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The “What?” and the “Why?” of Productivity

written by Dave Shearon 17 September 2009

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

Work it

Work it

When I speak to lawyers at continuing legal education (CLE) events, I often mention that we do not accredit topics such as resilience, optimism, energy, strengths, etc., because we want lawyers to feel better. Mandatory CLE (MCLE) is about helping lawyers perform better. The same is true for the work I do with K-12 educators or with the U.S. Army. Positive psychology is clearly involved with productivity.

When asked to quickly define positive psychology, I say it is “the science of human success.” This highlights the scientific foundation at the heart of positive psychology, which distinguishes the field from positive thinking. It also emphasizes that positive psychology is not primarily about “feeling good.”

On the other hand, “feeling good” — pleasure, engagement, positive emotions – matters, too. I care whether I feel good. I care whether the members of my family feel good. I care about these things not because they matter to productivity, but because they matter intrinsically.

But happiness and productivity are not mutually exclusive. I do care about how my friends and coworkers feel, and at least partially because how they feel effects their performance. I want co-workers to be happy and engaged because I know and like them, but also because their productivity matters to me as a manager. When it comes to MCLE accreditation for positive psychology programs, good feelings are very much a sideline issue — we are concerned with productivity.

Current Research on “Feeling Good” and Productivity



A growing body of research demonstrates that positive psychology training increases productivity. In one recent study, financial services sales agents received training designed to change their explanatory style toward a more positive, optimistic outlook (Proudfoot, Corr, Guest, and Dunn, 2009). They then participated in a six-week maintenance program and a review session three months later. From a feelings standpoint, these employees experienced significant positive improvements in attributional style, self-esteem, and job satisfaction — even as their organization was undergoing large-scale change which many employees found distressing. From the organization’s standpoint, their productivity increase is indicated by a 66% reduction in their likelihood to quit.

This result is consistent with other work-related research. Psychological Capital by Luthans, Youssef, and Avolio includes an in-depth cost/benefit analysis of a brief intervention to boost PsyCap. Further, in Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson recounts a large scale study she conducted in a commercial organization that used loving-kindness meditation to boost both well-being and productivity.

These results describe the “What?” of productivity. The focus is on what was produced and how much production increased. From an external standpoint, this is a useful question. I may want to know how many pages I wrote in a day or how many presentations I made last year. Law firms want to know how much billings increased. A prosecutor’s office of public defender may want to know how many matters were resolved. Schools (or, at least, the taxpayers who fund them) want some evidence in the form of standardized test scores that learning increased. Each of these involve a focus on what is being produced.

The “Why?” of Productivity

There is another question, however, that matters not only to individuals, but to organizations. Why? Why am I seeking to be productive in this area? The lawyer who hates her job and sees it as just “trying to help rich corporations get richer” is likely to remain relatively unmoved when told that positive psychology might be able to help her be more productive. The teacher who sees his students as untrustworthy learners (see the work of Roger Goddard) and views himself as a baby-sitter is likewise unlikely to respond to calls to be more productive. Answering the “Why?” question is imperative to long-term, sustainable growth in productivity.

Hearing Exam by Army

Hearing Exam by Army

Recently, I was listening to the Army medical unit commander whose unit was sent to Abu Ghraib shortly after the pictures of abuse there were made public. His command’s job, primarily, was to care for Iraqis, many of whom were injured while trying to kill American soldiers, usually because they had been offered a few dollars. The medics would patch them up and, often enough, send them back out knowing that they would likely do the same thing again if they received a similar offer. He emphasized the work he had to do as commander to solicit his unit’s thoughts on “Why?” Why are we doing this?


They developed detailed answers from multiple perspectives — from the personal level, to the professional, to the tactical, moral, and strategic. His command demonstrated innovation, resilience, comradarie, and compassion in meeting their objective. The commander’s instinct that answering “Why?” was important to his unit was validated by the unit’s productivity.

Feeling Good Can Increase “What?” and Answer “Why?”

What if about you or the people you work neither “feel good” nor have an answer to the “Why?” question? Is working on the “Why?” the place to start? This has often been tried.

Schools with unhappy, untrusting faculty members may spend time working on a mission statement. Staff in a toxic workplace may spend a lot of time talking about the business’ values. Typically, the results remind me of a quote from one of my favorite science fiction authors from when I was younger. Robert Heinlein said, “Never try to teach a pig to sing; it annoys the pig and wastes your time.” Of course, people are not pigs, even unhappy people caught in a web of toxic behaviors in a dysfunctional culture.

Positive Psychology Pyramid

Positive Psychology Pyramid

Rather, “Other people matter.” Thus, whether with ourselves or with organizations, we should start with the basics, the bottom layer of the Positive Psychology Pyramid: Resilience/Optimism/Energy, Strengths, and Relationships. As these increase, individuals feel better, productivity starts to go up, and folks are ready to work on values, purpose, and goals.


It is tough for a leader to focus on helping individuals feel better when an organization faces overwhelming challenges. But there may be no better time in terms of payoff. Sir Earnest Shackleton led an Antaratic expedition from 1914 to 1916 . His ship became trapped in an early freeze and the crew lived stuck in the ice for the rest of the winter. Late in the season, the ice began to crush the ship. The crew had to unload what they could and camp on the ice. When the ice finally broke up, the men sailed in small boats for eight days through a hurricane only to reach a desolate island covered in penguin manure.

Shackleton had selected his men for optimism. He trained his second-in-command to recognize each man’s daily contribution and to celebrate birthdays, successes, etc. Then he left the island to go seek help.

He took the ship’s navigator and his two most pessimistic crewmen (rather than leave them behind to poison the rest). After 800 miles on the ocean they landed on an island with a whaling station. Shackleton began begging and borrowing ships to rescue his crew. The first two attempts were thwarted by ice, but the third suceeded and not one man was lost.

In fact, Shackleton had done such a good job teaching his crew to care for each other, that one sailor celebrating his birthday on the miserable island noted in his journal that it was, “the best day of my life”!

According to King and colleagues, when we feel good, it’s easier to answer “Why?” Why are we working to achieve our goals? Because we feel good! Because we have energy. Because it lets us use our strengths and spend time with people we like and care about. Using this model, when we feel good, we are more likely to be in touch with our values, find a purpose in our work, and have intrinsic goals in harmony with our purpose and values. That also promotes the objectives of the organizations we work for. We are glad to be at work and our work is glad to have us! That’s a good thing for individuals, for organizations, and for society.



Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life. Three Rivers Press. (Paperback)

King, L., Hicks, J., Krull, J., Del Gaiso, A. (2006). Positive affect and the experience of meaning in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(1), 179-196.

Luthans, F., Youssef, C. & Avolio, B. (2006). Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge. Oxford University Press.

Proudfoot, C., Corr, P., Guest, D., Dunn, G. (2009). Cognitive-behavioural training to change attributional style improves employee well-being, job satifaction, productivity, and turnover. Personality and Individual Differences, 46(2), 147-153.

Workit by niels roza
Reminiscing by kevindooley
Army Iraq hearing exam by army.mil
Positive Psychology Pyramid (c) David N. Shearon 2009, used with author permission

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