The modern movement of Positive Psychology is often said to have begun when Martin Seligman, in a 1998 speech as APA President, introduced the idea of a “reoriented science that emphasizes the understanding and building of the most positive qualities of an individual: optimism, courage, work ethic, future‑mindedness, interpersonal skill, the capacity for pleasure and insight, and social responsibility” (University of Pennsylvania, 2023). This newly-invigorated perspective suggested that psychologists focus less on problems, risks, and deficits and shift attention to cultivating potential, possibilities, and strengths. Downward spirals, for example, have a positive psychology counterpart in the notion of upward spirals that’s also worth understanding (e.g. Fredrickson & Joiner, 2018).
In organizations, applying positive psychology—defined as “the science and practice of well-being” (Hefferon et al., 2017)—roughly translates to assuming that employees at every level have tremendous value and potential that is best unlocked through trusting and empowering them, and recognizing their strengths. At its core, positive psychology posits that individuals will flourish in a workplace that promotes well-being and provides support. Martin Seligman outlined three main areas of positive psychology, each of which maps to organizational psychology differently: positive emotions (culture and leadership), positive traits (employees and their development), and positive institutions (org. systems and policies). Some researchers say we’re in the third wave of Positive Psychology (Lomas et al., 2021). Within this is an increased amount of attention on systems, rather than individuals and groups of individuals, which were the focus of the first two waves (Lomas & Ivtzan, 2016; Wong, 2019). While the first wave set in motion by Seligman was mostly focused on positive phenomena and their benefits in the context of clinical psychology, the second wave was characterized by the addition of existential concerns (e.g. the drama and survival of ordinary life) and re-thinking assumptions of positive psychology with more nuance (e.g. that positivity can have negative effects). Of particular interest to Ethical Systems is positive psychology as a potential vehicle for more ethical workplace systems and culture. This review of positive psychology in organizations summarizes the available literature on positive psychology theory, topics, and interventions relevant to organizations, with a particular focus on ethical implications.
- Ideas to Apply
- Areas of Research
- Relevant Theories
- Topic Areas
- Positive Organizational Psychology
- Employee Thriving & Flourishing
- Positive Organizational Psychology of Leadership & Teams
- Positive Organizational Psychology at the Systems Level
- Criticisms and Limitations of Positive Organizational Psychology
- Open Questions
- Future Research Recommendations
- Recommended Reading
Ideas to Apply
Successfully applying Positive Psychology in the workplace likely requires holistically changing aspects of a company’s culture in concert, unlocking multiple gates to flourishing employees and organizations.
Positive Organizational Psychology is an alternative to traditional Organizational Psychology, which had a negative bent to its focus on problem solving. But Positive Organizational Psychology faces an uphill battle against human nature and a misleading but popular understanding of positivity as somehow fundamentally naive or unscientific. Yet Positive Organizational Psychology continues to evolve into a more scientific and empirical discipline. It puts the efficacy of its theories and interventions to the test (Carr et al., 2021; Donaldson et al., 2019a; Donaldson et al., 2019b)
There are multiple overlapping approaches applying positive psychology principles in organizations. Researchers continue to debate the relative importance of positive psychology as a force for improving the lives of employees or benefiting organizations, as well as how to balance these interests and the extent to which they are competing or complementary.
Employee’s identities are entangled with their jobs, and how appropriate and effective it is to leverage identity toward affective and performance outcomes remains unclear.
Areas of Research
The positive psychology literature boasts many varied and overlapping theories. The theories included here provide background and frameworks for understanding positive organizational psychology. However, not all of the theories are exclusive to or fully aligned with positive psychology.
This list is not exhaustive, but does include most of the frequently-cited theoretical bases for positive psychology in organizations.
- Broaden-and-build Theory. Positive emotions lead to broader awareness and increased personal resources that, over time, can lead to transformative changes as one is able to see more possibilities and act upon them successfully (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2018).
- Conservation of Resources Theory. In organizations individuals seek to obtain and conserve resources that are important to them. These resources include energy, social support, and self-efficacy, among others. Employees spend their resources to meet goals, accumulate them for future activities, and experience stress when resources are depleted or threatened (Ho & Chan, 2022; Hobfoll et al., 2018).
- Flow Theory. In a state of flow, one becomes fully immersed in an activity, losing a sense of self. It’s characterized by intense, focused concentration and productivity. Flow is typically the result of intrinsic motivation toward a challenging but achievable task with clear and proximate goals (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2021).
- Growth mindset theory. Those who believe their talents can be developed through effort, learning strategies, and input from others are said to have a growth mindset. People who believe in and act upon the idea of fixed talents and abilities tend to have lower achievement. At the organizational level, growth mindsets mean more support and collaboration (Dweck, 2016).
- Hope Theory. Hope is a positive emotional state resulting from a combination of perceived agency (willpower) and ability to generate pathways (waypower) toward goal attainment. (Luthans & Youssef-Morgan, 2017; Snyder et al., 1996).
- Job-crafting Theory. Employees can craft a job to better fit their strengths and motivations, resulting in more engagement, satisfaction, and thriving at work. Crafting may involve changing how and when work gets done, as well as the interpersonal interactions involved in the job (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001).
- Job Demands-Resources theory. At work individuals have demands placed on them and resources (personal and organizational) from which they draw to meet those demands. The balance of these determines where an employee will fall along the continuum from burnout to well-being (Bakker & Demerouti, 2017; Galanakis & Tsitouri, 2022). There can also be gain or loss spirals that result from the experience of trying to meet demands with available resources.
- Organizational Support Theory. Organizational support—consisting of factors such as leadership, human-resource practices, and organizational characteristics—can impact employee well-being, performance, and orientation toward the organization (Ho & Chan, 2022; Kurtessis et al., 2017).
- PERMA Model. Human flourishing results from the fulfillment of five pillars of well-being: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments (Seligman, 2012; Ho & Chan, 2022). These pillars are observed to be what humans seek when free from coercion, suggesting they are genuine elements of happiness and well-being.
- PERMA+4 Model: Expanding on the original PERMA model, this proposed update adds four new elements: Physical Health, Mindset, Work Environment, Economic Security (Donaldson et al., 2022).
- Psychological Capital Theory. Psychological capital consists of an individual’s mental resources, specifically hope, efficacy, resilience, and optimism (HERO). These components have in common positive appraisal, intentionality, agentic goal pursuit, and a sense of control. They interact synergistically to impact attitudes, performance, and behavior (Luthans & Youssef-Morgan, 2017; Donaldson et al., 2020).
- Psychological Flexibility. The ability to appropriately adapt and persist when pursuing goals, instead of reducing stress by avoiding experiences. Greater flexibility is about navigating—not avoiding—stress, and greater psychological flexibility may be related to greater competence, satisfaction, and performance (Hayes et al., 2004; Doorley et al., 2020).
- Resilience Theory. Resilience is a person’s ability to make a recovery from stress and negative events. The core theme is building resilience to stress, rather than focusing on stress after the fact. There is little agreement on the precise definition and content of resilience, though there are several models rooted in varying facets of psychological resources, sense making, experiences, beliefs, and social support (J. Mills et al., 2013; Carlos & Tan, 2021).
- Self-determination theory. Three human needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness of individuals—are at the core of human psychology (Gagné & Vansteenkiste, 2013). Meeting these needs improves well-being and functioning, so the theory includes consideration of autonomy vs. control and intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2012).
- Social Identity Theory. A major component of one’s social identity are the groups they belong to, with some groups contributing more to identity than others. The features and norms of a group identity affect behavior and emotions (Scheepers & Ellemers, 2019).
