Home All Positive Psychology & Institutions: Highlights From a Panel Discussion

Positive Psychology & Institutions: Highlights From a Panel Discussion

written by Margaret Greenberg 14 January 2007

Margaret Greenberg, MAPP '06, is co-author of Profit from the Positive. After a 15-year career in corporate HR, she founded The Greenberg Group, an organizational effectiveness consulting practice, in 1997. Margaret specializes in coaching executives and their teams using a strengths-based approach. Full bio.

Margaret's solo articles are here and her articles with Senia Maymin are here.

NOTE:  In Senia Maymin’s New Year’s Day article, she writes, “Positive Psychology is the study of positive subjective experiences, positive traits, and positive institutions.”  This article is about the later.  I will share some highlights from a recent panel discussion and conclude with some additional thoughts.

I had the pleasure of returning to the University of Pennsylvania last Friday with one of my corporate clients who was invited to participate in a panel discussion to kick-off the spring semester class “Positive Psychology & Institutions”.  The panel included two professors from the University of Pennsylvania:  Marty Seligman (who I don’t think requires any introduction here!) and Larry Starr (professor of Organizational Dynamics); and three business leaders:  Ramin Sedehi (CFO of Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, who some of you may remember visited our class during Immersion Week), Bill Robertson (BOD of the Westin Corporation, who facilitated our Positive Organizational Leadership class last spring), and my client Kathy Owen (SVP of Information Technology at UnumProvident).  Each member of the panel was asked to address the following questions and dialogue with the MAPP students (an incredible group of people!):

  • What is a positive institution?
  • What are some of the components and characteristics of a positive institution?
  • How can positive institutions be created?
  • How can existing institutions be made more positive?

Larry Starr shared two models for thinking about organizations, but confessed he had little experience in how to make organizations more positive.  Ramin Sedehi shared the three elements he believes are critical to creating positive institutions (transparency, having and achieving your mission, and the ability to constructively deal with conflict and adversity).  Bill Robertson shared his Generative Leadership Model, which he has further refined since our class.  Marty Seligman shared five attributes of a positive institution (being in a growth mode, the role of the CEO, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, empowering people to have greater decision latitude, and knowing your mission).

From a practical, application point of view, Kathy Owen shared what she believes is a positive institution (having a strong sense of purpose that is shared across the organization, forward looking, and an emphasis on getting better).  She began her overview by saying, “We did not start by asking ‘how do we create a positive organization?’ we started by asking ‘how do we build a better organization’”?  It reminded me of a television commercial for the company BASF:  “We don’t make the products you use; we make the products you use better!” (Can you tell that Kathy and I are both “maximizers” – from Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, not how Barry Schwartz uses the term.)

Geese in formation

Kathy dispelled a “myth” – that Positive Psychology is only for the “good times” or when an organization is in a state of growth, as Marty professes.  Kathy shared a story of how she and her leadership team consciously chose how they would handle their outsourcing strategy – a common cause of much angst for employees – by applying a strengths-based approach:  treating people as individuals with individual strengths, and being open and honest.  Months earlier, Kathy’s organization had all teams participate in identifying their individual and team strengths using Gallup’s StrengthsFinder.  I chimed in that the design team had been given a choice of using either the VIA or StrengthsFinder.  While they liked both assessment instruments, they ultimately chose the later because they thought it was more business focused.  

What Kathy didn’t say (because “Modesty & Humility” is one of her strengths!), but I did, is positive institutions begin or are created by positive leaders.  It starts there.  Kathy was not looking for the latest management fad or program du jour.  It’s just who she is and how she leads.  And as such, she was naturally curious about how the concepts, tools, and research from Positive Psychology could be applied to her organization.  If you’re thinking about introducing Positive Psychology in a corporate environment, I recommend that you start with a leader who already embodies positive leadership.  Trying to convince skeptics or “sell” Positive Psychology is like trying to ski uphill.

