the organizational structure, culture, and practices, overall social capital is increased. Positive social capital includes those resources in organizations that help people thrive and flourish and grow to be more complex.
They can include knowledge, emotional support, goodwill, and growth opportunities, to name a few. Building of this social capital can take on many forms but the most pervasive are high-quality connections and reciprocity (discussed in detail below), as they often lead to positive deviance and extraordinary positive outcomes in organizations (Stephens, Heaphy, & Dutton, 2012).
Positive Identity and Engagement at Work
Prosocial practices at work lead to the development of employees’ positive work-related identities and can further contribute to a sense of flourishing at work. Being that we spend more time at work than anywhere else, it plays an important role in shaping our sense of identity.
Positive work-related identities are closely tied to one’s engagement in work activities. One’s identity is often defined by the characteristics of one’s role at work and qualities present in one’s work organization. An important measure of positive identity at work is whether individuals perceive their job as a calling (Wrzesniewski, 2003).
Work-related identity can become positive through a focus on strengths, and specifically when those strengths are being perceived as something of value, by growing of those strengths and by cultivating a sense of them having a place in the organizational structure (Rothbard, & Patil, 2012).
We try to be a strengths-based organization, which means we try to make jobs fit around people rather than make people fit around jobs. We focus on what people’s natural strengths are and spend our management time trying to find ways for them to use those strengths every day. – Sheryl Sandberg, Business Insider (2013)
Positive identities are also linked to flourishing through the experience of positive feelings while at work, as well as enhanced psychological and social functioning. Engagement is one of the most evident byproducts of flourishing at work and is exhibited through full absorptions in one’s job, vigor, and enthusiasm for one’s tasks, resilience, and dedication. Positive self-evaluation with relations to one’s work identity actually predicts the levels of engagement, as does cultivation of values (Rothbard, & Patil, 2012).
Positive identities enhance psychological functioning and are evident in employee’s levels of self-acceptance, how much importance they assign to personal growth, and their perceived sense of mastery over their lives and environment. The result is coherence between what one does at work and who one is as a person, which can lead to the exploration of new possibilities and increased ability to adapt to an ever-changing work environment (Roberts, & Creary, 2012).
Prevalence of positive emotions typical in such environments also contributes to increased cognitive functioning and the creation of social resources that are necessary to thrive in a group. Feelings of enthusiasm and pride promote occupational satisfaction and creativity. Finally, prosocial behaviors and cooperation are a result of enabling positive identities at work and are expressed through increased social integration and contribution (Roberts, & Creary, 2012).
Work engagement refers to a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption. – Schaufeli, Bakker, & Salanova, 2006
Positive identity is created by prosocial practices that center around the building of resources. These practices must protect and promote wellbeing in the workplace if they are to lead to better performance, persistence and citizenship behavior.
Some of the examples include employee support services such as childcare, eldercare, and employee to employee giving such as donation of vacation time to coworkers in need. Employee supported foundations where money is collected from paychecks matched by the company and given to those of lesser financial means, e.g. educational funds are another example of such prosocial practices.
Community outreach practices are a particularly important form of increasing engagement because they increase identification with virtues of altruism that can bust individual positive self-regard. Helping less fortune members of society enables downward comparisons which encourage employees to feel more grateful and satisfied with their life and work.
Finally, there are innovative examples of supporting a positive sense of identity in employees and one such instance includes companies that create opportunities for employees to meet those who directly benefited from products or services the company produces.
The greatest benefit of cultivating positive identities within an organization is that its members see themselves as having good character and being a part of collective efforts to live in a better world. People who are encouraged by their place of work to be more generous and caring have the potential to become more generous and caring (Roberts, & Creary, 2012).
Proactivity and Creativity
Other important positive individual attributes that can be cultivated for the greater collective good are creativity and proactivity. Social and tasks context in the organization greatly influence organizational creativity and can either promote or restrict employees’ creativity.
The mechanism for increasing creativity have motivational, cognitive, and affective aspects that require organizations, managers, and coworkers to engage in behaviors that enhance creativity, and allow them to create environments that are conducive to creativity (Zhou, & Ren, 2012).
