Organizations & positive psychology: ‘so happy together’!

“What does positive psychology have to do with business, anyway?” This is a question I hear when I explain to people that North of Neutral provides coaching services based on the foundation of positive psychology. I understand why people question the partnership between positive psychology and business. Usually, with all things psychological, we tend to think distress and/or therapy. Yet, when used in the organizational arena, positive psychology helps utilize a person’s strengths, talents and skills to help them flourish, which benefits the organization.  And isn’t that why you hired your employees in the first place?

To help explain this partnership, it makes sense to start with a clear understanding of positive psychology. Among the many definitions researchers have used, I like this one from the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania: positive psychology is the scientific study of optimal human functioning. (Note the word “scientific.) Having worked in the corporate world for 15 years in a variety of settings (including overseas), the business world, for the most part, tends to focus on “fixing” something (or someone) to “improve” them. One clear example of this is the annual review process where an employee is sure to have at least one area that “needs improvement.”

While positive psychology doesn’t ignore the need for improvement, it starts in a different place. Instead of looking to fix employee deficits, it asks “What’s right with this person?” What is right includes positive emotions, resilience, increased productivity and creativity, team members that get along and work for a common goal, dedicated employees, and more. The use of positive psychology helps to build upon these – to the benefit of the organization.

Some theories and applications regarding positive psychology come from psychologists. For example, Chris Peterson (University of Michigan) and his colleagues have identified strengths that lead to great satisfaction in the workplace. For the record, they include: gratitude, hope zest, curiosity, and love. Another example is the concept of flow. Flow was first written about by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi in 1990. According to Csikzentmihalyi, flow occurs when challenges are met by skills, concentration renders us without self-consciousness, and time becomes distorted. The conditions necessary for flow include goals, rules, and feedback. What better place than work to encounter those conditions? And, although positive psychology as a specific discipline has been around since the late 1990s, the Gallup Organization has been studying employee strengths and talents for over 40 years.

Other positive psychology theories and practices have been developed in the organizational development arena. Chief among these are positive organizational behavior (with a micro view of the employee), and positive organizational scholarship (with a macro view of the organization).  Positive organizational behavior, or POB, focuses on psychological capabilities of individuals that can be developed leading to performance improvement.  Fred Luthans (University of Nebraska), who developed POB, was inspired by the concept of positive psychology.  Of a similar ilk is positive organizational scholarship (POS).  Kim Cameron (University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business) and his colleagues developed this area of focus to study how organizations flourish and prosper through positive phenomena. Another fairly well-known area in the business world and beyond is appreciative inquiry (AI) founded by David Cooperrider and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University. As an organizational process or philosophy used primarily for developing strategy, AI is based on the premise that if we inquire into what is best about an organization (instead of trying to fix something), we will discover more of what is best. In other words, the point of inquiry leads us down the path to what we will find, e.g. looking into problems begets more problems.

All of these areas of study and practice serve to make the most of the talent in your organization. Research conducted within the past decade shows that by encouraging employees to make the most of their strengths, they are more likely to find greater satisfaction at work, lead a balanced life, and enjoy increased creativity and productivity.  Want to retain your best employees? Focus on “what’s right” and provide the means for them to flourish. It will benefit your organization.