Organizations are always seeking to increase employee output. But the growing prevalence of workplace stress, burnout, and other work-related maladies shows that maximizing performance can come at a price.
Positive psychology can offer a wealth of solutions to our modern work-related challenges, especially when it comes to balancing performance with the health of employees.
One area of positive psychology that can be applied in the world of leadership, work, and organizations, is Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS).
The term POS was coined in 2003 by Kim Cameron, who is now a professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan and a co-founder of the Center for Organizational Scholarship. Together with colleagues Jane Dutton and Robert Quinn, Cameron set out to research what factors lead to “especially positive outcomes, processes, and attributes of organizations and their members” (2003).
POS: A New Lens for Organizational Research and Leadership
In contrast to many other organizational research frameworks, POS explicitly focuses on positive patterns, dynamics, and processes that lead to excellence in organizations. While traditional organizational research is still valid and important, POS provides a new lens through which to investigate organizational phenomena.
The inclusion of the word “scholarship” points to the fact that POS researchers emphasize the importance of empirically validated studies.
As Cameron himself pointed out in a recent interview:
“Unless there is a scholarly foundation and research, things tend to be a fad” (Bremer, 2015).
The Heliotropic Principle
A central tenet of Cameron’s approach to POS is that the “desire to improve the human condition is universal and that the capacity to do so is latent in most systems” (Cameron et al., 2003, p. 11).
Another key piece to understanding the nature of POS is the heliotropic principle of appreciative inquiry, which assumes that all living beings tend to lean toward life-giving positive energy, and by the same token, away from negative energy (Cameron, 2013, p.4).
This same principle is thought to apply to people in organizations, so by enabling the creation and expression of more positive energy, organizations and the people in it will thrive.
POS Areas of Investigation
The focus areas of POS include:
- Developing strengths and resilience;
- Creating meaning and purpose;
- Developing positive relationships;
- Building positive emotions.
In short, POS integrates topics that other positive psychology researchers have been examining for the past 15 years. The focus of POS is understanding these topics and their dynamic applications in relation to the workplace.
All of the above can lead to enhanced organizational performance and increased positive experiences for people in the workplace — truly a win-win situation!
Just a few of the real-life applications of this research include helping organizations recover from crises, improving employee health and well-being, and developing inspirational leaders.
What Can We Learn from POS Research?
Cameron (2003) has identified “four strategies that have been shown to create positive performance in organizations.”
The first is the creation of a positive climate. Through leadership practices that create an abundance of positive experiences, a culture of virtuous action, and an affirmative bias that favors the best (strengths rather than weaknesses, opportunities rather than threats), organizations can build a positive culture of abundance.
The second positive leadership strategy is positive relationships, a key part of which is developing positive energy networks. In any organization, there will be people who are known to be energizers and those who tend to be less energizing, or even de-energizing.
Energizers are easily recognized as the people to whom others gravitate. They are typically genuine, authentic people with a positive, engaged, and appreciative outlook on life.
Organizations can create more positive energy by identifying and utilizing the strengths of energizers in a more focused way. Additionally, developing energizing skills in leaders has been found to increase goal achievement, satisfaction, and performance in teams (Cameron, 2013, p.56).
Mindfulness and gratitude are further tools to increase positive energy that can positively influence relationships and networks.
The third strategy is positive and supportive communication. When dealing with difficult situations, such as giving negative feedback, this strategy is extremely important.
Positive communication allows people to avoid traps like defensiveness and disconfirmation (when people “feel put down, ineffectual, or insignificant from communication” [Cameron, 2013, p.81]), leading to more trusting, meaningful, and successful conversations.
Essentially, a supportive style of communication means that information is shared in a more neutral, descriptive way, focusing on solving problems rather than pointing out perceived personal deficits.
The final strategy Cameron (2013) suggests is creating positive meaning by setting specific kinds of goals that he calls “Everest” goals; which go beyond the concept of stretch or SMART goals.
Cameron (2013) describes Everest goals in five ways:
- They are “positively deviant,” dramatically exceeding normal performance;
- They “represent goods of first intent,” the inherent value of wisdom or fulfillment, creating a sense of calling in work;
- They “possess an affirmative orientation” and focus on goals, possibilities, strengths, and potential;
- They “represent a contribution,” i.e., they seek to provide a benefit to others, and by doing so, lead to growth and learning in a person;
- They “create and foster sustainable positive energy,” the pursuit of which results in feeling energized and uplifted rather than tired.
With these learnings from POS, perhaps more organizations will begin to pay attention to POS interventions and begin implementing its practices in order to create thriving positive leaders, employees, and organizations.
What experience have you had with POS strategies at work? Has your organization adopted POS practices?
We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.
Bremer, M. (2015, November 27). Interview: Kim Cameron on Positive Leadership Research. Retrieved from http://www.leadershipandchangemagazine.com/interview-kim-cameron-positive-leadership/
Cameron, K.S., Dutton, J.E., and Quinn, R.E. (2003) Positive Organizational Scholarship. (pp. 3-13) San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Cameron, Kim (2013) Practicing Positive Leadership. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc