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Is Positive Psychology at work?

written by Amanda Horne 3 March 2010

Amanda Horne is an executive coach and facilitator whose business theme is "Thriving People and Workplaces." She is an Authentic Happiness Coaching graduate and a founding member of Positive Workplace International. Full bio.

Amanda's articles are here.

Last month I attended the 2nd Australian Positive Psychology Conference run by the Australian Positive Psychology Association (APPA) at Melbourne’s Monash University on 12-13 February. It came at the end of a long and busy week, I was tired, and I had little enthusiasm for leaving home and flying interstate. Thanks to my ‘industry and perseverance’ strength, I made the trip. I returned home feeling energized and enthusiastic. I had greater clarity and confidence about the role we can play in helping to implement Positive Psychology.

I can’t actually put my finger on what specifically caused this happy state. Some of the sessions were fantastic, some were not so great, others were unexpectedly helpful, others not as helpful as I’d hoped. There was time to think and reflect. There was time to just be. There was plenty of time to interact with the 350 participants, all keen to learn, share, and connect. There is something energizing about noticing the healthy state of the field of Positive Psychology in one’s own country.

Positive Education, a great step forward…
A pleasing trend I have observed in Australia is the healthy state of Positive Education. Last year there was a successful Positive Education Conference at Sydney University – yes, a Positive Psychology conference devoted just to Positive Education. In this year’s (general) Positive Psychology Conference in Melbourne we noticed a large number of presentations devoted to Positive Education. And there seemed to be many more participants from schools at this conference than were at the 1st Australian Positive Psychology conference in 2008.

But … what about workplaces?

However, consider this comment from a participant during a lunchtime discussion forum (Positive Psychology in Organisations): “What happens when the children who have been exposed to positive education enter the workforce and encounter bosses who are not literate in the field of Positive Psychology?” Consider also anecdotes about company executives who, although interested in Positive Psychology, did not attend the conference because they thought the agenda was heavily biased towards education.

Some participants noted that proportionately there were not as many sessions on workplace applications as there were on Positive Education. Why was this so?

All agreed this is not a criticism of the conference.  In fact people were pleased with the progress of positive education in Australia.

Instead, thoughts offered by a range of participants included the following:

  • People are implementing positive psychology in workplaces and organizations, but do not yet have rigorous evidence that can be presented at conferences.
  • Consultants do not feel comfortable presenting, being uncomfortable about “blatant self promotion.”
  • Some executives who are implementing Positive Psychology in their organizations did not think they have a story to tell. One commented, “Just one more year and then I’ll present.” Some realized they do in fact have a story already and could have presented if they’d had the right opportunity.
  • Teachers in schools are much more interested and enthusiastic about Positive Psychology than leaders, managers, and executives. The well-being and development of students is the core business of a school. Well-being of employees is not considered core business of some organizations, and anyway, organizations have so many more cynics to educate. Young children tend to be less cynical.
  • Positive Psychology is still young, there is nothing to worry about, workplaces are slowly picking it up.
  • The Positive Education sessions at the conference provided inspiring information which is transferable to the workplace. “Let’s great creative.”

We had no answers, just comments, thoughts, and curiosity. We also had lots of hope and optimism that there will be increasingly more experiences of successful applications of Positive Psychology in organizations.

So, I wonder: what do you think?
What are you observing in your part of the world? As Positive Psychology matures, what do you think will be the key topics of conversation at conferences and forums?


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Bob 3 March 2010 - 1:26 pm

i’ve coached business owners over the years and the strong belief i find with business owners is that they have to win to prove they are worthy—a major hurdle. when the pressure is on they can’t seem to fight their biology by using their cognitive mental resources. it almost seems like they need to go all the way to the bottom before they’ll open to the new. thanks for the article. Bob

Maureen Rabotin 3 March 2010 - 1:50 pm

Thank you Amanda for starting this topic.

I work with global teams so there’s a lot of talk as to why some cultures seem to promote a more positive approach to the work environment while others claim they are realistic. I base the discussion on the US-English expression – “a mean and lean company” whereby I promote that companies can be lean, but don’t have to be mean. Today companies spend a lot of money, time and energy on engagement studies – I think neuroscience is bringing to the forefront the advantages of positive psychology. Executive Coaching will certainly accompany them through the transition from lean & mean, to lean & lively. Maureen

Dr. Judy Krings 3 March 2010 - 1:56 pm

Hi, Amanda,

Kudos for looking to your strengths to help you navigate the airspace to get home.
I will never forget my trips from Wisconsin to Australia. Talk about motivation and perseverance. And fantastic memories of the First International Psychology Conference in Sydney many moons ago, I believe in 1988.

I enjoyed your article and focus on PP as an advancing science. Positivity fueled by curiosity, creativity and acceptance of cultural differences has great potential to change the world. Subjective well-being, of course, but the global impact on family, corporations and environments is monumental. What a legacy pp folks are offering the planet.

WJ 3 March 2010 - 1:57 pm

Amanda – I suspect there are several issues
1. Australians aren’t into happiology – we loathe spin
2. PP is just a rehash of many of the organsiational development practices that have been around for years – and these generally haven’t worked
3. There is a certain persona that is attracted to teaching. The same people are attracted to PP. You don’t see many teaching types in business.
4. PP is perceived to be a bit light on – gratitude will change my life?
5. That it’s just another fad

Nancy 3 March 2010 - 2:50 pm

Amanda – I am trying to introduce Positive Psychology at my law firm in California. The group of attorneys that I work with are part of the Litigation Group and by the nature of the type of law they practice tend to be negative. What I think attorneys want to understand is the business advantages first for using Positive Psychology and then the personal life will follow. The newer generation of attorneys maybe more open to it since they do seem want more of a life balance. Here’s to changing law firm culture one step at time. I loved Maureen’s comment about going from “lean & mean” to “lean & lively”. It should be the legal world’s motto.

Bridget 3 March 2010 - 5:04 pm

Great piece Amanda.

In my experience the lack of PP in organisations is due to two things:
1) the obsession in business with calculating an ROI. On the one hand, you migth say well this is what being in business is all about. On the other, it’s ironic, I mean organisations generally fail to calculate the ROI of their IT implementations accurately, so they have no hope of doing it with PP. This leads me to my 2nd point which is that
2) If you have a sponsor at the top of the organisation, anything can be made to work, even when you haven’t been able to calculate the ROI accurately. I’ve seen perfectly good well-being projects fall by the wayside because the sponsor was never fully committed, or moved on to another organisation before it gained traction. This is a common problem in any change management situation. In that sense PP is no different to anything else.


Eleanor Chin 3 March 2010 - 5:29 pm

Hi Amanda, Thanks for this wonderful report from Down Under. So much great work happening in Australia! As for positive psychology in businesses, I suspect that there’s more happening there than we think. In my work with businesses, I’ve found that the term positive psychology doesn’t resonate as much as more business-like terms such “engagement,” “leading from strengths” etc. Also, when you read the latest business and leadership literature, it’s full of positive psychology theories like Meaning and Spirituality in the Workplace (Paul Wong and Amy Wrzesniewski) or Jane Dutton’s (and colleagues’)High Quality Connections at work, etc. I suspect that many businesses and business consultants who are using positive psychology principles might not even know it and probably only subscribe to a small subset of the whole. For those who want to explore more about business and PP, I hear that Paul Wong is mounting an international conference on meaning in Vancouver in August called “Creating Psychologically Healthy Organizations: Meaning, Spirituality and Engagement.” A quiet revolution is still a revolution. Eleanor

Kate 3 March 2010 - 6:13 pm

Amanda, your summary of your experience of the conference is a mirror of my own! Low expectations ending high levels of energy and optimism. Reflecting on your question about pos psych and workplaces, I can offer the following:
1 The use of language is critical in business in order to get buy in. We need to be seen to be business credible not faddish.
2 Demystifying key findings in pos psych can help. Again, leave the jargon alone. Simple pragmatic steps for individuals help.
3 Have a success story up your sleeve. It helps people personalize the pos psych possibility for them.

thanks for your post

Lisa Sansom 3 March 2010 - 8:54 pm

Hi Amanda – fabulous article! While I didn’t attend the Australia conference, I am completely drawn to your observation that we seem to be forgetting about Pos Psych in the workplace. I’m currently in the MAPP program at U Penn, and at the October 2009 MAPP Summit, Dr. Seligman outlined some of his thoughts for his new upcoming book with the new pillars of well-being. He told us about chapter titles, and shared a bit of content. It was apparent to me that there was nothing on positive organizations, and I asked him about this omission. His answer was essentially (and I paraphrase): “I have nothing new to add about that. Perhaps others are carrying that field forward.”

I think that introducing Pos Psych into workplaces has been more difficult than positive psychologists and practitioners imagined. Originally, the workplace was thought of as a “natural home” for positive psychology – now the natural home is, surprisingly, the US military and, less surprisingly, schools. I accept this change, but I don’t accept neglecting workplaces, and I’m still quite passionate about bringing Pos Psych into organizations and businesses. I’d love to hear from others who have done it, because the successes feel few and far between.

