Ask, “what’s right?”: highlight on positive organizational behaviour

Lauren (not her real name) received a “does not meet expectations” at her annual review. This was not a surprise to either her; she had received warnings from her boss several times throughout the year. A large project she led was behind on its deliverables, and her colleagues felt confused by her direction. In short, her boss considered Lauren to be failing to meet an important goal. Her boss, Richard (also not his real name), brought in a coach to help discover what was behind Lauren’s failure and to develop a strategy to improve her skills.

This scenario plays out in organizations every day. More often than not, the focus tends to be on finding the root causes of workplace “problem behaviour” and resolve it. What if, instead of attempting to fix what’s wrong, leaders focused on exploring what’s right? This is the premise behind several organizational strengths-based approaches, including Positive Organizational Behaviour (POB), Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS), and Appreciative Inquiry (AI). Common threads run throughout these three areas. For example, all approaches:

  1. Are off-shoots or closely related to positive psychology, as applied to the workplace
    Do not believe organizational/individual weaknesses should be ignored, but rather that strengths should be emphasized
    Advocate for a more balanced view of the workplace – one that includes acknowledging positive aspects and preventative measures in addition to correcting behaviours

In this installment, I plan to focus POB. POB was conceived by Fred Luthans (an organizational behaviour researcher and Gallup associate) and his colleagues in the early 2000s. Luthans realized most organizational researchers geared their work toward the negative aspects of the workplace, while ignoring positive aspects such as employee strengths and psychological capabilities. He decided to investigate strength-based approaches to behavior within organizations.

Luthans and his colleagues found four psychological capacities (or “PsyCap”) that contribute to positive behavior in the workplace. These are:

1/ Self-efficacy: entails trusting one’s own abilities to complete a task successfully
2/ Hope: suggests a sense of empowerment to achieve goals, or develop contingencies when encountering obstacles
3/ Optimism: considers the causes and consequences of positive and negative events before celebrating success and externalizing failures.
4/ Resiliency: involves the ability to rebound from adversities and effectively use scarce resources

Unlike the inherent personal strengths we identify in coaching, which are considered trait-like, the constructs of PsyCap are considered state-like. This means they are more malleable and open to change through interventions than are our personal strengths. This also means managers can create an atmosphere that strengthens employee PsyCap.

In Lauren’s case, a strengths-based coach may have found Lauren did not feel Richard empowered her to achieve her goals; instead she felt micro-managed. As the manager, he did not instill hope. Had he done so, instead of feeling immobilized, she likely would have felt greater self-efficacy. Lauren may also have felt greater self-efficacy. When things were not going well on the project, Richard could have discussed this with Lauren in a way that the two of them reviewed the causes and consequences of events. Between the two of them, they may have realized that many of the things going “wrong” were outside of Lauren’s control. Moving forward, Lauren may have felt more optimistic. And the entire experience, well-handled, likely would have resulted in greater resiliency.

What are the benefits? Again, review the constructs. I suggest that any one of these would be an attribute you would like to see in those you manage. Each of these constructs, on their own, can contribute to the motivation and success of team members. For example, you likely don’t have time to guide your employees through all of the decisions they make throughout the day, so you count on their sense of Self-efficacy so they can meet their goals. Further, research shows Hope (by itself) is positively correlated to organizational commitment; this provides you with reassurance that your employees stay and your team benefits from the lack of disruption related to resignations, candidate interviews, and training .

In combination, research shows the four PsyCap provide even greater benefits. For instance, Hope combined with Optimism has a positive relationship to employee performance. Higher performance suggests employees can not only meet, but exceed their goals. In another example, Hope, Optimism, and Resiliency have been shown to have positive effects on job satisfaction. Thus, in combination, the four constructs are more likely to lead to heightened performance and work satisfaction than any of the constructs alone, according to researchers.

In light of the benefits to you, your team and the organization, it makes sense to think of ways you can help develop and/or encourage these constructs in your direct reports. One idea to enhance Self-efficacy and Hope is to empower your employees to make decisions. Optimism can be honed by reviewing root causes of successes and “failures” with employees. And encouraging flexibility in times of change and uncertainty can help employees be adaptive to bounce back from adversity. Taking the lead from Luthans, focusing on employee PsyCap, instead of their deficits, could result in great employee performance.