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Why the Workplace Needs Positive Psychology

written by Orin Davis 6 March 2012

Orin C. Davis is the first person to earn a doctorate in Positive Psychology. His research focuses on flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring, and it spans both the workplace and daily life. He runs the Quality of Life Laboratory and is a freelance consultant. Orin's Web site. Orin's articles are here.

John manages a team that makes sales over the phone. Telesales can be a very boring job since upwards of half of the day can be spent on hold waiting to speak to the right person. It can also be very demoralizing, especially when money is tight and sales are scarce.

    Call Center

Yet all of John’s salespeople love their jobs, and they have very strong sales records. John’s winning strategy is to give his employees enough leeway to do the job “their way.” As long as they earn more for the company than they are paid in salary, they can do as they wish. Thus, all of the employees can use their respective strengths to earn sales, find their own ways to avoid boredom, and choose how to stay organized and on-task. Moreover, John encourages his employees to share tips and to help each other through difficulties, which results in a strong, close-knit team that helps each other to sell-sell-sell. One of John’s employees had the company record for number of sales in a month. John has almost no turnover at all—even his seasonal employees keep coming back to help make money for the firm.

Bring in more than goes out

Across the many companies with which I have worked, successes like John’s are few and far between. Yet the level of achievement, engagement, satisfaction, and effort that John’s management style inspires in his employees provides an excellent example of how positive psychology can productively influence the workplace. Having spent several years analyzing companies and conducting research, I decided to write an overview of research about specific areas of focus that can help firms to build a strong foundation of top-notch human capital.

For a company to succeed, employees need to be creative, proactive, and driven to do good work. Employees need to be effective in their collaborations, efficient in their production, and feel valuable to the company as contributors to its bottom line. Odds are, many who read that description wish it were true for their companies. There are ways based on research in positive psychology for companies to get there. Here are some of the focus areas to consider:

Group Success

  • Good work: Doing high-quality, socially responsible, and meaningful work.
  • Personnel selection: Choosing the right people.
  • Enabling engagement: Promoting optimal experiences, self-efficacy, and job-person fit.
  • Mentoring: Growing your own talent.
  • Team performance: Fostering teamwork, rather than an association of individuals.
  • Creativity and innovation: Finding ways to produce more creative works.

With increasing demands in the workplace and a greater need for knowledge-based work, innovation, and creativity, organizations need to find ways to enable their employees to do and be their best. Because of positive psychology’s focus on flourishing, and its transform-good-into-great angle, it is relevant to any conversation on the factors that contribute to solid organizational performance, and will become an essential contributor to success in the business world. Positive psychology can show those in management roles how to use and develop human capital. It can also guide organizational policy and enable workers to make their best contributions. Positive psychology has been, and will continue to be, a boon to the workplace.

If I have piqued your interest, please click the link below for the full text of this paper, which includes more information on each of the topics above as well as references to fundamental research.

Davis, O. C. (2012). Why the Workplace Needs Positive Psychology. Quality of Life Laboratory.


Call center courtesy of Vitor Lima
Phone = Money courtesy of schnaars
Group success courtesy of Vancouver Film School

Edited by Natasha Utevsky

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Lisa Sansom 6 March 2012 - 12:47 pm

Fabulous article Orin – thanks so much! The focus on an alignment between the workplace and positive psychology seems to have faded over the past few years – it was a great place to be in the days of “Authentic Happiness” (cf. various case studies in the book) but has almost completely disappeared with “Flourish” (unless one were to argue that the CSF program with the US military is a workplace application of positive psychology…)

In my work, I see much potential for positive psychology in the workplace and I look forward to continuing in those focus areas that you mention. I wonder – would you also add organizational structure and design to that list? I don’t know what positive psychology would have to say about that, but Traci Fenton at WorldBlu (democratic workplaces) is focused on this area as well…

All the best – looking forward to more!