Lastly, there were two things that didn’t come up during the panel discussion that I believe are central to creating and sustaining positive institutions:  meaning and recognition.  In the book Positive Organizational Scholarship, Pratt (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Ashforth (Arizona State University) examine the difference between meaning AT and meaning IN work.  Creating meaning IN one’s work includes such things as identifying and applying strengths and re-crafting one’s job (as Gordon Parry found in his Capstone).  Creating meaning AT work includes contributing to the greater good in some way.  One of the students from this year’s MAPP class, Iris Bloom (what a beautiful name!), did ask about corporate ethics, particularly responsibility to the environment, but as always, time was running short and this topic wasn’t adequately addressed.  And from the research study Dana Arakawa and I conducted last year for our Capstone (“Optimistic Managers and Their Influence on Productivity and Employee Engagement in a Technology Organization” – what a mouthful!) we found that managers who give frequent recognition and encouragement had employees who were more optimistic and engaged, and produced better results (using internal performance measures). 

There is much to be studied and learned from positive institutions.  My hope is that through our collective work with organizations, and the people at all levels who make them work, we can make a difference in the world.



Cameron,K., Dutton, J. & Quinn, R. (Eds.) Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, pp. 296-308. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Geese in formation courtesy of limonada; Geese follow the leader, but the leader changes.

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Jeff 14 January 2007 - 12:46 pm

I agree that selling any kind of change is tough work, especially when dealing with pessimistic attitudes. You are way better off dealing with someone open minded and optimistic.

All of the managers that I remember fondly were positive people. The ones I that leave me feeling bitter or resentful were those with exceptional deficits in EQ or people skill. Character defines a large part of an organization, I believe. I’ve worked for a corporation whose business practices appeared unethical. There was little transparency, rampant suspicion and paranoia about losing jobs to downsizing (which occurred). So this leads me to believe (tentatively) that character strengths are not optional, but essential to any quality, GoodWork endeavor.

Oh, and Iris Bloom is a very pretty name.

Senia Maymin 14 January 2007 - 10:04 pm

Great article, Margaret! Thank you for telling us about the latest with the panel. I’m really glad how you summarized the discussion, and showed us areas in which people have different opinions. Thanks, I really enjoyed reading this.

Debbie Swick 19 January 2007 - 11:27 pm

Margaret, you took great notes! Thanks for your part in bringing the panel together. I’m glad you have reinforced the idea that Positive Psychology is not just for the good times in an organization. I think focusing on what is going right and focusing on strengths is extremely important in difficult times.

I look forward to seeing even more research on leadership and positive institutions!

Margaret 20 January 2007 - 11:17 am

Thanks Jeff, Senia & Debbie for sharing your thoughts. If leaders in organizations only apply Positive Psychology practices when they are in a growth mode or during the “good times”, I believe Positive Psychology will become nothing more than a fad. As professional coaches, consultants and practioners of PP we have a responsibility to BE THERE for our clients — no matter the circumstances — and help them lead through it all.

David J. Pollay 28 January 2007 - 12:38 am

Hi Margaret,

Congratulations on your role in helping Kathy achieve what she has at UnumProvident!

I love Kathy’s quote.

“We did not start by asking ‘how do we create a positive organization?’ we started by asking ‘how do we build a better organization’”?

Businesses will ultimately look to Positive Psychology to build a better organization. They won’t do it just because it’s “a good thing to do.” You did a great job of helping Kathy see that Positive Psychology can impact the bottom line positively.

And your advice to all of us is great.

“If you’re thinking about introducing Positive Psychology in a corporate environment, I recommend that you start with a leader who already embodies positive leadership. Trying to convince skeptics or “sell” Positive Psychology is like trying to ski uphill.”

Thanks Margaret for the great post and the update on the panel!

Warm Regards,


Kathryn Britton 5 February 2007 - 4:57 pm


While I think having a positive leader is extremely important, I wouldn’t want it be considered a sine qua non of positive organizational change. In fact, what I’ve found is that some interventions actually empower people who are not leaders to take steps to better their own environments. One that comes quickly to mind is learning how to reframe things in positive ways. A small group worked on reframing the way they thought about yearly performance evaluations and came up with a terrific example of reframing in a way that put the sense of control back in their own hands.

So let me suggest that one of the beauties of positive psychology is that no one has to wait for anyone else before taking action.



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