Home All Applying the Science of Positive Psychology to Improve Society: Afternoon 2

Applying the Science of Positive Psychology to Improve Society: Afternoon 2

written by Kathryn Britton 31 January 2009

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

This is the third article about the conference at Claremont Graduate University on January 24, 2009 around the two questions, What works in positive social sciences? How can we influence social change for the betterment of society? The morning sessions had covered the foundations of positive psychology. The earlier afternoon sessions covered applications in physical health, education, and mentoring, as well as a review of Mind and Evolution by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This article covers the afternoon sessions on organizational life and business along with end-of-day panel where afternoon presenters were asked to give their parting shots. Videotapes of the conference are also available.

Jane Dutton spoke about Seeing the Possibilities in Positive Identities and Organizations. She raised the question, “How can we improve society by improving work organizations?” and answered it by exploring the relationship between organizational practices and work-related identities. Organizational practices are regular activities in a particular work unit — either formal or informal. Work-related identities are the meanings that people attach to themselves in the context of their work. She explored three areas of study:

  1. Employee support practices, for example where employees contribute to a pool of money that is matched by the organization from which someone in need can draw. Employees who voluntarily give to the fund saw themselves as more caring and generous and the organization as more benevolent. “It makes the company seem kinder in my eyes.”
  2. Caroline Bartel’s dissertation about practices where employees provide company-supported assistance to outside groups. People saw themselves as more blessed than before, identified with organization more, and increased cooperation and effort at work.
  3. Adam Grant’s work on the impact of worker contact with beneficiaries of their labors, which increased persistence, job dedication, and tendency to construe selves as positive contributors and as viewed positively by others.

Dutton ended by asking and answering, “So what?” There are ways to increase prosocial practices between employees, work communities, and customers. We can cultivate positive work-related identities more directly.

Kim Cameron presented The Effects of Positive Leadership on Organizational Performance. He discussed virtuousness and positive deviance in organizations, where positive deviance goes beyond profitable, efficient, effective, reliable and helpful to benevolent, extraordinarily efficient and effective, perfectly reliable, and honoring. What are the effects of virtuous practices on organizations? He contrasted the behavior and performance of Southwest Airlines and USAir after 9/11 — USAir had about 24% layoffs while Southwest had virtually none. The way Southwest treated its employees enabled it to come through the crisis in a much healthier economic condition than USAir. He discussed several other studies of virtuousness and business performance, concluding that there is a positive correlation probably based on “an amplifying function that creates self-reinforcing positive spirals, and a buffering function that strengthens and protects organizations from traumas such as downsizing.” He also referenced the remarkable story of the Rocky Flats clean up that he has described in his book, Making the Impossible Possible.

David Cooperrider presented The Discovery and Design of Positive Institutions: How Organizations Magnify High Human Strengths Outward into Our World. He talked about business as an agent of world benefit. Positive institutions help societies thrive. He talked about business involvement in eradicating world poverty and working towards sustainability. What if we create an entire change theory around strengths? Organizations are centers of human relatedness and sources of creative value. Part of the real value is their wholeness — dealing with all the stakeholders. How do we scale up, elevate inquiry, extend relatedness, and establish designs that eclipse the problems? The appreciable world is so much larger than the appreciative eye.

The day ended with a panel of the afternoon presenters posed with the following questions:

What is your parting shot for people attending the conference?

  • Taylor: There is much that we can do to ensure that we have healthy responses to stress. We can structure our environments and provide support for each other.
  • Cameron: People used to glaze over when I’d mention research on happiness. But the future is with today’s graduate students. Don’t give in — young people will make the difference.
  • Nakamura: We need to integrate attention to individuals with attention to context.
  • Dutton: We need to live what we talk about. Science has often been a non-positive institution, but it can be a beacon on both micro and macro levels.
  • Cooperrider: It’s time to dare in scholarship. We will all be called beyond our current levels of competence. Inquiry is a powerful tool that creates change. We become what we study.
  • Csikszentmihalyi: We started positive psychology with young people – since sometimes a new idea has to wait for the old professionals to die out. We were able to reach across the generation gap.
  • Knoop: It is important to understand communication in the public sphere. Journalists tend to create dualities without nuances. But we can deal with complementarity —
    1. Ideological — combine top down and bottom up visions
    2. Theoretical — combine scientific virtues of openness and skepticism
    3. Religious — combine complementary values
    4. Methodology — combine standardization and uniqueness

    Positive psychology cuts across areas of specialization.

  • Taylor: Positive psychology gives us an overarching framework that is compatible and reconcilable between positive organizations and neuroscience

How do we influence organizations and corporations?

  • Dutton: Exhibit compassion, connect to language of business. For example effects of virtuous behaviors on health care costs.
  • Cameron: For people who say, OK I’m convinced, what can we do? Web site with tools and techniques for positive leadership




Bartel, C. (1999). Strengthening the bond of organizational identification through volunteerism. Dissertation at the University of Michigan. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering Vol 59(10-B), April 1999, pp. 5615.

Cameron, K. (2006). Making the Impossible Possible: Leading Extraordinary Performance: The Rocky Flats Story. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Cameron, K. (2008, 2012). Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance. Edition 2. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Cameron, K., Bright, & Caza, A. (2004). Exploring the relationships between organizational virtuousness and performance. American Behavioral Scientist. Special Issue: Contributions to Positive Organizational Scholarship, 47(6), 766-790.

Cooperrider, D. and Whitney, D. (2004) Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Dutton, J., Worline, M., Frost, P. & Lilius, J. (2006). Explaining Compassion Organizing. Administrative Science Quarterly, 51(1), 59-96.

Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dutton, J. & Ragins, B. Eds. (2007). Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation (Lea’s Organization and Management). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gittel, J., Cameron, K., Lim, S., & Rivas, V. (2006). Relationships, Layoffs, and Organizational Resilience: Airline Industry Responses to September 11. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 42(3), 300-329.

Grant, A. (2007). Relational job design and the motivation to make a prosocial difference. Academy of Management Review. Vol 32(2), 393-417

Grant, A. (2008). The significance of task significance: Job performance effects, relational mechanisms, and boundary conditions. Journal of Applied Psychology. 93(1), 108-124.

Heaphy, E. & Dutton, J. (2008). Positive social interactions and the human body at work: Linking organizations and physiology. Academy of Management Review. Special topic forum on stigma and stigmatization, 33(1), 137-162.

Lilius, J., Worline, M., Maitlis, S., Kanov, J. & Dutton, J. (2008). The contours and consequences of compassion at work. Journal of Organizational Behavior. Special Issue: Contexts of positive organizational behavior, 29(2), 193-218.

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India Swearingen 5 February 2009 - 4:49 pm

Great article about the conference, I enjoyed reading others perspectives.

For anyone who wanted to attend the sold out academic conference on “Applying the Science of Positive Psychology to Improve Society,” but could not make it to Claremont for the day, the video has been posted online. The first 45 minutes of the conference are available for free at or .

CGU will be making the entire event (7.5 hours of talks from the leading academics in this area) available very soon.

India Swearingen 5 February 2009 - 4:51 pm



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