Encouraging curiosity, rewarding proactive behavior and promoting managerial courage are some of the examples of creativity organizing. More research is needed into many mediating factors that influence organizational creativity and some of them include:
- intrinsic motivation,
- differential functions of positive versus negative mood states,
- individuals’ self-concepts such as creative self-efficacy and creative role identity,
- creative role models,
- creative process,
- creativity in international contexts,
- social networks,
- different types of creativity,
- measurements of creativity, and
- team creativity.
The concept of proactivity as a positive organizational trait is understood through disposition, behavior, and goal orientation exhibited by employees. Proactivity as an individual motivation derives from three states: the belief that one is able to be proactively expressed through a “can do” attitude, having reasons to and wanting to be proactive, and feeling energized by the experience.
When promoting proactivity, the most important aspects of the work context is job design, leadership, and work climate. The dynamics underpinning the reciprocal link between individuals and their environment are crucial links to building positive contexts in the workplace and are a good source of evidence to guide practitioners in this area (Wu, & Parker, 2012).
Extensive research in positive organizational psychology shows that positive emotional contagion when share by a group leads to improved cooperation and decreased conflict, as well as better performance as perceived by the team. Since morale, cohesion, and rapport, as well as individual attitudes and team dynamics, have been linked to collective emotions, taking emotional contagion seriously can only be beneficial as a leadership priority (Barsade, 2002).
Leaders are often a center of influence and can inspire and initiate change by injecting into the transfer of moods among people. An emotionally intelligent approach to vision and action planning leads to greater engagement and productivity and influencing the emotional contagion can have a significant impact on the creation of a positive working environment.
Since feelings in a group are transferred by in-person contact and non-verbal cues, high levels of emotional intelligence are key, particularly when exhibited by leadership. An emotionally intelligent leader is sensitive to moods versus fleeting emotions and can observe for example if mimicking behaviors raises corresponding feelings in his team (Barsade, 2002).
Emotionally intelligent leaders promote empathy, which is defined by Daniel Goleman as key emotional intelligence skill, especially when they are able to model this competency themselves to a great level (Goleman, 2000). They also encourage perspective taking and are aware of valence and energy, especially in the case of negative contagion (Barsade, 2002).
Positive emotions have a broadening and building effect on individuals and organizations and those who are part of a positive network claim to be able to think better, problem solve, generate new insights, retrieve from memory faster, and process information better.
Positive psychology research lands a lot of support to these claims. The concept of the upward spiral effect of positive emotions as defined by Barbara Fredrickson when applied to work settings showed that positive interactions made people feel like it was opening their minds to new possibilities, giving them a sense of hope and positive focus (Sekerka, Vacharkulksemsuk, & Fredrickson, 2012).
Strengths and Virtues
When positive psychology tried to understand what makes people thrive, it asked very different questions about human nature and many of those questions were about strengths and character and how we can turn them into psychological assets that can help individuals and organizations flourish (Seligman, 2002).
“Most people do not know what their strengths are. When you ask them, they look at you with a blank stare, or they respond in terms of subject knowledge, which is the wrong answer.”
On the individual level, the benefits of knowing one’s strengths allow for effective career choices and picking daily tasks so that the activities we perform enable us to be engaged and shine. The greatest value in knowing our character strengths is in being able to utilize them to accomplish what is important to us in a way that comes to us most naturally.
A degree of self-knowledge is key to harnessing one’s strengths and to ultimately developing a sense of competence and mastery (Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes, 2002; Stander, Mostert, & de Beer, 2014; Woerkom, Oerlemans, & Bakker, 2015).
“To make strengths productive is the unique purpose of an organization.“
Strengths are particularly important in the area of optimal performance and engagement as optimal functioning is possible only when the challenges and opportunities we pursue intersect with our strengths and abilities so we can be completely engaged in what we are doing (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
People want to do good work—to feel they matter in an organization that makes a difference. They want to work in a place that magnifies their strengths, not their weaknesses.” (Goffee & Jones, 2013, p.10)
When applied to organizations, the strength-based approach can be implemented through the use of Appreciative Inquiry process in the management of organizations (Stavros, & Wooten, 2011).
On the systemic level, the concept of virtuous practice which is central to Appreciative Inquiry allows us to focus on universal values and character strengths, and how they are expressed in the actions of individuals as well as groups that these individuals are a part of (Stavros, & Wooten, 2011).
