In 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.
This Article Contains:
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):
- Job autonomy, characterized by empowerment and self-leadership
- Social support
- 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.
- What Is Self-Leadership? Models, Theory, and Examples
This article summarizes the science of self-leadership, outlines the eight core competencies on which self-leadership draws, and recommends six corporate and leadership training programs to cultivate this important skill for success.
- Self-Leadership Assessment: 4 Questionnaires to Help Evaluate Leaders
This article details four scientifically validated assessment tools you can use to help gauge individuals’ self-leadership in your work context.
- The Importance of Positive Relationships in the Workplace
This article provides a scientifically backed case for investing in positive relationships at work, highlights relationships’ links to work performance, and recommends strategies to foster positive interactions in various communication scenarios.
- 15 Communication Exercises and Games for the Workplace
This article provides several games, exercises, and skills-building tools to help work teams or groups break the ice and build trust.
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.
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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Growth Mindset vs. Fixed + Key Takeaways From Dweck’s Book
This article gives a quick, digestible summary of the theory and takeaways from Carol Dweck’s book and summarizes eight foundational strategies for changing your mindset.
- 5+ Ways to Develop a Growth Mindset Using Grit and Resilience
This article explores the power of a growth mindset for facilitating grit and resilience in the face of adversity.
- Adopt a Growth Mindset (free worksheet)
This worksheet helps clients recognize instances of a fixed mindset in their thinking and encourages them to develop alternatives rooted in a growth mindset.
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.
- What Is Appreciative Inquiry? A Brief History & Real-Life Examples
This article outlines how appreciative inquiry emerged as an alternative to classical management theories and includes slide decks, videos, and quotes explaining its principles.
- How to Apply Appreciative Inquiry: A Visual Guide
This in-depth, illustrated guide outlines the history, core principles, and applications of appreciative inquiry. It also includes a facilitation guide and interview template to spearhead an appreciative inquiry initiative in your context.
Chapter 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:
- The Psychology of Teamwork: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teams
This article draws on findings from the world-famous Team Emotional and Social Intelligence Survey™ to outline seven skills that contribute to superior teams.
- 12 Team-Building Exercises for Improving Work Communication
This article outlines 12 stimulating ideas to help teams of different compositions break the ice and strengthen communication.
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:
- Cultivating Strengths at Work: 10+ Examples and Ideas
This article explores the relevance of the 24 VIA character strengths at work and details several strengths assessment tools you can apply in your context.
- Understanding Leadership Strengths in the Workplace
This article presents several lists of strengths that may be desirable for those in leadership positions, as well as accompanying research findings, assessment tools, and applications.
3. Develop employee resilience
“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 article to learn more:
- Resilience in the Workplace: How to Be More Resilient at Work
This article draws on research findings to present the business case for developing resilience in organizations and recommends a variety of books and further viewing.
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:
- 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.
- Past, Current, & Future Strengths Worksheet (free worksheet)
This worksheet presents four questions to help clients explore links between strengths and their past and future applications to valued pursuits.
- Workplace Strength Cards (free worksheet)
These nine double-sided strength cards are a simple way to spark discussion and share appreciation for individual strengths within a team. For more on using these cards, check out our dedicated article – Printable Strength Cards for Therapists and Coaches.
- 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.
Chapter 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:
- What Is Job Satisfaction and Why Is It Important?
- Job Satisfaction Theory: 6 Factors That Influence Performance
- Job Satisfaction in Psychology: 5 Surprising Research Findings
- 16 Causes of Workplace Stress & How to Prevent Its Effects
- 16 Stress-Management Activities and Worksheets to Help Clients Beat Stress
- How to Prevent Burnout in the Workplace: 20 Strategies
- Warning Signs of Burnout: 13 Reliable Tests & Questionnaires
Chapter 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.):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Supporting Employee Wellbeing in the Workplace: 43 Strategies
This article details the benefits of workplace wellbeing for productivity and health and provides evidence-based ideas for wellbeing initiatives and campaigns.
- How to Improve Workplace Wellbeing: 24 Best Ideas & Activities
This article presents a clear business case for investing in employee wellness and details useful assessment tools and activities to support workplace wellbeing initiatives.
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:
- The Science of Improving Motivation at Work
This article demystifies motivation in the workplace and presents evidence of factors found to contribute positively to motivation at work.
- Intrinsic Motivation in the Workplace: 5 Techniques to Motivate Employees
This article discusses intrinsic motivation in the workplace, its implications for performance, and techniques to strengthen it.
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:
- Transformational Leadership: How to Motivate & Inspire Teams
This article explores the transformational leadership style in terms of its traits, effectiveness, and potential to inspire and motivate a workforce.
- One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams
This book teaches managers to overcome the problem of ‘silos’ in organizations by rallying employees around one clearly defined, mutually shared mission.
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:
- Finding Your Ikigai: 8 Questionnaires and Tests
This article presents powerful assessment tools to help clients uncover self-knowledge surrounding their purpose in life.
- Strengthening Ikigai in the Workplace (free worksheet)
This worksheet poses a series of four questions to help clients identify where passion and profession can overlap to strengthen meaning in their working life.
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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