- Strengths Theory. There is more to be gained from developing people’s strengths than paying attention to weaknesses (though these should not be neglected). Greater achievement and positive emotion can result from exercising and perfecting one’s strengths (Ding & Quan, 2021). Includes strength-based leadership, character strengths, and other strength-based approaches.
- Virtue Theory (in organizations): An organization demonstrates moral excellence through structure, decisions, and policies that benefit the common good, stakeholders, and employees. A virtuous organization could be thought of as having good character, like a person with positive traits. Determining what is virtuous is a multifaceted and multi-level organizational concern (Gotsis & Grimani, 2015; Neubert & Dyck, 2016).
- Work as Calling Theory. Individuals can fulfill a purposeful life calling through their jobs. For this to occur, the employee’s experience of the job tends to need three components: imparting a sense of individual meaning, contributing to helping others or the common good, and being driven by strong motivation toward the work the job entails (Duffy et al., 2019).
Positive Organizational Psychology
Positive Psychology in organizations has competing monikers, such as Positive Psychology in the Workplace (PPW; J. Mills et al., 2013), Positive Work and Organizations (PWO; Donaldson et al., 2019; Warren et al., 2017), and Positive Organizational Psychology (POP; Lewis, 2015). These labels represent the most broad combination of positive and organizational psychology and for this research page POP will be the umbrella term used for the field. Some researchers regard PWO as the broadest and most inclusive term, but its usage is not as common as POP. This review also explores two sub-areas of POP: Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) and Positive Organizational Behavior (POB).
People have been applying Positive Psychology in Organizational Psychology in a piecemeal fashion for over two decades (Lewis, 2015). This can be seen in the way practices—such as best-self feedback, strength psychometrics, positivity ratios, and positive-based approaches—have even been used in accounting audit and evaluation (appreciative accounting). In addition, organizations and their characteristics are assessed in terms of concepts such as strengths and resilience, consistent with the third-wave considerations of larger systems.
There can also be more transformational implementations of Positive Psychology, such as that which Lewis described at Cougar Automations. At this company, the owner made wholesale, not piecemeal, changes that led to a major transformation over 5 years. The company “transformed itself from a conventional organization where the owner-director was working himself into an early grave to one that almost runs itself—the cost base is much reduced and the profits much increased” (Lewis, 2015; p. 336). The changes included a high-trust environment, more self-organizing, less micromanagement, tools for positive feedback, and salaries set by employees and management together. Employee selection also shifted by acknowledging that “skills can be taught but attitude and strengths can’t” (Lewis, 2015; p. 336). This note on employee selection underscores that Positive Psychology does not always mean blind optimism—assuming anyone can do anything—but rather finding the strengths you need and providing a nurturing environment for flourishing.
A recent meta-analysis of positive psychology interventions in the workplace found small beneficial increases in positive workplace outcomes, and small-to-moderate decreases in negative workplace outcomes (Donaldson et al., 2019). While supporting the effectiveness of the approach in general, the smaller effects may indicate limited effectiveness of POP or that focused interventions are only a small piece of the puzzle for an approach that is fairly holistic by its very nature. An earlier review of positive interventions in organizations also reported that the results were “promising” (Meyers et al., 2013), noting that there were benefits to well-being, performance, stress, and burnout, as well as smaller benefits to anxiety and depression for employees. Both reviews agreed that positive approaches were more beneficial to well-being measures than performance, suggesting that benefits to employees are more direct while benefits to performance are probably indirect and depend on a number of other factors.
Positive Organizational Behavior
Positive Organizational Behavior (POB) has been defined as “the study and application of positively oriented human resource strengths and psychological capacities that can be measured, developed, and effectively managed for performance improvement in today’s workplace” (Luthans, 2002). It’s differentiated from other POP sub-areas as a scientific psychology that is uniquely concerned with the link between psychological capacities and organizational performance (Donaldson et al., 2019).
While some use POB as synonymous with POP, others maintain that POB is different, in part because of its attention to constructs that can be measured and developed as levers acting on performance. POB has also been described as “the scientific study of positive subjective experiences and traits in the workplace and positive organizations, and its application to improve the effectiveness and quality of life in organizations” (Donaldson & Ko, 2010).
POB often applies concepts like strengths theory in an inductive fashion from the individual level to organizational and systems levels. Some common positive psychology concepts found in POB include hope, optimism, resilience, positive efficacy, and organizational citizenship behavior in the workplace, which researchers expect will drive performance. Luthans et al. (2007) proposed the following POB-inclusion criteria for constructs:
(a) grounded in theory and research
(b) valid measurement
(c) relatively unique to the field of organizational behavior
(d) state-like and hence open to development and change as opposed to a fixed trait
(e) have a positive impact on work-related individual-level performance and satisfaction
Underpinning POB, in part, is the importance of cultivating positive emotions in the workplace (Luthans & Youssef, 2007). According to Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2018), positive emotions broaden people’s thought-action repertoires and build their enduring personal resources, which can enhance creativity, problem-solving, and social relationships. In addition, POB emphasizes the importance of identifying and utilizing employee strengths, as well as promoting the development of virtues such as gratitude, compassion, and resilience, which then in turn benefit the organization from the bottom up.
Research applying POB in organizations has found a number of likely benefits for individuals and organizations, including higher job satisfaction, increased engagement, reduced stress, and improved performance. For example, employees who received training in positive psychology interventions tend to experience improved job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and performance (Luthans & Youssef; 2007). By cultivating positive psychological states and behaviors, organizations may be able to improve employee well-being, engagement, and performance.
Positive Organizational Scholarship
Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) is strongly connected to scholarship and a scientific approach within positive organizational psychology. It requires terms to be defined carefully, “a rationale for prescriptions and recommendations, consistency with scientific procedures in drawing conclusions, and grounding in previous related work”(Cameron & Dutton, 2003). Compared to POB, POS is less directed at performance and more concerned with a broader understanding and discovery of organization-level factors and contexts for positive organizations (Donaldson & Ko, 2010). In other words, POS is centered around conceptual frameworks at the macro level (Luthans & Youssef, 2007). One feature that distinguishes POS is how it uses a broad array of quantitative and qualitative research methodologies that can uncover relevant concepts and explanations.
Those using a POS framework tend to apply scientific psychology in organizations in a top-down way, targeting organizational features and practices that positively impact employees, teams, and organizational culture. Donaldson & Ko clarified:“the basic idea of POS is that understanding the drivers of positive behavior in the workplace would enable organizations to rise to new levels of achievement” POS is “concerned with the positive aspects of the organizational context”. They also point to common POS topics: “strength, resilience, vitality, trust, organizational virtuousness, positive deviance, extraordinariness, and meaning” (Donaldson & Ko, 2010; p. 179).
An example of work in POS is research on the idea of virtuousness in organizations (Positive Organizational Virtuousness; POV). This is the idea that organizations with strong and apparent virtues inspire flourishing in employees through meaning, intrinsic motivation to do what is right, and positive emotion (Meyer, 2018). Meyer stated that “‘human impact’, ‘moral goodness’, and ‘social betterment’ are the key attributes of organizational virtuousness” (p. 3). The power of virtue is easy to imagine, however it is also very difficult to determine what is virtuous and to ensure that chosen virtues are compatible with employees. This is why a scientific psychology with varied methodologies, like POS, is often seen as the way forward to understand how and when virtue has positive impacts.