WJ 3 March 2010 - 11:13 pm

Amanda – its interesting that the areas gaining traction are schools and the military – both are tax payer funded. Government typically isn’t as focused on the bottom line. Perhaps the issue is a perception that PP is too light weight and doesn’t provide a ROI.

amanda levy 5 March 2010 - 2:18 am

Amanda, I loved the article. As authentic an article on PP in the workplace as I’ve seen in a long time. thank you.

While I agree with WJ on several of the points made about business’ perception of PP, perhaps the term PP itself works against us. Perhaps media coverage, and hence public and organizational perception, is ‘narrower’ than the actual discipline. Possible? After all, WE know that PP goes beyond gratitude, but how about the rest ….

Also, my sense is that when one is perceived to to be trying to get into an organization’s ‘psychological shorts’ (so to speak) people get nervous. Especially management. As practitioners, are we perhaps remiss in trying to ‘sell’ PP.

I believe that there are many many practitioners applying the broadest of PP concepts – and doing so successfully. (See Jocelyn Davis’ chapter in Linley’s Handbook of PP in the Workplace”. Maureen’s comment is particularly applicable here, where the Central American ‘relational’ culture is certainly more accepting of a PP approach.)

Granted, there is likely insufficient ‘hard evidence’ to satisfy the rigours of science, but at the end of the day..will any one organizational application of PP ever be like another, given the uniqueness of each organization (and the mix of PP concepts applied).

So yes, like you, I would love to hear more, much more, about what’s working, where and how. But, given the challenges of finding acceptable ‘evidence’; your experience in Australia; and mine at last year’s conference in Philadelphia; it seems unlikely we’ll be finding what we’re looking for at conferences.

Perhaps PPND – or a similar forum – can or will step up to the plate. Possible? Hope so :).

Amanda Horne 5 March 2010 - 8:41 am

Hi Everyone

Thank you for your many interesting and stimulating comments and observation.

Here are some additional thoughts after reading through your comments:

– schools are workplaces too, as my friend and colleague Jenny Fox Eades reminds us, therefore working with schools is working with organisations

– the military is also a workplace, doing Positive Psychology in the military is an example of doing Positive Psychology in a workplace

– there is clearly a lot happening with the application of Pos Psych in workplaces and organisations. Just because not all the applications are showcased at Positive Psychology conferences does not mean they are not happening

– perhaps different kinds of conferences or gatherings are ‘homes’ for workplace applications and experiences around Positive Psychology and related fields. Or, specific workplace-focused gatherings are attached to a Pos Psych conference so that people who are interested in workplaces have an alternative gathering which is more suited to their interests. Such a gathering would have a title which attracts them

– language is critical, it needs to reach out to the audience

– a number of comments point to the many other fields of relevance, not just Pos Psych. Bringing them together brings depth

– Positive Psychology might appear to be a rehash, but the academic rigour IS of interest to executives. I have met many executives who are relieved “thank goodness someone is studying this!”. They find that the Positive Psychology rigour is an opportunity to bring attention to topics which previously did not get traction

Really enjoyed reading your responses – thank you everyone!

Ernest Semerda 7 March 2010 - 3:59 pm

Positive psychology, change & culture should always start from the top else it will be like pulling bricks up a mountain. It should be a part of top management’s performance agreement to instil that into the troops thus creating a positive and happy environment where learning from mistakes is encouraged and creating an environment where people want to work and contribute.
There is a great saying – “The fish rots from the head.”

Karel Botha 25 March 2010 - 7:48 am

I’m from South Africa and I also attended the conference in Melbourne – what a fantastic experience. We haven’t made the same progress regarding the facilitation of positive psychology in different contexts – much of the research and discussions here still centre around the dynamics of cultural / ethnic differences in well-being. One observation I made in Australia is that a large group of academics and practitioners embrace and promote the “Ten steps to Happiness” or “Be happy!” type attitude, clearly aimed at the consumer market. But at what cost for positive psychology as a science?

wayne jencke 27 March 2010 - 5:20 am

Karel – You are absolutely on the money – many of the academics also have commercial interests. This seems to be very prevalent in PP.

Vera Kleinschmidt 15 March 2016 - 2:26 am

Thank you for the article! It is an interesting issue for me as a student of a university (we learn how to apply PP in our studies) and I am applying it in all spheres of life.

I believe that bosses are not interested in educating their employees any psychology, not just PP, as the employees might then learn to manipulate the bosses (which the latter don’t want under any circumstance. Another reason could be that bosses don’t believe in PP and don’t practice it themselves.

I am also surprised how some people think it is crap and another fad. It is not, because the journalist is not trying to sell you any services or products.

Before calling it a fad, guys, maybe try practicing at least three tips from PP for a month.


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