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What Works?

written by Alan Foster 13 May 2011

Alan Foster, MAPP '08 is a Principal at ghSMART. He serves leading private equity investors, hedge fund managers, and Fortune 500 clients in the areas of management assessment, leadership coaching, and organizational change initiatives.

Alan's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.

Over the last three years, almost every positive psychology intervention I have piloted has gone awry. The Appreciate Inquiry summit flopped, the strengths training never got off the ground, and if you mention the Optimism seminar given to top managers I will smile nervously and change the subject. Let me explain.

After graduating from MAPP I returned to my company. I ran Employee Engagement, coaching. I had lots of autonomy and could pilot interventions across the 40 global offices and 5000 employees – sometimes I thought of it as my personal laboratory. Upon a little reflection, I think I have learned three lessons:

  1.   Change the Language

    Change the language: No-one cared about the science of Positive Psychology and they found the language off-putting. At many meetings I would bring up some relevant PP research and watch everyone’s eyes glaze over. When I argued that we needed more Gratitude in the workplace, I might as well have been wearing a sarong and handing out flowers. Eventually I learned to say “How about we recognize our most inspiring managers and give them a shout-out at the next global meeting?” Same outcome, different language. In fact, we created a series of fast-paced two minute viral videos called “Rockstars”. The videos celebrated our best leaders and are now a regular part of the calendar. Jonathan Haidt coached me how to design the images to elicit elevation. None of my colleagues cared for my methods, they just loved the videos.
  2. Results

  3. Focus on results: the leaders were all trying to improve business outcomes. They needed to delight clients, to increase profitability, to stop their best employees from leaving. If I could use PP to help those areas, they listened. If it was Positive Psychology for its own sake, they had no interest.

    For example, we simplified the monthly employee survey and changed one question from “What’s wrong with this project?” to “What’s working well on the team?” Survey response rates to that question more than tripled. Everyone was delighted and I never had to say “accentuate the positive”.

  4.    Performance Review

    Have less training, more system tweaks: Initially I tried lots of training to help people understand Positive Psychology. I ran seminars on explanatory styles, on using your strengths, on the differences between pleasure and engagement. They were generally well received but when I reflect on their longer term impact I struggle to point to any big changes that resulted. Yet minor tweaks had the largest results.

    For example, at an education Non-Profit we recently changed their annual performance review form to focus on each person’s strengths as well as their development areas. It was a minor language change on the 3-page form. This quietly changed the tone of thousands of sensitive conversations that happen behind closed doors. I believe this has more impact that multiple training off-sites.

The mistakes and flops I mention above were all too real. There were lots of things that didn’t work. But I remember what Martin Seligman told our MAPP class late one Saturday afternoon, “Each year I try to have 10 good ideas, most of them flop, a few catch on and one suddenly takes off. I never know which one that will be.” That entrepreneurial / test and adapt approach has a lot going for it.



Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

You Rock courtesy of Paul G
? 365 day114 courtesy of Ruth Flickr
Businesswoman consulting a partner courtesy of Peter Hayes

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oz 13 May 2011 - 3:29 pm

Alan – I couldn’t agree more. I have played with positive psychology for years in business and have evolved what I do substantially. My lessons are:
– positive psychology is attractive primarily to a female cohort
– positive psychology has never really been tested in corporate environments – primarily white, female, undergraduate psychology students
– positive psychology is an American construct – never mention gratitude or meaning in oz
– always temper what you say with reality eg you can have too much optimism
– be careful with language – I describe mindfulness as “notice it and move on”
– you have to address both strengths and weaknesses
– males love technology – that’s why I use HRV software
– focus on what motivates people – to be general for women its health and relationships – for men its performance

Interestingly I have juts rebranded my programs as PERFORMance (it’s an acronym for the habits of people who enjoy high levels of wellbeing) programs and business has gone through the roof – language is everything.

Lisa Jacobson 13 May 2011 - 4:39 pm

Alan –
I appreciate your candor and share many of your failures. The wisdom gained has been valuable. We must work to translate PP jargon into business lexicons. This is where StrengthsFinder2.0 and Realise2 lead the way. Their assessments speak the language. Whether working with a recent college graduate, a newly promoted CFO or a displaced executive, they all find comfort in latching on to and owning their strengths.

This especially true when working with 360 degree instruments. In the narratives, notice how people usually describe their peers, managers and subordinates in terms of traits – positive and negative.

One last thought, isn’t it curious that “Corporate Jane & Joe six pack” freely use pathology terms such as depression, psychosis, neurosis, narcissism, and sociopath yet PP terms like flow and mindfulness are considered “out-there”. Are we ready for PP in the workplace?

Patsi Krakoff, Psy.D. 13 May 2011 - 5:16 pm

Alan, bravo for bringing to life the dilemma of making psychology applicable to people in real life work situations. Your examples are spot on. As someone who writes for executive coaches and consultants, I see this problem as huge. Language is everything, and your experiences and solutions offer valuable insights to others who face similar challenges. Thanks so much for stating this so clearly.

Dan Bowling 13 May 2011 - 5:29 pm

Alan, love the edge and wit. Positive psychology (the science whose name shall not be mentioned) needs more of it. Good points (as are yours, Oz). I agree with you both on most, particularly that the messaging and interventions need to be very audience specific, but caution against wholesale abandonment of the positive psychology brand. Used sparingly, I find it to be a “product differentiator” in the consulting world.

John Burik 13 May 2011 - 8:42 pm

Alan, I appreciate your article and your honesty about things that didn’t work. Gratitude didn’t work for me; took me right back to my mother reminding me about starving kids in China when I didn’t clean my plate. When I work with patients on a locked psych ward I use a one-page Three Good Things worksheet. The things they write may be small and they may have only a moderate feeling of gratitude about them, but for ten minutes or so they begin to reorient to the positive. I just don’t use the words: gratitude, thanks, and so forth.

I don’t have to sell folks here on the value of positive psychology (which we won’t name, as Dan suggests above). We just have to “test and adapt” as you mention in closing.

oz 14 May 2011 - 3:05 am

alan – and forgot to mention never ever under any circumstances mention appreciative inquiry – it sounds like a huge love fest. By the way a client kindly pointed out to me that AI also is an abbreviation for artificial insemination

Darren Maxwell 15 May 2011 - 3:04 am

I thought I was the only one who noticed! Thanks for the insight Alan.
Even the term Positive Psychology scares your average aussie away… By adding a little bit real world understanding it loses the peace love and groovy feel that tends to keep the business world away.

Evelyn 15 May 2011 - 5:55 am

Great insight Alan! Academia can sometimes lead to what I would like to call “Jargon Elitist Syndrome”, haha.

Reframing (I mean, “change the language, please”) has never been more understated – good job with reminding us the obvious =)

Looking forward to more articles!


Kathryn Britton 15 May 2011 - 2:45 pm

I really like the point that small tweaks in big systems may have more impact than training. It brings back Marcial Losada’s discussion of nonlinear effects: “Linear means what I put in is proportional to what I get out. Non-linear means the input is not proportional to its output; i.e., with little, but clever, effort I can get disproportionably more out of a complex system, and with a lot of dumb effort I can get disproportionably less.” One of my supervisors turned around a very dysfunctional group by requiring them to end staff meetings going around in a circle each one briefly acknowledging something that someone else in the room had done well and/or that was helpful. She found that people had to start paying attention to each other in a different way in order to have something to say. That took less than 5 minutes per meeting, but had a major impact on the way people worked with each other.

I think one of the big challenges is convincing people that well-being in the workplace matters, not just to themselves, but to business outcomes. If people don’t believe that, then there tends to be learned helplessness: “My work sucks and there’s nothing I can do about it and who cares anyway.” Once people believe that, then lots of ideas occur to them about how to make things better within their own particular environments.


Louis Alloro 16 May 2011 - 10:34 am

Great article, Alan. Thank you. Wonderful lessons — adaptability. “It’s not the strongest of the species that responds, but the ones most responsive to change.” (Darwin)

Margaret Greenberg 16 May 2011 - 2:47 pm

Alan – thank you sharing your experience in bringing PP to the workplace. I prefer to use what I call the back door approach when it comes to introducing executives and their teams to PP — no fanfare, no big programs — instead, as you say, focus on results. Occassionally I might back up a point with “from PP research we know…”, but I always first ask myself the “who cares” question. To Dan’s point, if used sparingly, PPt can be a differentiator.

And I couldn’t agree more with change the language or drop the lingo as I say. I don’t think I’ve ever uttered the H word (except in 1:1 coaching relationships). Thanks for your honesty!

Louisa Jewell 16 May 2011 - 8:31 pm

Hi Alan,
Thanks for a great article. I couldn’t agree with you more as far as language goes in the corporate world. In some non-profit environments the audience is more accepting of the term and also in wellness programs where they are okay with discussions of yoga and mindfulness meditation, PP seems to also be okay and interesting. I think it’s about knowing your audience and adapting.

On the flip side, while it may be unpopular to be a trail blazer now, 5-10 years from now when positive psychology is a common term in corporate environments, we will be that much farther ahead. For me, it’s about your own comfort level with being ahead of the curve. Funny, I felt the same way about my Internet job search workshops in 1996!

Steve 17 May 2011 - 3:34 am

A priceless piece of insight from experience. Thanks Alan, you have given some helpful examples of the need to keep interventions at the practical level, which is where most of our clients spend their time. Whilst I don’t agree with one or two aspects of other posts, e.g. oz’s aversion to even mentioning AI, it’s clear that particularly for commercial clients an over-emphasis on the philosophy and science of PP and AI is a turn-off. That isn’t a universal law though, and I have a number of individual and coaching clients who want to really understand the theory and research as well as grab the benefits at a practical level. It’s about being in-tune to the community you are working with. I’m often reminded though that failure, problems and weakness-focused models are still deeply embedded in some of our organisations, and to challenge these sometimes does require a call to science and theory as well as practical tweaks to procedure. Thanks again for a really interesting post a
nd the associated conversation.

Jeremy McCarthy 17 May 2011 - 4:55 am

Hi Alan, I enjoyed your article and always like hearing your perspective on this because you have some experience in introducing these concepts into different settings. My takeaway is that you have to adapt your language to the needs of your customer and make sure you are addressing what their needs are and the desired outcomes.

I feel that most of the audiences I speak to (also in a corporate environment) are very open to ideas of positive psychology, happiness, and appreciative inquiry so I always cringe when I hear people saying “don’t talk about happiness” or “don’t call it appreciative inquiry”.

I think it depends on how you explain it and what they are looking for. I would argue that there is almost a universal appeal to these concepts that transcend business. It is important to address the ROI of your constituents but there is also power in tapping into the human desires that are behind it. I like Chip Conley’s quote on the most neglected fact in business “both sides are human.”

If interested, check out my article on the sensitivities around the word happiness: http://psychologyofwellbeing.com/201103/the-first-rule-of-happiness-you-do-not-talk-about-happiness.html. Thanks for sharing your learnings.

Louisa Jewell 17 May 2011 - 7:39 am

Jeremy, I just love your insights…”It is important to address the ROI of your constituents but there is also power in tapping into the human desires that are behind it.” I love that sometimes you need to get beyond the ‘macho’ corporate speak and get at the heart of what everyone desires: Finding humanity at work. Thanks for that.

Linda 30 May 2011 - 10:57 pm

Hi Alan, I love your three lessons learned and have been there as well. I’m happy to share our experiences and research on positive psychology/positive organizational science. We started research in 2004, case studies through 2007 and now evidence-based with quantum results and cultural transformation…w/o sarong and flowers. We’re presenting at this years IPPA Second World Congress this July. Maybe we can connect there if you are attending.

Christine Duvivier 20 June 2011 - 11:23 am

Hi Alan,

I’m just catching-up on some PPND reading now and enjoyed your article! Your 3 lessons are terrific (and consistent with what I’ve experienced). I love the small, powerful changes you made! Thanks, too, for sharing Marty’s quote– it’s a wonderful point to keep in mind.

All the best,


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