The unique contribution thus far of POS to POP overall is going beyond individual psychological variables and exploring positive organizational phenomena (Cameron & Caza, 2004). Much of this progress has been conceptual and definitional, but is also beginning to move into empirical research. Emerging studies demonstrating the efficacy of POS have found that the ratio of positive to negative communications can differentiate between high, medium, and low team performance, and that more virtuous organizations are also more profitable and have higher customer retention (Cameron & Caza, 2004). Another specific example of POS in practice is the finding that the current view of loyalty and commitment are inadequate to explain intentions to leave an organization in some segments of the tech workforce (Pittinsky & Shih, 2004). Evidence that dynamic capabilities (collections of routines that enable organizations to respond to changing environments) within a company can be expanded through positive organizational phenomena (e.g. humanistic work ideology) has also supported the idea that these processes may indirectly bolster performance and competitive advantage (Eisenhardt & Martin, 2000; Wooten & Crane, 2004).
POS has not been embraced as readily as performance-driven psychological areas of inquiry, and is often viewed skeptically for a variety of reasons:
POS topics have sometimes been associated with non-scholarly prescriptions or uncritical ecumenicalism. They have been accused of being akin to disguised Sunday school prescriptions or grandparents’ advice . . . hope and optimism, for example, have been interpreted as wishful thinking or naiveté . . . altruism and prosocial behavior have been dismissed as disguised and sophisticated motives for selfish acts . . . virtuousness has been rejected as saccharine, anti-intellectual, or morally dogmatic (Cameron & Caza, 2004).
To summarize these overlapping conceptions/areas of POP, the example of job satisfaction can be seen through each lens: What are the determinants and outcomes of employee job satisfaction (POP)? Is satisfaction malleable at the individual level toward more satisfied and productive employees (POB)? What features of the workplace and organization tend to create optimally satisfied employees (POS)? Once again it is important to stress that these are illustrative and not rigid classifications. Most if not all topics relevant to Positive Psychology in organizational settings could be categorized into any of or all three of the conceptualizations of POP, though it may be helpful to understand the differences implied when the labels are used.
Employee Thriving & Flourishing
Positive Psychology has its roots in humanistic psychology (Derakhshan, 2022), and the most prolific areas of research reflect this, as they are both focused on individual flourishing. Stemming from clinical psychology, the humanistic approach assumes that people will reach their full potential if barriers in the way are removed and what is missing in terms of resources and support, are provided. In addition, each person is seen as having the capacity to influence their own well-being through personal development.
In the workplace, employees who are thriving either feel that their current experiences and behaviors at work are intrinsically motivating and supportive of self‐development and personal growth (Kleine et al., 2019), or they have “a mutual connection of learning and vitality in the workplace” (Imran et al., 2020). Flourishing is broader and represents not just doing well at work, but doing well as a person at work (and in life) by meeting psychological needs through meaning, purpose, self-esteem, respect, and optimism (Imran et al., 2020; Ho & Chan, 2022).
Several positive organizational practices tend to create flourishing: caring, compassionate support, forgiveness, inspiration, meaning, respect, integrity, gratitude (Cameron et al., 2011; Redelinghuys et al., 2019). These then create positive affect, positive behaviors, commitment, trust, and engagement,; and, as a result, ultimately performance increases.
Thriving at work was found to be moderately to strongly associated with positive outcomes (task performance, job satisfaction, subjective health, burnout) in a meta-analytic study. However, thriving provided only a small incremental increase in predictive validity over the combination of positive affect and engagement (Kleine et al., 2019). This again suggests that positive psychology is fruitful, but as part of an overall strategy to identify and remedy all barriers and deficits limiting flourishing, unlocking overall potential when each factor is working in concert.
Psychological resilience is commonly defined as the capacity to cope with and recover from difficult emotional and stressful situations. At work, psychological resilience has been linked to a number of benefits, both for employees and firms. Authors have explored this concept in a number of different ways, but most research on resilience can be split into three levels—individual resilience, team resilience, and organizational resilience—as well as multilevel resilience, which explores resilience across all three dimensions (Raetze et al., 2021).
At the individual level, resilience has been conceptualized in the past as an individual trait, while in recent years it has been defined as an adaptive process in response to adversity (Britt et al., 2016; Fisher et al., 2019; Windle, 2011). Antecedents of individual resilience include personality traits; positive attitudes and emotions (which is supported by the broaden-and-build theory); contextual factors such as positive relationships; and transformational leadership dimensions, to name a few (Raetze et al., 2021). Studies have shown that individual-level resilience is associated with lower levels of burnout, anxiety, depression, and stress, as well as better physical well-being—though results are sometimes inconsistent (Raetze et al., 2021).
Similar to individual-level resilience, team-level resilience has been characterized in a number of ways, including as an ability, a shared belief, a process, and an outcome. Though it is most often conceptualized as a collective property “which emerges through team member interaction over time” (Raetze et al., 2021). Some predictors of team resilience include team diversity (Gomes et al., 2014), team size (inversely related), team resources and processes, collective positive emotions (Morgan et al., 2015), and collective efficacy (Vera et al., 2017). There is also evidence of leaders as enablers of team resilience through positive leadership styles and the development of a positive team culture (Alliger et al., 2015; Karlsen & Berg, 2020). Research on the outcomes of team-level resilience are limited, though some studies have linked it to better team performance as well as positive team attitudes and behaviors (Meneghel et al., 2016; West, 2009).
The broadest level of resilience—organizational-level resilience—refers to an organization’s ability to withstand things like adversity, change and unexpected events. It is often described as a capability that can be developed through processes and anticipation. Financial and material resources, as well as structural flexibility, human resources, and high-quality relationships have all been linked to organizational resilience (Raetze et al., 2021). In terms of organizational practices, robust strategic planning (Demmer et al., 2011), change management (Ates & Bititci, 2011), and scenario planning (Hillmann et al., 2018) have been studied and linked to organizational resilience. Research on the outcomes of organizational-level resilience is rare due to its common treatment as an outcome variable. In this vein, research shows that focusing on operational resilience (the capability of managers to exploit the given resources to maintain functions and recover from adversity), and strategic resilience (the dynamic capability of managers to explore opportunities and threats to prepare the company strategically to ensure long term sustainability), throughout an organization helps to build organizational resilience (Colberg, 2022).
Resilience can only exist and be measured when there is adversity to which positive adaptation is possible. So while it is believed that resilience can be strengthened through preparation, resilience always involves an element of time and progression of events. People, groups, and organizations build resilience over time through experience, and may do this most successfully when attention is given to the positive rather than only the negative.
Gratitude in the workplace is the incidental expression of appreciation and thankfulness for one’s job or the actions of coworkers. Gratitude has been defined at three levels: a) Episodic gratitude is “a feeling of appreciation in response to an experience that is beneficial to, but not attributable to, the self”; b) Persistent gratitude is “a stable tendency to feel grateful within a particular context”; c) Collective gratitude is “persistent gratitude that is shared by the members of an organization” (Fehr et al., 2017, p. 363-364). Gratitude can be evident through behaviors such as thanking colleagues for their contributions, expressing gratitude for work-related opportunities, or recognizing and acknowledging the efforts of others. Gratitude can also be cultivated through interventions that typically fit into one of three types: lists, contemplation, and behavior (Wood et al., 2008).
Studies have shown that gratitude in the workplace can lead to increased job satisfaction (Emmons & McCullough, 2003), greater feelings of social support (Wood et al., 2008), and improved relationships with colleagues and supervisors (Gordon et al., 2012). Furthermore, gratitude has been linked to reduced stress and burnout (Sansone & Sansone, 2010) and sustained motivation and performance (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2007).
Emmons and McCullough (2003) found that participants who practiced gratitude by keeping a daily gratitude journal reported higher levels of subjective well-being compared to those who recorded daily hassles or neutral events. Gordon et al. (2012) similarly found that expressing gratitude to one’s partner increased relationship satisfaction and strengthened the bond between partners. In the workplace, expressing gratitude can also have positive effects on work relationships and job performance. Relational energy (energy derived from relational experiences) may benefit from gratitude. Relational energy is associated with greater engagement and performance (Tang et al., 2022; Owens et al.; 2016).
Gratitude can also motivate prosocial behavior and promote positive work cultures (van Kleef & Lelieveld, 2022). When a leader expresses gratitude to their team, team members are more likely to engage in prosocial behavior and help others in the workplace. This can lead to a cycle of gratitude and kindness that fosters a positive work environment. Sansone and Sansone (2010) noted that gratitude can improve employee morale, reduce stress levels, and enhance overall well-being.
By creating a culture of gratitude and thankfulness, organizations can promote positive work environments that support employee engagement and productivity. When there is toxicity in the workplace, gratitude can buffer the negative effects of the toxic experiences (Sarkar et al., 2023). Gratitude is hypothesized to build capacity to deal with negative events as well as bolster the psychological resources people use to respond to toxicity.
One of the challenges of cultivating gratitude in the workplace is that it may be difficult to implement and sustain gratitude practices over time. However, research has identified several strategies that can be effective in fostering a culture of gratitude, such as expressing gratitude to employees (Owens et al., 2016), encouraging employees to express gratitude to one another (van Kleef & Lelieveld, 2022), and providing opportunities for employees to give back to the community (Lyubomirsky et al., 2011).
Psychological capital is a resource caravan consisting of self-efficacy, optimism, hope, and resilience (Luthans et al. 2007; Youssef & Luthans 2012; Ho & Chan, 2022). It’s linked to many positive outcomes, such as increased psychosocial functioning, life satisfaction, job performance, and thriving at work (Ho & Chan, 2022; Okros & Virga, 2022). Psychological capital could be the underlying mechanism through which positive organizational support influences employee flourishing (Kurtessis et al., 2015). Fostering it benefits employees personally and the organization as a whole. Of course, these outcomes are not entirely independent of each other, but actually interact with and influence one another often.
The personal benefits that fostering psychological capital brings to employees include direct benefits to flourishing, all dimensions of PERMA (Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments), and the building blocks of well-being (Ho & Chan, 2022). It has also been found to be strongly related to increased life satisfaction, decreased burnout (Okros & Virga, 2022), and associated with increased vitality at work (Basinska & Rozkwitalska, 2020). A focus on building psychological capital in the workplace can help to foster employee well-being and happiness, which can in turn result in many benefits for an organization as a whole.
In organizations, psychological capital has been shown to build task mastery, lower absenteeism and intention to leave, as well as improve leadership and learning (Basinska & Rozkwitalska, 2020; Avey et al. 2010; Paek et al. 2015; Rego et al. 2012). Therefore, by promoting psychological capital in the workplace, organizations can expect to see improvements in employee performance and engagement, and therefore a better functioning business. Psychological capital might also foster learning in intercultural interactions, improving cultural intelligence and decreasing ethnocentrism (Basinska & Rozkwitalska, 2020). These effects are crucial to organizations across the world, as globalization increases and, in turn, workplaces become more diverse than ever before.
Organizations that proactively foster psychological capital tend to implement practices that “value the contributions of employees, acknowledge their accomplishments, recognize their personal goals and values, […] provide assistance in times of need, show concern for their well-being, and foster a sense of belonging at work” (Ho & Chan, 2022).
Meaning, Identity, and Engagement at Work
Engagement at work is an important outcome, and from a positive psychology perspective, it is achieved not only through incentives or control but also meaning and identity. Engagement is strongly correlated with meaningful work (Allan et al., 2019) and is targeted as a critical variable because it is an essential precursor to other important outcomes, such as job satisfaction, commitment, and organizational citizenship behavior (Whittington et al., 2017).
There is emerging evidence that positive meaning (i.e., adds meaning and purpose to life) has a unique link to maintaining engagement (Winton et al., 2022). Meaning in one’s work is thought to come from four domains (Wrzesniewski et al., 2013): self (values, motivations, beliefs); others (caring, relationships, connectedness); context (mission, culture, circumstances); and spirituality (religion, ideals, calling). Other researchers investigating meaning in life, not limited to just work, posit four different aspects of meaning: Significance, Orientation, Sense of Coherence, Community (Schnell, 2009; von Devivere, 2018). Schnell further reported that meaning in life is related to only positive indicators of well-being (mood satisfaction), and not negative ones (anxiety, depression, negative thinking). However, experiencing a crisis of meaning does predict negative well-being. This indicates why meaning-making at work may be viewed within the domain of positive psychology. It is unlikely to solve the problem of negative well-being, but it is likely to enhance positive well-being and flourishing.
Identity can manifest at individual, interpersonal (groups, teams), and collective (organization, profession) levels (Miscenko & Day, 2016). Identity can further be described by what it is currently composed of (static) or by how it can and does change over time (dynamic). People tend to have multiple sub-identities at work, based on multiple job roles, or how each individual’s personality and strengths manifest. We derive identity at work to some extent from our job role and nature of our daily tasks, but it is also affected by our social context and the organization we work in, and can be modified intentionally over time through what is often called “identity work” (Miscenko & Day, 2016).
When work is lacking adequate benefits to meaning and identity, this can often lead to job crafting (Wang et al., 2021). This reaction is one of the most positive, given that the other responses include loafing at work or leaving the organization to find a more meaningful job. Or of course one can change their identity by thinking about work differently.
According to the perspective offered by Social Identity Theory (Scheepers & Ellemers, 2019), group membership forms a significant part of individual identity development. What we feel it means to belong to an organization matters. If an employer has a positive reputation, and as insiders employees witness the organization doing good work, this would result in a positive addition to identity. And of course, negative views of workplaces also threatens the individual identity of its members.
Identifying with a group leads to greater engagement manifested through intrinsic motivation, higher effort, more information sharing, and also better performance outputs from the group (Mattila, 2023; Van Dick, 2001). These benefits are more likely to be realized when the salience of group membership — that is high levels of awareness of the group’s purpose and value — is high. Group identity leads to engagement when the group has a clear purpose, a common identity, and a shared commitment to that identity. The identity of the group can be strengthened through activities that develop positive group norms, and which members can engage in to reinforce their identity with the group. An example of this is when a group member is praised for a good performance.
Positive psychology gives particular attention to the more malleable or additive elements of identity. For example, organizational identification can be changed by the actions of the company as a whole and how these actions are discussed and understood. Identity and meaning can combine powerfully to change how one thinks about work, making engaging in work easier and more satisfying. Leaders and organizations can imbue work with meaning that changes identification with the work. As an example, factory work can be tied to the benefits of the products being made. A fulfillment company may be supporting small businesses and their families, and this could include customers who are unable to create their own products due to a disability. Or maybe the products make people healthier or their lives easier. Giving attention to these positive features of the job can easily change what it means to do the work and be identified as a part of the process.
By the broadest definition, job crafting includes “any changes an individual makes related to the task and/or relational boundaries of the job” (Lazzazara, Tims & De Gennaro, 2020). The motivation for engaging in these changes can be proactive—improving person-job fit, increasing meaningfulness of work, or enhancing one’s self image/identity. These proactive motives are best aligned with positive psychology. Other proactive motivations include seeking connection with others, or fulfilling a calling that one has toward a particular job or career path. Reactive motives are also known to spark job crafting, such as feeling threatened by a competitive environment, perceptions of one’s self or their job as low status, or stresses of completing required tasks. Some believe that reactive changes aren’t job crafting, and that only the more positive, agentic, and proactive changes to the job truly count as crafting (Wrzesniewski et al., 2013), thus also placing job crafting more squarely inside the domain of positive psychology.
A positive psychological lens on job crafting would suggest a preference for more proactive (anticipating, optimizing, and actively monitoring) than reactive (responding after failures or negative experiences) job crafting. A positive psychology perspective on job crafting would also suggest a preference for nurturing approach crafting (seeking additional learning and challenges) vs avoidance (moving away from stress and demands) crafting. Approach crafting tends to be more successful (Lazzazara, Tims & De Gennaro, 2020). Creating a work environment with a supportive organizational culture, robust social support, and room for experimentation can encourage more proactive and approach crafting of jobs. One of the most powerful aspects of approach crafting is that it encourages people to work together to find ways to improve their jobs and work environments, which also has a variety of positive psychological effects. Approach crafting can be promoted through leadership that prioritizes employee well-being, development of employees, and fostering a supportive organizational culture. It can also be promoted through employee training and development programs, which can help employees see how they can contribute to the organization and improve their own jobs.
Job crafting takes place in both the tangible and intangible aspects of the job. Boundaries of a job may exist largely in the mind of the job holder, such as expectations around time, emotions, and relationships (Wrzesniewski et al., 2013). Consequently the barriers may also be perceived incorrectly, or change without any modification of the actual tasks or job description. Crafting is thought to occur in three domains—task (physical and temporal aspects of the work itself); relational (interacting with others to complete tasks or based on preference); and cognitive (the meaning and purpose of the work/job). While each domain of crafting can be explored separately, it is important to recognize that crafting is an interaction between the three domains.
One popular conceptualization of job crafting combines the general idea of job crafting with the Job-Demands Resources (JD-R) model. This results in a view of job crafting as an employee modifying the demands and resources of a job to better align with their unique characteristics, with the goal of improving their perceived well-being and performance (Tims et al., 2012; Tims & Bakker, 2010). Job crafting in this way is associated with reduced job stress/strain, and when the crafting leads to greater structural job resources combined with increased challenging demands, both stress and turnover intentions may improve (Petrou et al., 2017). And, in general, decreasing hindering demands protects employee health from excessive demands and is associated with less turnover (Demerouti, 2014; Rudolph et al., 2017). So it may be that hindering demands increase turnover unless mitigated or paired with other positive changes that make the job more satisfying overall.
Under normal circumstances, it can be expected that certain individual differences in personality and temperament will predict how much an employee will engage in job crafting (e.g. more proactive, higher self efficacy; Rudolph et al., 2017). Women job craft more than men, as do the more educated and more senior employees compared to younger and less educated ones. For these reasons, organizational efforts to promote crafting may be needed to extend the benefits to more individuals.
Rudolph and colleagues (Rudolph et al., 2017) discussed unexpected findings in their recent meta-analysis—those with the highest workloads tended to seek additional challenges, and that those with high autonomy in their work take fewer actions to decrease hindering demands. However, positive psychology would not frame these as contradictory, but rather a sign of higher engagement, efficacy, and strengths. The authors of the meta-analysis noted that when employees focus on decreasing hindering demands, it can be a sign of withdrawal (less engagement), which is consistent with the idea that crafting for greater difficulty is not necessarily worrying.
Further evidence for the importance of positive psychology in job crafting was found in results from another meta-analysis of job crafting outcomes. This one concluded that promotion-focused job crafting (e.g., increasing job resources) has a positive relationship with performance and engagement, while prevention-focused job crafting (e.g., decreasing hindering job demands) has a negative relationship with performance and a positive relationship with burnout (Lichtenthaler & Fischbach, 2019). Further the promotion-engagement and prevention-burnout relationships were reciprocal. Being more engaged is related to more promotion-focused job crafting, and being more burnt out was related to more prevention-focused job crafting. Where an employee currently is (in terms of engagement and burnout) may impact the type of crafting they do, and there is potential for either upward or downward spirals.
There are also benefits to employees that may be even more powerful than those mentioned above, namely improvements to well-being, meaningful work, and the identity of the employee (Berg et al., 2010; Tims et al., 2013; Wrzesniewski et al., 2013). Job crafting can increase the feeling that the work one does is inherently valued and constructive, altering their perspective and behavior. This can occur by creating new meaning, or increasing the meaningfulness of what was already valued. The same effect could conceivably be achieved by increasing the social connectedness of the work: social support of the work, social feedback on the work, or both.
When one’s occupational role is highly salient (i.e., important to their self-definition and personal satisfaction), job crafting can lead to finding greater meaning in work and life (Petrou et al, 2016). While the exact mechanisms are still a topic of much research and debate, they likely include the creation of more intrinsically motivating work tasks, desirable and personally meaningful activities, reflection on values and life goals, and presence/awareness of work and its consequences. When occupational role salience or opportunities for job crafting are low, leisure crafting (“proactive pursuit of leisure activities targeted at goal setting, human connection, learning, and personal development”; Petrou et al., 2016) can still provide the same benefits to the individual. Meaningfulness has been reported as being more important than other aspects of work including pay, promotion, and working conditions (von Devivere, 2018). Meaningful work is related to greater performance, well-being, commitment, satisfaction, as well as reduced hostility and absenteeism. Meaningfulness is also an important pathway through which job crafting can ultimately increase engagement, in particular for cognitive job crafting (Letona-Ibañez et al., 2021). Specific attention to attributing and cultivating more meaning will likely lead to greater engagement gains due to job crafting.
Job crafting can enhance the meaningfulness of work in different pathways. Crafting can align the job with an employee’s existing identity, help them to aspire to new or improved elements of identity, or it can simply happen by accident when one notices and appreciates meaning in the normal course of work and then continues to seek that meaning more in the future. This may include gender-relevant identity such as when women in a male-dominated field craft their job to match their identity with awareness of unique challenges and stereotypes they and other women face (Yu & Jyawali, 2021).
One’s personal, professional, or organizational identity can also be shaped by job crafting, when the job furthers their perception (self and others) toward being more esteemed and virtuous. Some may also benefit from job changes that enhance their identity as more progressive (changing and improving) and/or complementary to (i.e., increases compatibility with) their non-work social identities (Wrzesniewski et al., 2013).
When unique opportunities, such as temporary job roles inside an organization, are available, significant exploration and trial of identities can take place (Rogiers et al., 2021). This broadens an employee’s job title and role identities, such as trialing a leadership position, becoming a problem solver despite being in a typically regimented job role, or something else that is not a part of their primary role.
Within the realm of job crafting, a positive psychological perspective would likely mean being more optimistic, demonstrating approach over avoidance, giving employees more room to craft, and focusing on positive elements (e.g., promotion)—and likely better outcomes than a more problem and prevention perspective. Consistent with broaden-and-build theory (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2018), positively-focused job crafting may lead to seeing new opportunities and flourishing in a job with meaning and autonomy, while job crafting with a negative or reactive focus (if it should be called job crafting at all) may actually lead to an employee withdrawing into avoidance of responsibilities and missed opportunities.
Positive Organizational Psychology of Leadership & Teams
Positive Teamwork & Co-worker Relations
Teamwork and co-worker relations play an integral role to business success. From day-to-day interactions between employees in the office, to cross-functional projects in which employees must collaborate outside of their typical circle, teamwork is always at play in a business. Understanding the dynamics of teamwork and co-worker relations is fundamental to the success of any organization. As defined by Mathieu et al. (2017), teamwork is “the integration of individuals’ efforts toward the accomplishment of a shared goal.”
The composition of a team is crucial to its success. Team composition shapes the ABCs of teamwork—Affective states, Behavioral processes, and Cognitive states—all of which influence team performance (Bell et al., 2018; Salas, Cooke, & Rosen, 2008). Teams should be carefully put together in order to ensure that team members have complementary knowledge and skills so that their efforts can be effectively integrated with one another. There are also certain individual traits that are conducive to successful teamwork, including conscientiousness, sociability, and high cognitive ability. Also, somewhat intuitively, it has been shown that team members who value teamwork are more likely to be cooperative and confident.
In related work, Mathieu et al. (2018) described four kinds of team composition models found in the literature—personnel-position fit models, personnel models with teamwork considerations, team profile models, and relative contribution models. Each of these types of models have a unique point of emphasis on which the composition of a team focuses—each with its own strengths and weaknesses. With the ABCs of teamwork and the different kinds of team composition models in mind, it is important that special attention is paid to the composition of teams—that each team member properly complements one another—so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
When it comes to describing team processes, one frequently cited and widely accepted model comes from Marks and colleagues (2001), which views specific teamwork dimensions as parts of three separate temporal phases.
- Action phase processes encompass those activities that take place during goal-directed activity.
- Transition phase processes take place between action phases and includes activities such as planning and evaluating task performance strategies.
- Interpersonal processes are everything that goes into managing interpersonal relationships and occur simultaneously to the previous two phases.
Each of these phases consist of several teamwork dimensions, such as coordination and team-monitoring during the action phase, goal specification and strategy formulation during the transition phase, and conflict management during the interpersonal processes. This model sheds light on team processes and team dynamics, and may help to better understand how a team functions in order to identify problems or opportunities wherever teamwork is happening.
Team emotions also matter. They influence a team’s attitude, behavior, and productivity (Xie et al., 2022). A positive example of emotion is entrepreneurial passion (de Mol et al., 2019). While entrepreneurial passion is a positive element in general that drives performance, differences in passion between team members may lead to lower performance, as a result of conflicting emotions and identities. Another way to say this is that the passion of some may be hindered by the lack of passion in others on the same team.
A positive approach to teams may result in seeking teams that are not just functional but could be considered “dream teams” (J. Mills et al., 2013). This means applying a host of practices—such as supportive leadership, diversity, trust, role clarity, continuous learning, and advancement opportunities—that tend to create positive work teams that have upward spirals of engagement, satisfaction, optimism, resilience, social capital, and positive team-member relationships. Mills et al. also wrote that High-quality connections (HQCs) may be an important part of positive teamwork. These connections are a “specific form of positive work relationships that involve mutual positive regard and are characterized by high emotional carrying capacity (e.g. ability to handle both positive and negative emotions)” (J. Mills et al., 2013; p. 158), essentially a combination of trust, positive emotions, and adequate psychological capital.
Building resilience in teams can be one way to positively inoculate against future adversity in teams (Degbey & Einola, 2020). Specifically this study on virtual teams found teams that anticipate adversity, participate in resilience-building activities, identify and discuss problems early, and take time to make sense of their experiences tend to be more resilient over time, potentially leading to sustained high performance.
To some extent, the positive psychology of teams can be measured and developed much in the same way you would for an individual. Positive organizational behavior (POB) capacities such as hope, optimism, resilience, and self-efficacy are appropriate for assessment and intervention at the team level (Donaldson et al., 2019; Luthans, 2002). Resilience at the team level is not the same as a team of people with individual resilience (Alliger et al., 2015). Quality communication, shared mental models about work, and willingness to cooperate are necessary for a resilient team.
For example, when stress and workload are high, this might mean effectively monitoring and backing up teammates where needed. Highly resilient individuals may be used to taking on their own burdens, but this could also lead to a less resilient team if the team doesn’t work in concert. Alliger and colleagues described what a culture that supports team resilience looks like :
- Speak up, ask questions, and openly share bad news and early signs of potential problems; Maintain composure during ‘‘emergencies;’’
- Defer to expertise, not just rank or seniority;
- Keep an eye on one another and offer support before (to minimize), during (to manage), and after (to mend) a challenge;
- Vocalize the need to switch to/from normal and emergency modes;
- Thank people for helping out and discussing challenges.
Within such a culture, teams typically implement behaviors of minimizing (anticipating, reducing challenges), managing (successfully navigating and enduring a challenge), and mending (recovering, learning, adapting after the challenge) to thrive during times of stress and prepare to better face future challenges.
All of this could take the form of engaging a leader’s signature strengths to cultivate positive meaning, positive emotions, and positive relations (Emil Berg & Terje Karlsen, 2014). For example, a manager with strengths in caring and acting as a role model can leverage this into greater self-efficacy of team members, or another manager whose strength is collaboration may help teams achieve flow in their work together.
Positive leadership has been as difficult to define as many other concepts in psychology, leading Malinga and colleagues to review many definitions and propose that it is:
characterised by the demonstration of leadership traits such as optimism and a ‘can-do’ mind-set, altruism, an ethical orientation, and motivational characteristics, as well as leadership behaviours that entail the creation of a positive working environment, the development of positive relationships, a focus on results, and positive communication with employees. These traits and behaviours in turn result in positive leadership outcomes such as enhanced overall productivity and performance levels, improved organisational citizenship behaviour, and enhanced employee well-being (Malinga et al., 2019).
Further, Malinga et al. identify many leadership styles that contribute to positive leadership: transformational, ethical, servant, empowering, authentic, and strengths-based. Positive leadership is correlated with increased organizational citizenship behavior, though this effect decreases as power distance increases (Al, 2021). Consistent with positive psychology principles and self-determination theory, this effect on citizenship behavior appears to result from growth or flourishing inside the employee.
Mindful leadership is one example of positive leadership (Giraud et al., 2022). It focuses on internal experiences, apprehending urgent tasks, increasing cooperation and agility in decision-making processes, and promoting a positive and collective response. In their study of a leadership training intervention based in mindfulness, results showed those working with the managers were feeling more confident about handling personal problems, better able to control their tempers, and perceived their manager to have greater mindfulness and collective awareness.
Organizations can help foster positive leadership by developing a positive workplace culture, providing opportunities for employees to develop their strengths and talents, and training leadership to use more positive approaches.
Strengths-based leadership is rooted in the idea that managers should abandon the long-held belief that training up weaknesses will allow anyone to do anything, and instead focus on having an individual’s strengths overshadow any weaknesses (Burkus, 2011). Strengths within a person are seen as enduring and powerful, a source of unique capabilities and suitability for particular forms of work. Strengths-based leadership might mean building well-rounded teams by selecting a group of employees’ whose strengths combined cover the necessary skills and abilities for success as a unit. Burkus also suggests that strength-based leadership may prevent the problem known as the Peter Principle, wherein employees rise within an organization to the level of their incompetence, because promotions are not based on their strengths.
There is evidence that strengths-based leadership improves performance, engagement, turnover, and employee optimism (Burkus, 2011). A survey of 10,000 followers (those reporting to a leader at work) reported an eightfold greater level of engagement for organizations practicing strengths-based leadership (73%) compared to those that do not (9%) have strengths based practices (Rath & Conchie, 2008).
Authentic leadership emphasizes the leader’s genuine and transparent personality, values, and beliefs. This approach to leadership considers being self-aware, communicating effectively, and remaining true to oneself important in building trust and inspiring followership. According to Walumbwa and colleagues (2008), authentic leadership involves promoting positive psychological capacities, ethical behavior, and relational transparency.
Research suggests that emotional intelligence dis a key component of effective authentic leadership (Duncan et al., 2017). Authentic leadership involves being true to oneself, one’s values, and one’s vision, and requires leaders to build trust, communicate effectively, and inspire others to follow their example (Côté & Miners, 2006; Gardner et al., 2005; Dinh et al., 2014). Leaders who are emotionally intelligent are more likely to be perceived as authentic by their followers (Gardner et al., 2005). However, emotional intelligence alone is not sufficient for authentic leadership, as authentic leaders must also have a clear vision, moral integrity, and a strong sense of purpose that guides them.
Authentic leadership is positively related to job satisfaction and organizational commitment, and this relationship is partially mediated by psychological empowerment (Dinh et al., 2014). Emotional intelligence also partially mediates the relationship between authentic leadership and psychological empowerment, confirming that emotional intelligence plays a key role in the development of authentic leadership.
Transformational leadership may be the style most aligned with positive psychology principles because it aims to inspire and motivate followers to achieve a common goal by focusing on their strengths and personal growth (Malinga et al., 2019). Transformational leadership is based on four components (Bluhm et al., 2021):
- Idealized influence is the leader’s ability to act as a role model and inspire followers to emulate their behavior.
- Inspirational motivation is the leader’s ability to articulate a clear vision and motivate followers to work towards it.
- Intellectual stimulation involves challenging followers to think creatively and outside the box
- Individualized consideration involves taking a personalized approach to each follower’s needs.
Transformational leadership is also closely linked to positive psychology because it focuses on creating a positive work environment (Bluhm et al., 2021). This is consistent with positive psychology and its goals of understanding and promoting well-being, happiness, and positive emotions (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
Transformational leadership is positively associated with a range of positive outcomes including job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and employee well-being (Bass & Riggio, 2006). By inspiring and empowering followers, transformational leaders create a positive work environment that fosters personal growth, job satisfaction, and a sense of purpose and meaning (Eisenbeiss, Knippenberg, & Boerner, 2008).
Positive Organizational Psychology at the Systems Level
Positive Organizational Culture
The most familiar systems-level organizational consideration is culture (also known as “organizational climate”). Positive organizational cultures are those where the norms and values one experiences inside an organization tend to support positive psychology practices. To some extent this culture is composed of the topics already discussed — positive leadership, resilience, psychological capital, and so on. However, culture is also a “psychological atmosphere” (Michalak, 2019) resulting from expectations, observations, and the tendency of people to mimic the behavior of others. Within an organization there could be all the right training, policies, and leadership, while it still harbors elements of a culture that contravenes those factors. Distrust and excessive competitiveness among employees could exist as a cultural norm that employees learn simply by watching others, then perpetuating the problems (e.g. lack of information sharing) by acting the same way. Because culture permeates, a strong culture is thought to improve an organization through behavioral consistency, rather than the need to address every behavior individually (Ramlall, 2008).
Assessing culture is the first step to determining what informal perceptions are at play. Then, after measuring the current state of things in terms of culture, creating a positive culture means interventions to improve factors such as trust, support, and others. Positive cultures tend to support employee development and flourishing, employee satisfaction, intrinsic motivation, cooperation and sharing, openness, goal orientation, creativity, as well as rewarding employees vs. imposing negative consequences (Michalak, 2019; Parent & Lovelace, 2015; Ramlall, 2008). Cultures are also viewed as positive ones when there is more future orientation and less attention to the past.
While positive organizational culture/climate may be difficult to capture, researchers believe that the culture is a result of 6 factors (Michalak, 2019):
- Organizational clarity (goals, culture, structure, expectations, evaluation criteria)
- Reward system (compensation, recognition of both effort and results)
- Corporate standards (applying one’s own interests at work, progression, support, work-life balance, confidence in supervision)
- Flexibility (freedom to innovate and implement, lack of bureaucracy)
- Responsibility (autonomy in how to complete work, justified risk)
- Involvement in the team (engagement, pride in team, affection for members, solidarity, efficacy)
A positive culture can improve employees’ job and organizational engagement (Parent & Lovelace, 2018) and buffer against the negative effects of bad news (i.e. organizational resilience; Parent & Lovelace, 2015). Moreover, a positive culture in an organization is an important and pervasive element of a workplace that influences behavioral consistency, employee experiences, and organizational performance.
Systems informed positive psychology
Systems Informed Positive Psychology (SIPP) is positive psychology with the addition of systems thinking and principles (Kern et al., 2020). Consistent with the notion of a broadening third wave, SIPP encompasses greater interconnectedness and shared purpose, bringing in factors like multiple perspectives as well as political and ethical issues. SIPP is a proposed remedy for the perception that individual-focused efforts suffer from the psychologistic fallacy, which is the neglect of broad situational factors when there is too much focus on the psyche of individuals (van Woerkom, 2021).
In the area of employee stress prevention, systems-level interventions have been found to be more effective than those aimed at the individual level (Nebbs et al., 2023). This suggests that a positive psychology approach may best succeed by first creating a fertile space for flourishing, in which individual efforts are then likely to succeed due to the supportive and healthy context in which they occur (Bambra et al., 2009; Corbière et al., 2009; Nebbs et al., 2023). Similarly, systems-level interventions for job stress tend to benefit the organization and individual, whereas individual-focused job-stress efforts often help only individuals (Lamontagne et al., 2007).
Though there are not many SIPP interventions at this time, appreciative inquiry is one example of a systems-informed approach to organizational functioning. It is “a psychology-based approach that recognizes group diversity as a strength, emotional states as energizing, partial knowledge as a valuable contribution, dialogue as generative, and aspirations as motivating. It helps the group work together in a way that illuminates the roots of success, identifies areas of commonality, and creates shared aspirations for the future” (Lewis, 2015). Instead of focusing on leading causes of failures, it emphasizes finding and building on the strengths that underpin success. Going beyond social connectedness, which has always been apparent in Positive Psychology, SIPP assumes that the individual is inseparable from systems in which they exist.
The SIPP perspective may apply to even broader systems than the organization. It may be a useful tool to better understand corporate responsibility by looking at companies (and their ethical decisions) within the context of the larger social systems in which they operate (Chia & Kern, 2021). They may not be as independent as they initially seem, and because the broadened thinking is also accompanied by positivity, this means shifting from harm reduction to viewing systems of companies as sources of societal thriving.
Positive Organizational Ethics
Positive Organizational Ethics (POE; sometimes referred to as Positive Business Ethics) is “at the intersection of positive behavioral studies and business ethics” (Sekerka et al., 2014). POE takes the position that the traditional view of problem solving as a primary goal of organizations and executives is misguided. While problems have to be dealt with, this approach mostly aims to prevent damaging problems in advance. Application of POE leads to seeking that which would be praiseworthy or demonstrate excellence in ethics (Dietz & Kleinlogel, 2014). Like other areas of positive psychology, the positive view can lead to optimizing and maximizing ethical efforts, toward being not just ethical enough but rather paragons of ethical behavior.
However, principles and ethics must be tempered by performance concerns, resulting in the notion of principled performance:
Principled performance embraces an ethics of care, manifested by a firm’s self-directed concern for corporate citizenship, corporate social responsibility, and/or environmental sustainability. Driving the organization’s ethical character are decisions made by top management, which are then implemented by employees at every level. When ethics are based on governance to address legal mandates, organizational ethics programs are unlikely to be designed to promote, develop, or endorse a deep and abiding sense of moral responsibility (Sekerka, 2015).
Further guidance from Sekerka frames the central struggle of POE as promoting openness and discovery over closed and controlled thinking via moral strength. Balanced experiential inquiry (BEI) is suggested as a well-evidenced method of ethical development “to increase curiosity, decrease negative emotions, and bolster managers’ desire to proceed with moral action” (p. 353). If incorporated into daily organizational practices, the approach may improve leveraging strengths, transparent communication, moral awareness, self regulation, and ultimately moral action.