Dan Bowling 6 March 2012 - 2:12 pm

Thanks for this very timely article, Orin. I look forward to reading the full text and thanks for offering it to us. I tend to agree with Lisa on this point, but hope we are wrong and perhaps your work and research will show it, or encourage others to share their stories.

Don 6 March 2012 - 4:36 pm

I’d be happier if you didn’t use telemarketing as an example. Next to environmental abuse, this is to my mind one of the biggest sins of business. If I want to know about a product or service, I don’t want a phone call; I’d much prefer to pursue it myself.

oz 7 March 2012 - 1:45 am

Lisa and Dan – PP has been around for years in the workplace – it’s not called PP. I would be interested to know what PP has to offer that hasn’t already been tried in the workplace. Perhaps this is the issue – lots of hype but little impact.

Orin Davis 7 March 2012 - 2:06 am

Oz, perhaps the issue is that too many people are trying to capitalize on the novelty of the PP movement, and that is creating a lot of over-hyped media that delivers very little impact. Then again, you could say that about most any management fad of the last couple of decades (and need I point out Drucker’s view of management fads!). Where PP makes a contribution is where the scientists (e.g., http://www.centerforpos.org/; http://qlrc.cgu.edu) get involved. We conduct the research and provide the basis for evidence-based management (consider Pfeffer & Sutton’s view on that: http://evidence-basedmanagement.com/). Critically, our work, and the work I mention in my paper, is peer-reviewed, which means that it is edited by fellow scientists who are assessing its validity. Hence, when you read Wrzesniewski’s work on making meaning at work (e.g., http://faculty.som.yale.edu/amywrzesniewski/documents/InterpersonalSensemaking.pdf), you are considering analyses that have been verified. In short, there is PP work out there that is hype. Then there is the science. The goal of my paper is to help folks find the latter, and I hope it is indeed helpful!

Orin Davis 7 March 2012 - 2:12 am

Lisa, I would agree that structure and design are of critical importance. Optimally, they would coincide with an organizational strategy that leaves room for applying PP in the workplace. That said, almost any structure/design can make full use of PP. For example, a hierarchical organization can have strong mentoring and plenty of creative freedom. Thus, I would contend that, in much the same way that structure/design affect strategy, they can likewise affect the company’s ability to implement PP.

Orin Davis 7 March 2012 - 2:13 am

Dan, I’d love to find some companies to work with on some of this!

Orin Davis 7 March 2012 - 2:17 am

Don, let me differentiate between teleMARKETING and teleSALES. The example I used was about an in-house [tele]sales team that did almost no cold calling. In fact, their leads were entirely generated from past buyers. There were one or two people who did do cold calls, but only to corporations, and only during business hours. It is a rather different group from the folks who interrupt your dinner. That said, it’s hard to buy products of which you were unaware, and that’s the one of the goals of marketing!

Lisa Sansom 7 March 2012 - 9:15 am

I often get on this soapbox, so please forgive me because here I go again. There needs to be some sort of reconciliation / alignment / whatever between “research” the way organizational development conducts it (interviews, engagement surveys, focus groups, case studies, etc) and “research” the way positive psychology conducts it (lab studies, controlling for variables, statistically reliable and valid tools, etc). This is, as I understand it, the difference between effectiveness and efficacy in clinical trials – does it work in real life vs. does it work in the lab. Clearly, an “intervention” can be both – but real life (e.g. organizations) is a lot messier and therefore harder to trace back the actual success of an intervention in reliable and valid ways that positive psychology would appreciate and respect.

In discussions that I have had with others, it has been posited that this could end up being the death of positive psychology in organizations if PP doesn’t somehow figure out a way to get copacetic with IRL research, and I think that’s the difference we are starting to see between positive psychology (empirical in-the-lab research) and organizational studies (in-real-life research).

So has there been “positive psychology” in organizations, except it wasn’t called “positive psychology”? Sure – but it wasn’t really “positive psychology” either. Most organizational scholarship and management theory to this point has been about effectiveness, not efficacy.

