Applying Positive Psychology at Work: Your Ultimate Guide

Positive Psychology at WorkIn 1998, positive organizational psychology at work gained legitimacy when the father of the movement, Martin Seligman, chose it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association (Azar, 2011).

More than 20 years later, the principles of positive psychology have been creatively interwoven throughout the organizational sciences, including in the fields of healthcare, entrepreneurship, and human resources (Donaldson & Ko, 2010).

The consequence? Managers and organizational leaders are taking notice.

Looking to put a positive spin on your workplace? This ultimate guide combines research and resources into an actionable toolkit you can use to embed the principles of positive psychology in your office today.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.

Chapter 1 – Positive Psychology in the Workplace

Positive psychology at work

Positive psychology at work addresses a range of phenomena in the work context and work–home interface. In particular, research in this space falls under one of three labels (Donaldson & Ko, 2010):

  • Positive organizational psychology
  • Positive organizational behavior
  • Positive organizational scholarship

What these three perspectives share is an interest in the application of positive psychology to the work context to achieve desirable outcomes for individuals or organizations.

For an in-depth treatment of the differences between these perspectives, see What Is Positive Organizational Psychology?

 

3 Characteristics of a positive work environment

Creating an environment for employees to have positive experiences at work is a critical first step toward a thriving organization.

There are two lenses through which to consider a positive work environment: work design and work culture.

Work design refers to

“the content and organization of one’s work tasks, activities, relationships, and responsibilities.”

Parker, 2014, p. 662

Good work design that fosters positive experiences typically has three characteristics (Parker, Van den Broeck, & Holman, 2017):

  1. Job autonomy, characterized by empowerment and self-leadership
  2. Social support
  3. A reasonable level of job demands relative to job resources

To learn more about these three work design factors in your context, look at the following reading and resources.

Job autonomy

Social support

Job demands and resources

  • The Work Design Questionnaire
    This free, scientifically validated survey (Morgeson & Humphrey, 2006) is a measure of 21 work characteristics you can use to assess a workplace’s strengths and areas for improvement.
  • EnergyCompass Work Engagement
    Developed by leading work design expert Wilmar Schaufeli, this comprehensive assessment tool helps you understand the balance of psychosocial elements of your work context that energize and place demands on your employees.

 

3 Examples of a positive work culture

Positive work cultures entail

“positive member-supporting rites [i.e., rituals], symbols, practices, values, assumptions, and other elements that influence work experiences for every individual employee.”

Wilderom, 2011, p. 79

Here are three examples showcasing organizations with positive work cultures (Patel, 2015):

  1. The software company Adobe has done away with performance-tracking systems. Instead, it is assumed that employees are self-motivated to work creatively without micromanagement. Therefore, supervisors act as coaches to help employees set their own goals and determine how they should be assessed.

  2. The apparel provider Zappos goes to great lengths to select employees whose individual values align with the 10 core values of the company by incentivizing employees to quit after their first week of training with a $2,000 payout if they decide the job isn’t for them.

  3. Warby Parker, a provider of prescription glasses, has a dedicated team committed to scheduling fun lunches, events, and programs into their company program, facilitating positive interactions and giving employees something to look forward to.

To learn more about the role and development of positive work cultures, take a look at the following reading.

  • What Is Positive Gossip? + 7 Examples
    This article debunks the myth that all gossip is negative, exploring the positive functions of gossip to strengthen bonds, spread good news, and share burdens within an organization.

  • Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive
    This article from the Harvard Business Review explores the hidden costs of work cultures that push employees to work beyond their limits and concludes with four recommendations for cultivating a healthy and productive culture.

  • Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose
    The story of Zappos has inspired thousands of organizations to build happiness into their cultures and is now a staple in business schools around the world. In this book, Zappos CEO Tony Hseih shares his secrets for achieving success by cultivating the happiness of others through culture.

 

Positive psychology in business: 2 Practical theories

So how do you take practical steps toward developing a more positive workplace?

Here are two commonly taught and practical theories that apply positive psychology in business settings.

1. Growth mindset

Coined by positive psychologist Carol Dweck, the topic of a growth versus fixed mindset is a good starting point for initiating any change in an organization.

In her book, Dweck (2006) defines a fixed mindset as the belief that your qualities are “carved in stone,” whereas a growth mindset is

“the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”

Dweck, 2006, p. 6–7

For more reading and resources on cultivating a growth mindset, check out the following:

2. Appreciative inquiry in organizational development

When businesses make major changes to their culture, technology, or infrastructure, following a systematic change model can minimize disruption and help staff adjust as smoothly as possible.

One widely used approach stemming from positive psychology is appreciative inquiry, which involves

“[seeking] what is ‘right’ in an organization… [moving] toward what the organization is doing right and [providing] a frame for creating an imagined future that builds on and expands the joyful and life-giving realities as the metaphor and organizing principle of the organization.”