When organizations move from a compliance to excellence mindset, the notion of ethics expands from mere rules and duties to pursuing virtue. Yet even experts in POS still disagree somewhat on what it means to be virtuous (Meyer, 2018). Future research may uncover consistent virtues worth pursuing, or organizations may follow their own moral compass to answer these questions for now.
Contrary to more negative views of ethics where ethics are something to manage or integrate despite risks to organizational goals, proactively being ethical (e.g. empathy, moral courage) may have significant benefits to meaning and well-being for employees and other psychological effects that benefit the organization (Deeg & May, 2021). For example, POE in the form of management empathy may be protective against ethically questionable behaviors such as cutting wages (Dietz & Kleinlogel, 2014). This laboratory study found that manipulation was less effective in getting individuals to cut wages when empathy was higher. They also found that empathy had no effect on willingness to hold wages steady (vs. increasing them), hinting that the empathy protects the employees without risk of dysfunctional “give-it-away” behavior inside an organization.
Criticisms and Limitations of Positive Organizational Psychology
While there is considerable support for positive psychology, including in organizations, there are also criticisms and controversy apparent in the literature. Extensive coverage of critical views on positive psychology can be found in The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Positive Psychology (2017). The handbook covers the entire field of Positive Psychology but also highlights workplace-specific concerns. As examples, attempts at increasing happiness of employees could be used as an excuse to avoid addressing root causes and maltreatment, and strength-based approaches might lead to ignoring employees’ weaknesses that need to be addressed. The authors further explain that these criticisms are known to the field and that corrections/solutions are under development.
A review of criticisms by van Zyl et al. (2023) found that critics assert that positive psychology:
- lacked proper theorizing and conceptual thinking
- was problematic as far as measurement and methodologies were concerned
- was seen as a pseudoscience that lacked evidence and had poor replication
- lacked novelty and self-isolated itself from mainstream psychology
- was a decontextualized neo-liberalist ideology that caused harm
- was a capitalistic venture
Researchers Cameron and Caza also outlined broad reasons that positive psychology is sometimes neglected or rejected in organizational psychology. “Several reasons exist for the relative neglect of positive phenomena in organizational science. Among these are (a) the lack of valid and reliable measurement devices, (b) the association of positivity with uncritical science, and (c) the fact that negative events have greater impact on people than do positive events” (2004). Advocates of positive approaches may need to face these objections and challenge assumptions and mindsets in order to generate buy-in for positive psychology research and interventions.
Concerning positive leadership theories, the concepts underlying them have been criticized as “ill-defined, tautological, ideological and resist rigorous study” (Alvesson & Einola, 2019). Specifically focused on authentic leadership, but suggesting that other positive leadership theories are implicated, Alvesson and Einola wrote that “It is fine if people try to know themselves, have transparent relations, be consistent and the like, but this perspective is quite different from doing management of meaning, encouraging people to make an effort, be more creative, raise their spirit, try to make sure there are good results, and so forth” (p. 393). The criticism is centered around the idea that authenticity and similar concepts aren’t necessarily stable across situations, constructs are poorly defined, and research on the topic is lacking in rigor.
Additional criticism of positive psychology for prevention of posttraumatic stress disorder (Koch, 2019) has noted that traumatic events are difficult to prepare for because they are so difficult to predict and that personal development and growth may not be a good substitute for the prevention of traumatic events. In other words, the idea of bolstering someone with positive skills may be less effective than focusing on the problems in some cases, such as extreme events that can rise to the level of trauma. This could be a particularly important caveat, given the growing number of social and personal experiences that are being experienced as traumatic, such as maltreatment based on one’s demographics, identity, or lifestyle.
An additional source of controversy is whether Positive Psychology is (and should be) value laden. The most known voice in the field, Martin Seligman, believes that it can and should ideally be free of subjective values (proscriptive) and instead only be descriptive (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Others argue that even the simplest decisions, such as valuing work-life balance over a “live to work” mindset, constitute values and that it is unavoidable to have values (e.g. Prinzing, 2021). They further argue that if values are unavoidable, then the ethical thing to do is admit to the values openly as part of the discussion, so that their merits are transparent issues rather than a mysterious undercurrent. All involved in this debate acknowledge that value judgements are ubiquitous to some extent, and only disagree whether value judgements in positive psychology should be avoided or embraced.
Regardless of the extent to which these concerns and controversies are legitimate, awareness of the criticisms could at minimum prevent negative consequences through consideration of particular assumptions or actions, and if they might suffer from the weaknesses or harms put forward. Further research is needed to determine the legitimacy of and mitigation strategies for these concerns.
- To what extent can the strengths an organization needs be cultivated through training and empowerment vs. acquired through selection?
- Are employees more likely to engage in beneficial job crafting on their own or when prompted/guided by their organization to craft their job?
- What can professionals in the fields of management and organizational psychology do to shift organizations toward proactive approaches to ethics?
- Will positive approaches be accepted by investors and other shareholders, and can this case be made based on ethics or must there be evidence that principled performance will result?
- How should employee identity be balanced or integrated with work, and to what extent is finding life meaning through work healthy or potentially limiting to overall well-being?
- How can we understand the differences between, or approach the unification of, various streams and labels (i.e. PWO, POP, PPW, POB, & POS) currently used?
- How can the current research on positive psychology be integrated into organizational and management practices?
Future Research Recommendations
- Case studies that reveal experiences (successful and not) with POP-driven organizational change.
- Examine the effectiveness of the Implementation of long-term and holistic changes in line with POP principles.
- Randomly-controlled trials of interventions, particularly those comparing theoretical approaches to one another.
- Examination of the limits of positivity, such as the magnitude of positivity or ratio of positivity to negativity, and resulting relationships with outcomes (e.g. linear, geometric, u-shaped).
- Determine the efficacy of POP approaches to diversity and inclusion goals.
- Study the relationship between POP and the effectiveness of leadership training.
- Examine the effects of organizational and individual POP on the effectiveness of change management.
Brown, N. J. L., Lomas, T., & Eiroa-Orosa, F. J. (2017). The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Positive Psychology. Routledge.
Cameron, K. S., & Spreitzer, G. M. (2012). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Oxford University Press.
Dutton, J. E., Glynn, M. A., & Spreitzer, G. (2008). Positive organizational scholarship. The SAGE handbook of organizational behavior, 1, 693-712.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. American Psychological Association.
Seligman, M. E. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster.
Smith, W.-A., Boniwell, I., & Green, S. (Eds.). (2021). Positive Psychology Coaching in the Workplace. Springer International Publishing.
Avolio, B. J., & Yammarino, F. J. (2021). Transformational and charismatic leadership: The road ahead. Oxford University Press.
Kleine, A.-K., Rudolph, C. W., & Zacher, H. (2019). Thriving at work: A meta-analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 40(9–10), 973–999.
Luthans, F. (2002). Positive organizational behavior: Developing and managing psychological strengths. Academy of Management Perspectives, 16(1), 57–72.
Luthans, F., & Youssef, C. M. (2007). Emerging positive organizational behavior. Journal of Management, 33(3), 321-349.
Porath, C., Spreitzer, G., Gibson, C., & Garnett, F. G. (2012). Thriving at work: Toward its measurement, construct validation, and theoretical refinement. Journal of organizational behavior, 33(2), 250-275.
Wrzesniewski, A., LoBuglio, N., Dutton, J. E., & Berg, J. M. (2013). Job Crafting and Cultivating Positive Meaning and Identity in Work. In A. B. Bakker (Ed.), Advances in Positive Organizational Psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 281–302). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
3 ways to create a work culture that brings out the best in employees – Chris White
The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance – Shawn Achor
This page is edited by Brian Harward