Orin – I’m especially interested in your take on this as it seems to me that you have seen both sides… Thanks!

Scott Asalone 7 March 2012 - 11:06 am

Nice summary of where Positive Psychology can contribute to assisting workplace environments and helping employees. I look forward to reading your full article. You might also want to look at the work of Adam Grant from Wharton about motivation in the workplace. He has so many papers right now, they are too numerous to cite. But he really is looking scientifically at what stirs intrinsic motivation, its effects, etc. specifically in workplace environments.

Regarding some of the earlier comments, the more work I do with corporations I realize that much of what positive psychology they have seen has been the “flavor of the day” and not any serious attempt at a consistent, comprehensive sea change. So what you write, and what many of us do, is very needed. Thank you again.

oz 7 March 2012 - 2:57 pm

Lisa – the issue you raise re effectiveness and efficiency applies to PP in general.

The lab research is really poor as it is conducted on non representative samples (psych students) without controlling for confounds. No wonder it doesn’t work when it hits the ground.

I do laugh about business research which is mickey mouse at best. In my job I routinely have to review projects and as a consequence experience first hand the limitations of many of the methodologies you talk about. The bottom line is no HR manager is going to acknowledge that they have wasted 10K on an intervention that didn’t work.

And there is always the Hawthorne effect.

oz 7 March 2012 - 3:04 pm

Orin – who does the non meaningful work? And what about the socially irresponsible work? Just reinforces PP as being out of touch with the reality of work.

And really can everyone be more creative? I know lots of people who feel under the pump when exploring ideas. Nothing wrong with this.

Perhaps context matters in the workplace?

As an aside perhaps we need people with more self regulation in the workplace. Yet you overlook this. Why????

Orin Davis 7 March 2012 - 3:44 pm

oz, I would request that you think through your arguments a bit more carefully before taking our time with them.

For example: “Who does the non meaningful work? And what about the socially irresponsible work? Just reinforces PP as being out of touch with the reality of work.” At no point did the article deny the existence of non-meaningful work, in much the same way that PP doe not deny the existence of illness. But, that doesn’t mean that people cannot *find* meaning in their work, regardless of task (cf., Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). The fact that PP is investigating what *does* work has no bearing on the fact that there are lots of things that don’t work, and that they exist, and (worse yet) that people promote them!

For a second example: Just because I choose not to mention something in an article does not mean that I have overlooked it. It means I have chosen items that will be accessible to my audience in their ability to be comprehended, researched, and implemented. Research on intrinsic motivation, for example, gets complicated, as does research on self-regulation. While there are some great researchers working on these topics (Deci, Grant; Baumeister, Wegner), and some fantastic investigators doing incredible work (e.g., Vallerand), it doesn’t mean I am going to be able to hit all of them. Even the textbooks can’t hit every topic, oz!

Your comments to Lisa are further evidence that you are not thinking through your arguments before presenting them. It further indicates that you are not familiar with all of the lab research either. Try reading some of the papers I suggested, get a good look at research by Dutton, Cameron, Wrzesniewski, Grant, Csikszentmihalyi (not to mention Molinsky, Hofmann, Pfeffer, and Sutton, who do not identify at all as positive psychologists but do relevant work), and THEN you can consider deriding PP research.

Anyone can be a critic, oz, but can you roll up your sleeves and fix things?

Orin Davis 7 March 2012 - 4:07 pm

And thank you, Scott, for the contributions you make, as well!

Orin Davis 7 March 2012 - 4:12 pm

Lisa, it’s an important soapbox on which to be standing, so do us all a favor and stay on it!

One of the difficulties (at least for me) is getting organizations to work with you on a study. Because of the rigor required to get something published, doing a study in an organization, especially an intervention, can be perceived as potentially invasive (and no one wants operations interrupted!). Moreover, finding funding for these studies (resources, tools, time, assistants) is extremely difficult, and thus we are asking corporations to fund our studies *and* be the guinea pigs, which is a rather tall order. I am working on designing multiple studies for the workplace, but find companies who can participate/fund it. “Ay, there’s the rub!”