On the individual level, we can look at specific character strengths, as in those that foster the ability to sustain healthy relationships for example. Strengths of “gratitude, hope, zest, curiosity, and most importantly, love” have been found to benefit collaboration and healthy culture of cooperation within an organization (Park, & Peterson, 2009).
The benefits of using strengths at work and their individual outcomes have been shown in several recent studies and include:
- Increases in happiness and well-being (Seligman et al, 2005; Forest et al, 2012; Govindji & Linley, 2007)
- Positive experiences at work (Harzer & Ruch, 2013)
- Goal progress (Linley, Nielsen, Gillett, & Biswas-Diener, 2010).
- Job performance (Dubreuil et al, 2014; Kong & Ho, 2016)
Organizational outcomes are best exemplified by employee engagement (Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes, 2002; Stander, Mostert, & de Beer, 2014; Woerkom, Oerlemans, & Bakker, 2015).
Today research on strengths defines character strengths and measures their impact on optimal development across a lifespan and shows not only that strengths are stable over time but can also be developed, and some suggest that specific strengths can be beneficial in many life situations (Park, & Peterson, 2009).
There is a number of studies on the utilization of specific strengths and their implication for organizations and individuals alike included in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship:
- Virtuousness (Cameron, & Winn)
- Forgiveness (Bright, & Exline)
- Humility (Owens, Rowatt, & Wilkins)
- Compassion (Lilius, at al Jason Kanov, Jane E. Dutton, Monica C. Worline, and Sally Maitlis)
- Hope (Carlsen, Hagen, & Mortensen)
- Courage (Worline)
- Justice (Mayer)
- Integrity (Simons, Tomlinson, & Leroy).
In addition to the building of individual psychological capital and organizational focus on strengths, cultivation of positive relationships is also important to increase employee wellbeing.
Positive relationships and building of positive interpersonal connections are crucial components of a thriving workplace context. Some of the most important areas of study and research on the nature of relationships in positive organizational psychology include high-quality connections, reciprocity, and positive networks.
High-quality connections and reciprocity
High-quality connections are characterized by vitality, mutuality and positive regard. They can be cultivated by encouraging the appropriate expression of emotions, building capacity to withstand stress, and by instilling openness to ideas and influence. The lasting impact of high-quality connections is evident through heightened engagement; organizational attachment and commitment; increased individual resilience and growth; and finally, better cooperation and facilitation of learning (Baker, & Dutton, 2007).
Reciprocity, on the other, is a form of cooperation where individuals provide something of value to the group without expecting immediate returns. This could be some form of help or sharing of expertise and insight that deposits into the pool of goodwill. This form of altruism leads to an increased flow of resources, elevated trust, connectivity and cohesion in a group (Baker, & Dutton, 2007).
Increasing the social capital and specifically, high-quality connections and reciprocity can be accomplished by hiring or promoting practices that stress collaborative behavior and interpersonal skills like empathy, emotional competence, authenticity, and flexibility. Rewarding, rotating and mentoring employees who exhibit these skills further reinforces desired behaviors. Companies that reward employees for outstanding efforts to enable the success of others see some of the greatest benefits of the upward spiral of reciprocity.
The benefits of building high-quality connections are many:
- people who have good relationships are physically and psychologically healthier because higher-quality connections enhance a person’s psychological resources;
- people in these types of connections tend to have greater cognitive functioning and tend to exhibit more learning behaviors and have a capacity for thinking broader;
- when people have high-quality connections at work and when top management has greater quality connections between them, organizations as a whole tend to be more resilient and bounce back from setbacks more effectively;
- high-quality connections also foster commitment and greater involvement and cause people to display more organizational citizenship behaviors.
- when teams have higher quality connections, individuals and team members are more creative.
At the organizational level, higher quality connections enable greater overall employee engagement at work and lead to relational coordination marked by shared knowledge, shared goals, and mutual respect. Finally, growing of these types of resources is associated with greater organizational effectiveness in terms of greater efficiency and higher performance because people in high-quality connections are better at knowing whom to trust (Dutton, & Spreitzer, 2014; Baker, & Dutton, 2007).
Positive Networks and Energy
Positive networks are an organizational force that explains how positive ties and energizing relationships generated by organizational networks are linked to individual performance. Cultivation of positive networks leads to positive outcomes like empowerment, increased performance and even improved wellbeing (Dutton, & Spreitzer, 2014).
Some relationships are distinctly energizing while others are depleting and have an impact on those involved in a conversation or an interaction where energy is either built or drained. Positive feelings or mood like enthusiasm resulting from a positive interaction lead to employees being more engaged, attentive, and productive.
So here is a program of concrete individual psychology… The first of the two problems is that of our powers, the second that of our means of unlocking them or getting at them. – James, William. “The energies of men.” Science (1907): 321-332.
In energizing relationships employees are eager to collaborate even on tasks they were not keen on pursuing because they find themselves committed to the interaction. Some suggest that the ability to energize others is so important for cultivations of positive relationships in organizations that it should be taken seriously when promoting leaders and rewarding desired behaviors (Dutton, & Spreitzer, 2014).
These energizing networks create patterns that can be enabling and generative through promoting specific behaviors like reciprocity; relational characteristics like high-quality relationships; network structures like team-based design; and task design like job crafting.
Many other topics are also discussed at length in The Oxford Handbook on Positive Organizational Scholarships as they are important mitigating factors in cultivation of positive relationships and relational networks in organizations, and some of them include:
- Perspective taking and trustworthiness (Williams)
- Relational Coordination (Hoffer Gittell)
- Workplace Intimacy in Leader-Follower Relationships (Ronit, & Kark)
- Civility (Porath)
- Trust in Leaders (Mishra, & Mishra)
- Humor (Cooper, & Sosik)
- Psychological Safety as a Foundation for Speaking Up, Collaboration, and Experimentation in Organizations Ingrid M. (Nembhard, & Edmondson).
Whether we’re intervening into the collective aspects of organizational wellbeing or its individual attributes, effective human resource practices are key mechanisms for implementing change as many of them, like career development, get to the heart of why people do what do every day.
Positive Human Resource Practices
For many of us, our occupation or work is a major component of our sense of personal identity and some can’t think of who they would be without it (Hall, 2002). Career oriented work reflects meaning and purpose in life and its development entails fulfillment of human potential.
Career development as a human resource practice is positive when it is subject to individual control and unfolds in the environment that provides both support and enough challenge. Personal interpretations and framing of one’s career work are critical as many positive outcomes are tied to a deep sense of psychological success in one’s life work. Research in positive organizational psychology shows that some of them include:
- healthier adults,
- happier, healthier and more hopeful children,
- healthier marriages, and
- more vibrant, creative and effective organizations (Hall, 2002).
The type of relationship that people have with their job and what people perceive as valuable rewards from their work is determined by one’s career orientation and will often influence the outcomes the person seeks to generate from engaging in his or her job. These outcomes can be extrinsic, that is granted by others, or intrinsic. There are three distinct orientations toward one’s work: job, career and calling (Wrzesniewski, McCauley, Rozin, & Schwartz, 1997).
People who have a job orientation are mostly interested in the material benefits and see it as a means that allows them to acquire the necessary resources but does not allow for the expression of interests and ambitions through work.
People who have a career orientation are more personally invested in their work as it is closely tied to their self-esteem. They mark their achievements through monetary gain and advancement within the occupational structure, higher social standing and increased power within the scope of their occupation.
Those who see their work as a calling focus on the fulfillment of their potential and find that their work is inseparable from their life (Wrzesniewski, McCauley, Rozin, & Schwartz, 1997).
There are a number of other positive human resource practices that play an important role in enabling career development, can influence one’s career orientation, and enhance personal learning and growth on the job. Many of these employ well known positive psychology interventions and the Oxford Handbook provides an in-debt discussion of:
- Relational mentoring (Ragins)
- Socialization (Ashforth, Myers, & Sluss)
- Diversity (Ramarajan, & Thomas)
- Communication (Browning, Morris, & Kee)
- Negotiation (Curhan, & Brown)
- Mindfulness and Strategic Emotion Management (Kopelman, Avi-Yonah, & Varghese)
- Positive Work-Family Dynamics (Keeney, & Ilies).