Watkins and Cooperrider, 2000, p. 6

For more useful reading on appreciative inquiry, take a look at the following articles.

 

Workplace ApplicationsChapter 2 – How to Apply Positive Psychology in the Workplace

Practical workplace applications of positive psychology

While culture and work design create the context for positive experiences at work, ultimately, individuals’ micro-level behaviors will dictate employees’ day-to-day experiences. This means leaders should invest in interventions that do more than pay lip service to positive psychology and can be felt by employees on the front line.

 

3 Interventions to implement at work

Here are three micro-level targets for intervention with recommended reading and resources you can use in your workplace.

1. Cultivate high-performing teams

According to Cook (2009), a high-performance team is characterized by:

  • A clearly defined and commonly shared purpose
  • Mutual trust and respect
  • High levels of communication
  • An ability to voice differences and appreciate conflict

Depending on what business you’re in, high-performance teams may be the lifeblood of your organization, so it’s important to nurture them.

Here is some further reading to help you do just that:

2. Encourage strength use

Several theories from organizational psychology predict that employees who are given opportunities to use their strengths will experience less strain and a greater sense of mastery (Bakker & van Woerkom, 2018).

Naturally, employees whose work aligns with their strengths perform more effectively, suggesting clear benefits of strengths use for a firm’s bottom line (Miglianico, Dubreuil, Miquelon, Bakker, & Martin-Krumm, 2020).

For ideas to help you identify and better leverage strengths in your work context, look at the following articles:

3. Develop employee resilience

Resilience is

“a dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity.”

Luthar, Cicchetti, and Becker, 2000, p. 543

King, Newman, and Luthans (2016) note that with the rising speed of technological advancement, shifting policies, and competitive pressures, resilience is a necessity for all workforces.

Read the following articles to learn more:

Further, if you’re a consultant or coach looking to train others in the art and science of resilience, be sure to check out our highly acclaimed Realizing Resilience Masterclass©.

This engaging, six-part course will teach you about the research and application of high-quality resilience training as it relates to teams, managers, or leaders and includes all the materials you need to deliver your training in face-to-face or virtual formats.

 

6 Activities for fostering a positive workplace

Above, we’ve looked at four key targets for intervention to develop a more positive workplace and directed you toward further reading.

Let’s now look at some accompanying activities to help you take action in these areas:

High-performance teams

  • Back Writing Exercise (free worksheet)
    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 (free worksheet)
    This worksheet guides teams through a four-step process to define a goal and explore options to achieve it.

Strength use

Resilience

  • Visualize Success (free worksheet)
    This exercise invites clients to envisage what achieving success would look and feel like to help foster resilience in pursuit of a challenging goal.
  • Exploring Past Resilience (free worksheet)
    This exercise guides clients through a two-part process to reflect on an experience where they showed resilience and consider how they can apply the skills they used to a current challenge.

 

Positive Psychology BenefitsChapter 3 – Benefits According to Research

48 Benefits according to research findings

So far, we’ve outlined several targets for intervention as well as tools you can use to integrate the principles of positive psychology in your workplace at the macro and micro levels.

Let’s now consider the benefits of committing to these changes by looking at findings from research.

Years of research have drawn links between the different foci for intervention explored above and benefits for both individuals and organizations. The following table summarizes the benefits you might gain from targeting each of these areas.

Target for intervention (Citation) Increased outcomes Reduced outcomes
Job autonomy (Spector, 1986) Job satisfaction, commitment, involvement, performance, motivation Physical symptoms, emotional distress, role stress, absenteeism, turnover
Social support (Langford, Bowsher, Maloney, & Lillis, 1997) Positive coping, resilience, positive emotions, a sense of stability, self-worth, psychological wellbeing Depressive symptoms
High-performance teams (Castka, Bamber, Sharp, & Belohoubek, 2001; Ryba, 2020) Performance, commitment, information sharing, trust, self-efficacy, continuous learning Turnover
Strengths use (Miglianico et al., 2020) Performance, job satisfaction, helping behaviors, creative problem-solving, adaptivity, positive emotions, engagement, wellbeing, commitment Counterproductive work behaviors, absenteeism
Resilience (Hartmann, Weiss, Newman, & Hoegl, 2020) Performance, organizational citizenship behaviors, job satisfaction, positive emotions, commitment, engagement, psychological contract, adaptivity Burnout, depression, strain, biopsychosocial distress, cynicism

 

Note: Job demands and resources have been excluded because of the innumerable facets of work that are classified as demands and resources. See Bakker and Demerouti (2007) for a review.

For more reading exploring some of the most dominant outcomes above, check out the following articles:

Job satisfaction

Stress

Burnout

 

Improving Workplace WellbeingChapter 4 – Improving Workplace Wellbeing

How to improve workplace wellbeing: A guide

From the summary above, you’ll notice that applications of positive psychology at work can affect both subjective indicators of wellbeing and biophysical markers of health and stress.