We surely need both lab and applied research, but it’s rare to find opportunities and funding to do the latter, and even harder to find people with the experience and expertise to do both kinds.

oz 8 March 2012 - 4:34 am

Orin – let me elaborate to ensure that I’m not wasting your time

Re the comment:

“But, that doesn’t mean that people cannot *find* meaning in their work, regardless of task (cf., Csikszentmihalyi, 1997).”

My first job was supervising 100 people on a production line. I know menaning wasn’t important to them. They worked in this crap job because they had no other choices. T tell them to look for meaning in their job would sound like some high handed manager who really didn’t understand their plight. How would you feel in their position?

My second job was to introduce employ involvement inot this same environment. Again same story – tey really didn’t want to contribute. To quote one of my guys who I pulled off the line to do a business improvement role (ie be creative and contribute to decision making processes) they said they much preferred to be on the line because they didn’t have to think.

My lesson from this – everyone is different. Don’t extrapolate your personal beliefs to everyone else.

I’m sorry but I really do think you are out of touch.

You are right – PP is an easy target. And just perhaps I shouldn’t state the obvious. But please don’t pretend PP has anything to offer while it is shackled by the limitations inherent in psychology research.

Lisa Sansom 8 March 2012 - 10:01 am

Great article Kathryn – though I have to admit, I find it inherently confusing when articles list a series of points on “what not to do”. This, to me, is what’s beneficial of positive psychology: it’s so easy to point out what not to do; positive psychology is starting to show what can be done, and beneficial action steps.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Progress Principle (though the premise is simple enough and might have been stretched a bit through the ever-lasting case study…) and I’m now more aware of it in my own work and employee engagement generally.

As to Oz’s comment, all I can say is yes, everyone is different – and don’t extrapolate your personal beliefs to everyone else.

🙂 Lisa

Orin Davis 8 March 2012 - 12:25 pm

Oz, I must regretfully say that your attempt backfired.

The point from Csikszentimhalyi’s work (which, if you read it [to give you the benefit of the doubt], you did not review recently enough to recall the point) was about how people *can* find meaning regardless of their job. His statement doesn’t mean that they do, or that it’s a manager’s job to provide it (though it can be at times).

This is yet another example of you taking issue with points you have not researched. No one in this forum minds critique of their work (indeed, scientists welcome it), but we do mind when it is not thought out.

I appreciate the challenges you face(d) on the job, and believe me I’ve had to deal with many of my own. You have made a lot of assumptions about me, and my background, without confirming them. You assume that I am out of touch on the mere basis that I am a PP scientist. You even asked how I would feel in the workers’ position, with the implication that I might not know. Do you really think that I don’t have any experience or knowledge in this area? (And, if you do, just exactly where do you get off assuming that?)

Both of your anecdotes were about results, and not reasons. Perhaps this most clearly articulates the difference between practitioners and scientists. At the broadest level, practitioners have to figure out what goes on and which changes need to be implemented. Scientists have to figure out WHY it goes on, and HOW it works. That is, scientists figure out the mechanisms, and practitioners figure out how to apply them. Folks like you marginalize us scientists at your peril!

PP research likely has plenty to say on the two situations you cited, and probably has much to contribute to improve those situations.

And, if you are going to cite the limitations in psychology research, I suggest looking into the limitations of neuroscience research, medical research, and chemical research (I’m speaking only to the three I’ve actually done myself, but any engineer, physicist, or otherwise can help you with their subjects). You’ll find that none of them are doing much better than psychology!

oz 9 March 2012 - 1:48 am

Orin – you missed your calling – you would make a great politician.

I have to confess of haven’t read the flow research of late. The early material I read was a little disappointing – I can remember the research that suggested that one of the most common time people experience flow is while driving a car.