Relational mentoring in particular is a very effective form of development and positive organizational psychology has many practical approaches to offer from possible best future selves intervention to the cultivation of authentic selves in the context of the mentoring relationship.
From cultivating and enhancing positive individual attributes to designing effective human resource practices a positive organizational framework is enabled where the effective use of these resources increases the organizational potential for innovation and investment in the future.
Positive Organizational Practices
Treating employees as core internal assets and viewing them as ever-growing and resourceful is a crucial component of a thriving organizational landscape. As a positive organizational practice, it can ultimately lead to the creation of “ampliative” resourcing cycles that provide more energy for a larger framework, which depends on this source of internal energy because that is what allows the organization to grow in a chosen direction.
The organizational employee base can be a form of endogenous resource, and if invested in, has a potential of creating and supporting what is known as “ampliative” resourcing cycles which are basically a form of resource building that leads to growth of other new resources and creation of new frameworks that support many larger constructs as well as future potential resources (Feldman, & Worline, 2012).
The organizational ability to deal with change, for example, is often affected by the managerial view of employees as resourceful versus resisting. Resourcefulness is something that many employees are capable of, and creative use of resources by leaders can even lead to employees reframing their roles in times of challenge (Feldman, & Worline, 2012).
Many employees are also perfectly capable of motivating themselves by creating their own narratives about the change. Driven by efficacy, desire, and the need for identification they can often find the silver lining in difficult situations. It is human to have doubts, especially if we don’t see the immediate expression of our efforts making a difference. Embracing doubt, however, was found in many employees to have a close companion: the ability to develop tendencies toward self-affirmation (Dutton, & Spreitzer, 2014).
There are several examples of resourcing mechanisms that can foster this type of resource creation.
First, narrating is a powerful mechanism for resourcing because it draws upon the shared language and is a readily available potential resource in organizations. A big part of managing is about communicating and understanding how particular messages transform potential resources into resources in use. Narratives can create a greater sense of collective meaning and therefore reinforce the upward spiral of self-supporting networks within an organization (Feldman, & Worline, 2012, Fredrickson, 2003).
“Human beings of all ages are happiest and able to deploy their talents to best advantage when they are confident that, standing behind them, there are one or more trusted persons who will come to their aid should difficulties arise.“ – John Bowlby (1979: 103)
The concept of mutual adjusting is another mechanism for resourcing in an organization. It is about fitting resources to contexts and involves an ongoing relationship between the resources in use and the framework that the resource is energizing. It often requires a change agent who can evaluate, compare, and fit potential resources with their unique purposes, knowledge, existing structures, and relationships.
A talent manager or a human resources business partner who is sensitive to specific organizational needs, as well as strengths of the people within his or her organization, would be a good example (Feldman, & Worline, 2012).
Finally, the concept of juxtaposing as a mechanism for resourcing is interesting. To juxtapose is “to place close together or side by side” (Random House Dictionary, 2010). Once again change agents can create a cultural change by using juxtaposition to create resources and energize frameworks. They can use everyday settings to actively bring together the familiar with the unfamiliar also known as liminality.
When juxtaposing the old and the new, this liminality can give rise to new resources and can further become available as a potential resource for changing the cultural repertoires in the organization (Feldman, & Worline, 2012).
Practices, Routines, and Improving Jobs
Job crafting is another form of effective positive organizational practice that can have an immediate impact on individual performance. There are many ways in which employees can utilize opportunities to customize their jobs by actively changing their tasks, their physical environment at work, and their social interactions.
Job crafting is about making positive changes to our work experience: cognitively, relationally, physically and developmentally, through task crafting and changes to our surroundings. By changing tasks and environment we can fit them to our needs, by changing our relationships with others we can promote better collaboration, and finally, by changing our cognitive perspective on our roles we can infuse them with more meaning and support them through the development of skills and resources to perform better on the job.
In conclusion, the very perspective on resources and the organizational attitude towards the relationship between people resources and the resulting creativity and productivity play an important role. There are many effective strategies for enhancing positive outcomes of individuals at work and increasing a sense of collective organizational efficacy. Many of them are supported by research and studies in positive organizational psychology and some of those positive organizational practices include:
- Symbolism in organizations and its generative potency (Glynn & Watkiss)
- Collective efficacy beliefs and organizational excellence (Goddard, & Salloum)
- Mindful organizing (Vogus)
- An organizational identity (Harquail, & Brickson)
- Innovation as positive deviance (DeGraff, & Nathan-Roberts)
- Organizational boundaries (Dibble, & Gibson).
Positive Leadership and Change
Change is inevitable and managing the unexpected is often the norm in today’s organizational landscape. Positive relational process can help greatly in handling major disruptions. Positive leadership and compassion organizing in times of crisis enable organizational recovery and building of capability in the face of adversity that generates resilience and can even lead to posttraumatic growth.
Social architecture and human agency are forces that can transform individual compassion into a social reality that commends collective attention. Positive organizing framework can enable mutuality of effort to make a difference prompted by a feeling of compassion that leads to actions toward relief of suffering of another.
Positive leadership refers to an emphasis on what elevates individuals and organizations (in addition to what challenges them), what goes right in organizations (in addition to what goes wrong), what is life-giving (in addition to what is problematic or life-depleting), what is experienced as good (in addition to what is objectionable), what is extraordinary (in addition to what is merely effective), and what is inspiring (in addition to what is difficult or arduous). – Cameron, 2008
Elements of compassion and the three stages of compassion organizing are noticing, feeling and action response. Activation is when the pain trigger takes on social reality, usually when someone brings to public attention suffering of another. Feelings that resemble empathic concern are born followed by behaviors toward relieving that pain.
Organizational focus on compassion organizing place emotions on the center stage which can be a difficult thing to accomplish in some more rigid and conservative environments. The last step is responding to this feeling of compassion by taking steps to relieve the pain of an individual or a group.
It is important to understand the difference between sympathy and compassion as sympathy lacks the action response step of compassion organizing. Structure or routines, social networks, and organizational values also influence compassion activation and can either help or hinder the efforts.
In an organization, shared values are an important factor as they allow for people to make meaning and create an expectation for how to act. In the case of compassion organizing, when these values are expressed publically it is known as “displayed humanity.”
Routines also play a role as they establish a script for responding to human suffering. Organizations that have routines for civic engagement also have structures in place that enable compassion organizing. Especially when an organization sees such things as attention, trust and emotion as resources in addition to material goods.
Finally, the effectiveness of positive organizing depends on scale, scope, speed, and customization:
- scale is about the breadth of action repertoire;
- scope is about a variety of resources;
- speed is about response patterns;
- customization is a reflection of the company’s effectiveness.
The desirable outcomes of cultivating positive organizing include strengthening of relational systems or simply relationships or building of high-quality connections, and if done well it relieves the suffering of those in need. It also increases the number of choices people can see in terms of how to respond to change and gives them an alternative of doing so in a resilience-building way.
Organizational responses to psychological ambivalence and stress associated with change can also be addressed via both stress interventions, positive or not. But change can also be positive. Positive Organizational Development specifically is a practice of changing people and organizations for positive growth.
“Organization development is a system-wide application of behavioral science knowledge to the planned development and reinforcement of organizational strategies, structures, and processes for improving an organization’s effectiveness.” — Cummings & Worley (2017)
Organizational Development Interventions range from those designed to improve the effectiveness of individuals to those that are designed to deal with teams and groups, intergroup relations, and the entire organization.
From creating and sustaining strengths-based strategies like Appreciative Inquiry to leadership development that stresses authenticity, organization design, and effective leadership play a key role in enabling peak performance and organizational sustainability.
Work provides more than material stability in our lives, and according to research in positive organizational psychology, when the leaders take the long view perspective on their role in society it leads to increased wellbeing of our institutions, our society, and our planet.
Expanding Positive Organizational Scholarship
Positive Organizational Scholarship has much to contribute to larger topics like sustainability, community, and environment as they align with the premise of what sustainability holds and that is “the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever” (Ehrenfeld, 2008).
There is research in POS that seeks to explore organizational and institutional contexts that help to realize the fullest human potential and as such crosses paths with sustainability research which explores economic development that will “meet the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987).
The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate, or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
Robert Kennedy in a March 18, 1968 speech at the University of Kansas
A positive approach to sustainability in the field of positive psychology is represented by the influence it has on how topics of sustainability are approached in the relevant literature.
POS brings more focus to living more sustainably since it shifted the paradigm from addressing “deficit gaps” to instead addressing “abundance gaps” (Cameron, 2007; Ehrenfeld, 2008; McDonough & Braungart, 2002).
POS naturally aligns with some of the most widely used concepts for measuring sustainability action like the triple bottom line (TBL) (Elkington, 1997), which advocates for companies to maximize three bottom lines: the three e’s (equity, environment, and economy) or the three P’s (people, planet, and profit).
Sustainability in positive organizational psychology is discussed in terms of positive organizational deviance, social movements in organizations, and touches on such wide topics as international peacemaking and how positive organizational scholarship can contribute to building a better world.
Advances in Positive Organizational Psychology
Positive organizational psychology is rapidly expanding and its theory and research contribute today to the most relevant areas of occupational psychology.
Advances in many important areas of positive organizational psychology have a number of studies associated with specific benefits they speak to and can be used by positive psychology practitioners to build a case for use of specific positive organizational psychology interventions and argue for the return on investment in employing them to improving wellbeing at work.
Some of them are included below and are broken down into specific benefit topics for ease:
- Decreased turnover and increased employee engagement, state hope and life satisfaction (Black, 2001; Hodges & Clifton, 2004)
- Increased employee engagement (Clifton, & Harter, 2003)
- Increased employee and team productivity (Connelly, 2002)
- Progress toward goals and increased wellbeing (Linley, Nielsen, Gillett, & Biswas-Diener, 2010)
- Higher OCB, higher organizational commitment, better organizational performance, higher follower satisfaction with supervision, higher job satisfaction, and better job performance (Walumbwa et al., 2008)
- Increased employee engagement (Tuckey at al., 2012)
- Higher level of employee productivity in terms of anticipating and solving problems as well as searching for ways to change work situations (Den, Hartog, & Belschak, 2012)
Positive Organizational Development
- Higher future success expectancy, better coping with stress, better job performance, and higher job satisfaction (Armstrong-Stasses, & Schlosser, 2008)
- Increase in stock prices, better customer relations, better employee relationship, higher quality products, and innovative union-management partnership (Cooperrider, & Whitney, 1999; Whitney & Cooperrider, 2000)
- Better objective and perceived organizational performance: higher profit margin, innovation, customer retention, employee turnover, and quality (Cameron at al., 2004)
- Higher employ wellbeing and affective commitment (Rego, Ribeiro, Cunha, & Jesuino, 2011)
- Better job performance, higher job satisfaction, and higher organizational commitment (Larson & Luthans, 2006; Lthans, Norman, Avolio, Avey, 2008)
- More engagement, higher OCB, lower voluntary and involuntary absenteeism, and lower cynicism and deviance (Avet, Wersing & Luthans 2008; Avey at al 2010)
- Extra-role job performance (Eisenberger, Jonas, Stinglhamber, Shanock, & Randall, 2005)
- Better in-role and extra-role job performance (Demerouti, 2006)
- More organizational and personal resources (Salanova, Bakker, & Llorens, 2006)
- Higher motivation, enjoyment, participation, aspirations, and buoyancy (Martin, & Jackson, 2008)
- Absorption at work (Rodrigues-Sanchez, Schaufeli, Salanova, Cife, Sonnenschein, 2011)
- Higher intrinsic motivation (Keller, Ringelhan, & Blomann, 2011)
- Favorable evaluation of entrepreneurial opportunity (Grichnik et al., 2010)
- Higher job performance and mitigates the potential negative impact of role stressors (Wincent, & Ortqvist, 2011)
- Increased authenticity and performance success as perceived by others (Van Gelderen, Koijn, & Bakker, 2011)
- Increased the effect of savoring on employee task performance (Lin, Chen, &Wang, 2011)
- Increased business performance in terms of financial returns, customer service and employee retention (Harter, 2000)
- Higher productivity, lower turnover and higher customer loyalty at both employee and work unit level (Harter at al., 2002)
- Higher task performance and more innovativeness (Gorgievski at al., 2010)
Books on Positive Organizational Psychology and Positive Leadership
- How to Be a Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact by Jane Dutton and Gretchen Spreitzer (Amazon)
- The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship by Kim Cameron and Gretchen Spreitzer (Amazon)
- The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work by P. Alex Linley, Susan Harrington and Nicola Garcea (Amazon)
- Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance by Kim Cameron (Amazon)
- Advances in Positive Organizational Psychology by Arnold B Bakker (Amazon)
- The Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: For Leaders of Change Paperback by David L. Cooperrider (Amazon)
- Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business by John Mackey, Rai Sisodia and Bill George (Amazon)
- The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths-Based Approaches at Work by Lindsay G. Oades, Michael Steger, Antonelle Delle Fave, and Jonathan Passmore (Amazon)
- The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace by Ron Friedman Ph.D. (Amazon)
- The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle (Amazon)
12 Videos and TEDTalks
1. Shawn Achor’s Ted Talk
Shawn Achor brings positive psychology interventions into an organization.