Let’s now explore these more closely with a focus on how to introduce workplace wellbeing interventions.

When introducing positive psychology interventions targeted at wellbeing, there are four key steps you should follow (Psychology Compass, n.d.):

  1. Conduct a needs assessment
    The solutions that work for one organization may not always work for another. Therefore, it is essential to gather and analyze data to understand the nature of a problem or need in your particular organization. That way, you can select the right intervention for the job.

  2. Develop objectives for the intervention
    Next, identify clear targets for the intervention (e.g., people, systems) and metrics to assess progress toward goal achievement. See our dedicated article on goal-setting templates to help with this.

  3. Develop strategies to accomplish the objectives
    Work backward to generate ideas that will accomplish the desired objectives. It can be helpful to begin by generating as many ideas as possible without judging their financial feasibility or practicality. You can then revisit the list of options later to drill down based on factors like budget.

  4. Implement and measure the initiative
    Introduce the initiative and be sure to measure whether and to what extent it has been successful. This may involve using surveys, collecting verbal feedback, or assessing changes in objective metrics (e.g., sick leave requests, insurance claims). Be sure to revise the initiative if the data suggests room for improvement.

For more ideas you might wish to incorporate in your workplace wellbeing initiatives, check out the following articles on our blog:

 

3 Steps to enhance motivation at work

You can apply the same four steps described regarding wellbeing interventions to interventions targeted at motivation, too. The following are three additional steps to help you along the way.

1. Assess employees’ sources of motivation

Dominant theories of motivation argue that people’s reasons for engaging in activities, including work, vary on a spectrum from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation (Gagné et al., 2010).

The key to strengthening employees’ motivation typically involves finding ways to increase intrinsic sources of motivation.

Take a look at the following articles to learn more:

2. Train employees to job craft

Job crafting is

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

Wrzesniewski and Dutton, 2001, p. 179

Check out the following for more job-crafting resources:

  • What Is Job Crafting? (Incl. 5 Examples and Exercises)
    This article outlines the basics of job-crafting research and includes a case study, questionnaire, and recommended reading and viewing on the topic.
  • Job Crafting for Ikigai (free worksheet)
    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.

3. Create a shared vision

Often discussed in the context of transformational leadership, communicating a shared vision is critical to motivating groups to achieve goals. A good shared vision will be based on the values of an organization that are shared by employees.

For instance, a stationery company may espouse the value of creativity and see their products as giving their customers the tools to seamlessly transfer their brilliant ideas to paper. The employees of this organization should ideally feel strongly about this vision, too, and see their role as one that involves helping customers realize their creativity so they can do great things.

In short, staff will be more motivated if they feel like they are doing more than simply selling pens and paper.

For more reading on motivating via a shared vision, check out the following reading:

 

A look at purpose and meaning in the workplace

It’s commonly said that we will spend a third of our lives at work throughout a lifetime.

That time should count for something.

The science of making our working lives count is explored through the lens of work meaningfulness, which is

“work experienced as particularly significant and holding positive meaning for individuals.”

Rosso, Dekas, and Wrzesniewski, 2010, p. 95

Examples of meaningful work include that which a person perceives has a positive impact on the community, reduces human suffering, or facilitates self-actualization. Further, people engaged in meaningful work will often feel that what they do is synergetic with the way they live the rest of their lives, while having the potential to contribute to a better world (Steger, 2016).

Meaningful work is the notion that each of us has a purpose or calling. In the organizational psychology literature, a person’s calling is

“a consuming, meaningful passion people experience toward a domain.”

Dobrow and Tosti-Kharas, 2011, p. 1003

It’s clear from the research that working in fields that foster meaning and align with what we perceive to be our greater purpose has myriad benefits for individual and organizational outcomes, including life satisfaction, general health, and job performance (Allan, Batz-Barbarich, Sterling, & Tay, 2019).

To learn more about strengthening meaningfulness in your work context, consider the following reading and resources:

 

Chapter 5 – A Take-Home Message

We’ve just taken a bird’s-eye look at over 15 concepts, methods, and frameworks commonly used in the field of positive work psychology.

There are many, many more.

As noted in chapter 4, what will be of most value to you will depend on the needs of your organization and employees. The best way to get clear on these needs is to start asking questions and gathering data.

Throughout this post, we’ve pointed you to a range of assessment tools, further reading, and interventions you can use to begin this four-step change process.

Further, you can leverage the findings presented throughout this article to help you make a strong business case for investing in positive change, illustrating how the benefits of a change may flow on to improve your bottom line.

And let’s not forget the human side of all this, too.

With our careers dominating much of our time and forming a central part of our identities, the consequences of a working life fraught with struggle are too great to ignore. Leaders, therefore, have a responsibility to create an environment where their employees can thrive, leverage their strengths, and contribute to something greater than themselves.

We hope this guide has given you the tools you need to create this reality for your staff today.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology 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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