I’m not criticising the researchers – they are hamstrung by poor measurement systems. Psychology is where medicine was 50 years ago – imagine a doctor asking a patient how their blood pressure is without actually measuring. This is the basis of psychology – we ask and assume they know.

I’m interested – can you point me to 3 good PP studies that show their efficacy in the workplace.

I’m also interested in your views of researchers crossing over into consultancy – isn’t there a conflict of interest here. I personally think this is a major issues in PP.

Have a wonderful day

Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) 9 March 2012 - 11:09 am

Hi Oz,

I’d be curious to know what you see as the purpose of your constant attacks on PP. If you could go back in time to where medicine was 50 years ago (where you see PP today) would you tell scientists to stop because the research was limited and the applications ineffective? Or would you tell them to continue testing ideas, continue seeking applications, continue strengthening the research? If your intent is to draw attention to the limitations of the current research then I support your cause because I agree they tend to be glossed over in many forums, including this one. But I feel you would be much more effective with less hyperbole and more suggestions to improve the science rather than the constant exaggerated attacks that no one can take seriously.

You have shared some examples of employees that in your mind were not seeking meaning or are in a position where you may feel meaning is impossible to be found. Does this mean we should not study ways to create more meaning in the workplace? Does this mean we should not investigate ways to improve this? Do you feel businesses should not invest in trying to bridge this gap? Perhaps our investigation will find (as you suggest) that meaning is not important to many workers (not likely,) but without testing hypotheses all we have are conjectures. There are limitations on the research that we have (as is the case in all of science) but this is a starting point upon which you continue to test and build. You seem to be suggesting that your anecdotal experience trumps the scientific pursuit of greater understanding.

Or is your point that we should not even begin attempting applications until the science is better? This would be a realistic position to take although you would butt up against Lisa’s comments of the challenges that occur when we don’t test things in real world applications.

Lisa’s comment is an example of a thoughtful one that examines the challenge of taking lab research (to your point often done on university undergraduates) and trying to apply it in the real world. This leads to a real discussion about ways to improve the science which I think is what most people on this site are interested in.

Orin Davis 9 March 2012 - 11:33 am

Oz, I considered becoming clergy about 15 years ago, and that’s as close as I ever got (or want to get!) to politics. =P

I suggest reading some of the more recent research on flow, including Jackson and Eklund’s 2004 book, and Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi’s 2009 chapter in the PP Handbook.

We are not hamstrung by poor measuring systems as much as we are stymied by limited resources for experimentation. Rest assured that every last person with a lab dearly wishes (s)he had the wherewithal to run better experiments (if you could only see what little I had to work with, or how much of my own research budget came out of my own pocket, and likewise many other scientists, you would be amazed at how creatively we surmount the obstacles we face in getting valid data and research out there!).

As to your masked point about self-report, read research by Larson, and also by Spektor, who will gladly defeat your point in my stead.

In terms of the three good studies, did you bother to look up the list of researchers I posted? Come on, Oz! A quick Google search for Wrzesniewski (for example) gives you her website, on which she has *posted* many of her papers. For the sake of all of us on this forum, please do some homework before you comment!

Conflicts of interest are always a risk in business and research, but they are often navigable. Suboptimal at times, to be sure, but we don’t have any other choices.

Editor K.H.B. 9 March 2012 - 1:24 pm

OK Orin & Oz,

I’m reminded of the recent article by Spreitzer and Porath in the HBR issue on Happiness at Work: one of their suggestions for increasing workplace well-being is to minimize incivility — or let’s turn that around to value civility.

I think both of you have posted interesting ideas in your comments, so I’m not inclined to take them down.

But you could express them with more respect.

Thanks in advance for keeping the discussion lively AND civil.

Oz 9 March 2012 - 2:32 pm

Jeremy, Orin and Katherine – my hunch – meaning is important if you are raised to believe it is. Religion is part of the DNA in the us – so the obsession makes sense.

Oz 9 March 2012 - 2:44 pm

Kathryn – feel free to edit my comments. I thought i was keeping myself nice.


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