2. Matt Lieberman’s Ted Talk
We are social creatures and we experience separation as pain, even in leadership.
3. Teresa Amabile Ted Talk
Employee engagement drives the bottom line. Small wins and making steady progress make the difference.
4. Adam Grant – Leading Quietly
There is a power struggle going on at the top when extroverts use leadership roles to shine.
5. Alison Ledgerwood – Getting stuck in the negative
When we consider negativity bias it seems obvious that it would be harder to switch from negative to positive thinking.
6. Amy Wrzesniewski – Job Crafting
Creating shared meaning is important both on an individual as well as organizational level. Job crafting is about redesigning jobs to thrive psychologically.
7. Karen Golden-Biddle Liminality as Cultural Process for Cultural Change
Liminality is an important concept in organizational change management and Karen Golden-Biddle gives a very telling example.
8. Angela Duckworth The Key to Success: Grit
Perseverance, grit or resilience are all related terms and have many definitions, but most researchers agree that they are a good predictor of success.
9. Carol Dweck – The power of yet
(Carol is best known for work on growth mindsets)
Carol Dweck explains how our perspective on goals and what is our source of motivation affects our perception of success and our resilience to setbacks.
10. Ellen Langer – Mindful leadership, health and the power of possibility
(Ellen is well known for her work on mindless and mindfulness)
Great explanation of rumination and living on autopilot. Mindful versus mindless spells out, according to Langer, that our suffering is a result of our individual and group mindlessness. Mindfulness is visible, appealing and important in effective leadership.
11. David Cooperrider – The power of resilience
(Dave is a key founder of Appreciative Inquiry which is a change connected to theories of PP and POS)
David Cooperrider talks about his project at the United Nations where appreciated inquiry was used to improve the organizational environment.
12. Raj Sisodia – Conscious Capitalism Building Fully Human Organizations
(Raj is one of the key founders of the Conscious Capitalism movement)
From burnt out CEOs to dissatisfied employees who are treated like objects, business is not about competition. It affects real life of real people and we need to change our perspective on it. Work is an important source of meaning and life satisfaction.
A Take Home Message
Work is a critical context for what makes life worth living.
The list of major predictors of wellbeing include strong and meaningful social relationships, working toward goals and achieving them, and learning something new each day, and work as a context plays an important part in influencing our levels of life satisfaction.
Positive organizational psychology reminds us that it is a good thing for us and our institutions to be aware of what makes us great and allows us to live up to our potential. If inquiry and change happen at the same time, we should be asking questions that shine the light on our existing resources and that allows us to build on the positive that propels us forward and ‘upward” instead of trapping us in endless process of correcting problems and mitigating risks.
A Bias for Hope: To widen the limits of what is or is perceived to be possible.
Most organizations have a positive core and its potential can be realized through virtuous practice. There are many examples of companies where virtuous practice equals great performance, where meaningful work and focus on strengths empowers employees to be at their best at work.
Positive human potential is especially evident in the organizational practice of positive organizational scholarship and POS literature makes a convincing case for positive deviation from expected patterns and upward spiral consequences of affirmative bias.
Perhaps there is some truth to Cooperrider’s heliotropic hypothesis where he proposes that organizations evolve toward the most positive images they hold of themselves. If we create our reality, the implications of this perspective on a collective level could alter the future of organizations.
Share your thoughts on this topic.
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