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Thriving at Work: An Outcome of Positive Leadership

written by Robert Rosales 13 March 2017

Robert Rosales, MAPP '15, is dedicated to working with organizations to develop the positive leadership skills that are required to address the needs of our time in the workplace. He is the founder of LEAD ACADEMY, a business consultancy that advises clients on science-based positive workplace practices that support performance and people. He leverages over twenty years of management experience at leading financial institutions with extensive education in positive psychology. Robert's articles are here.

Should companies concern themselves with the psychological well-being of their employees? After all, the prevalent assumption is that business organizations should be focusing on maximizing profits. In a landmark article, the Nobel laureate Milton Friedman famously argued that, “There is one and only one responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” This economic perspective elevates profit to the top of all organizational priorities, sometimes at the expense of employee well-being. Interestingly, recent Gallup studies show that employee engagement is a key predictor of a company performance. So how do you reconcile economic profit and human thriving?

Employee Flourishing Matters

Empirical research in organizations makes a strong business case for thriving workplaces. For example, Diener and Seligman argue that work can be highly rewarding and lead to stronger performance, greater health, and higher overall well-being. In their annual meta-analyses reports, Gallup researchers find that the most engaged units outperformed in terms of profitability, productivity, turnover, absenteeism, or customer ratings. Satisfied workers are engaged by their work, have positive relationships and even friends in the workplace, more autonomy to apply their natural talents, and supportive managers. They usually feel they can learn and develop into the best versions of themselves and that their work is important.

The relationship between thriving and success is reciprocal: success can contribute to thriving and thriving leads to more success in multiple life domains such as health, relationships, and work performance, as summarized in the paper by Lyubomirsky, King, and Diener. In other words, thriving is a worthwhile pursuit, both as an end in itself and as a means toward other ends.

The Importance of Employee Morale and Motivation

In today’s information age, only people can make organizations great. That’s why we hear ad nauseam that human capital is a company’s most important asset.

That is really nothing new. In the early 1930s, as a consequence of the stock market crash, the needs of workers made their appearance in the management literature. The famous Hawthorne studies by Roethlisberger and Dickson in 1939 showed for the first time that when workers received increased attention they worked harder.

This research also highlighted that simply eliminating the negative aspects in the workplace may prevent dissatisfaction but did not necessarily produce positive outcomes such as satisfaction, motivation, and performance.

Many employers are still applying management practices which belong to a business model inherited from the late nineteenth century that is negatively biased toward finding and fixing problems and employee weaknesses, as Seligman argues in his book, Flourish.

The Dismal State of Employee Engagement

Interestingly, according to Gallup’s 2015 report, one in four American workers feels ignored by their managers. Undoubtedly, this undercuts employees’ abilities, as they feel repressed by negative contexts. Experiential studies by Kahneman and colleagues confirmed that the time of day when people are least happy is when they are in interacting with their line manager. These dismal results suggest that too many managers are out of touch with their workers. Helliwell and colleagues suggest that they rely on mechanical incentives and command. Perhaps not coincidentally, for most people in organizations, thriving and work are mutually exclusive. As the consistently low employee engagement figures show, only 32% of U.S. employees show passion and a profound connection to their work. The others are checked out or, worse, acting out their unhappiness.

More than three in four (83%) persons age fifteen and over In America spend the majority of their waking hours in a work-related activity, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Inevitably, their experience at work will greatly impact the quality of their lives. Indeed, work provides not just an income, but perhaps more importantly, work affects self-esteem, and creates opportunities for engagement, meaning, and relationships, the qualities that Seligman believes contribute to flourishing.

Positive Leaders

The latest science shows us how to improve the way we work and build better workplaces. Since the early 2000’s the science of Positive Organizational Scholarship recognizes that organizations can reach their bottom-line goals by enhancing people’s experience at work. According to Kim Cameron at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, positive leaders and organizations promote outcomes such as “thriving at work, interpersonal flourishing, virtuous behaviors, positive emotions, and energizing networks.” He points out four behaviors of positive leaders:

  1. Fostering a positive climate: Studies by Fredrickson demonstrate that positive emotions signal safety, broaden our mindset and allow us to discover and build new skills, social ties, knowledge, and behaviors. Consequently, Cameron points out that organizations that enable positive climates through high levels of compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, integrity, trust, and optimism perform better. Positive leaders cultivate a positive emotional climate that spreads across teams and the organization as a whole. The positive climate improves employee quality of life, engagement, and performance.
  2. Reinforcing positive meaning: People want to feel that what they do matters. Employees are becoming increasingly diverse and want to be empowered and engaged by meaningful work and supportive managers. Their need for meaningful work and positive relationships is more than what traditional command-and-control employers usually provide.
  3. Building positive relationships: We know that people join a good organization and leave a bad boss. More generally, whether organizations as well as their employees flourish or languish largely depends on the quality of the social connections they nurture. The quality of the workplace connections can be defined as life giving (high quality) or life depleting (low quality). Positive relationships increase trust, mutual support, collaboration, learning and thriving.
  4. Engaging in positive communication: Communication that conveys affirmation and openness improves the connection between two people. In contrast, unsupportive communication such as sarcasm, negative comparisons, threats, or win-lose interactions hinder the other person’s ability to tune in and understand the message. As Stephens and colleagues explain, what we say and how we say it should denote respect, appreciation, and dignity. Therefore, words and questions should be engaging, affirmative, and positive as much as possible because they orient the direction of the communication.

Arguably, business organizations do many things well. Creating work environments that allow employees to thrive is not among them. Work and well-being can be mutually supportive if the orientation of the organization is on strengths rather than weaknesses, if the workplace offers more autonomy and opportunities for flow experiences, and if employee thriving is a corporate objective, in addition to efficiency and profits. In sum, complementing the traditional organizational pursuit of economic success with a focus on the ways to nurture life-giving work environments is essential to individual and organizational thriving. That is a message that should resonate with more organizations, especially those interested in optimizing efficiency and profits.



BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics). (2013). Charts from the American time use survey.

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

Cameron, K. (2010). Five Keys to Flourishing in Trying Times. Executive Forum. Winter 2010, 45-51.

Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5(1): 1-31.

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

Friedman, M. (1970, September 13). The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits. New York Times Magazine, 32(3), 122, 126.

Gallup. (2015). Employee engagement.

Gallup (2016). Gallup Q12 Meta Analysis Report.

Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2013). World happiness report.

Kahneman, D., Krueger, A., Schkade, D., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A. (2004). A survey method for characterizing daily life experience: The day reconstruction method (DRM). Science, 306, 1776-1780.

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?. Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803–855.

Michaelson, C., Pratt, M. G., Grant, A. M., & Dunn, C. P. (2014). Meaningful work: Connecting business ethics and organization studies. Journal of Business Ethics, 121(1), 77-90. Abstract.

Roethlisberger, F. J., & Dickson, W. K. (1939). Management and the Worker: An Account of a Research Program Conducted by the Western Electric Company, Hawthorne Works, Chicago. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

Stephens. J. P., Heaphy, E. D, & Dutton, E. J. (2012). High-quality connections. In K. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.), Handbook of positive organizational scholarship< ?em> (pp.385-399). New York: Oxford University Press.

Photo Credits: from Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Workplace team courtesy of pttgogofish

Working together courtesy of Jirka Matousek
Unhappy at work? courtesy of Amarand Agasi
Comic courtesy of fedzcomic
Millenials at work courtesy of tedeytan

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Meredith Cary 14 March 2017 - 9:42 am

As a positive psychologist, I wish people valued their strengths more and that Schools of Business taught Kim Cameron’s Positive Leadership skills more. Great article, thanks!

Robert Rosales 14 March 2017 - 10:13 am

Thank you Meredith, I could not agree more. Some of the top business schools in England and the US are currently introducing positive leadership into their curriculum and that should give us reason to be hopeful. Gratefully, Robert

oscar armando pinochi 14 March 2017 - 10:01 am

After having worked for 40 years with organizations, inside the HR area and from the outside as a trainer or a Coach, I have learned that the most important and their unique objetive are profits. Does employee flourishing REALLY matter? Mmmm… I doubt it. I have read and sometimes have helped many managers to discover mission and vision in their companies. And you know what? Good wishes related with employee flourishing are just pictures on the walls. When I looked at real leadership actions I didn’t know wether to cry or laugh. “Profits, just Profits”.
I do agree that we must work in building better workplaces, but Employess are “Human Resourses”, and resourses come and go.
Thanks you!!!

Robert Rosales 14 March 2017 - 10:42 am

Hi Oscar, and thanks for your insights. Yes, profits matter. And often, they are all that matters. What science is gradually showing is how positivity and employee thriving largely predict profits. It seems pretty obvious that long-term financial and people performance go together. I am reminded of the African proverb: if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together.

oscar armando pinochi 14 March 2017 - 12:32 pm

Thanks for your words Robert!!!

Scott Crabtree 14 March 2017 - 5:12 pm

Thanks for a good article Robert. I agree with virtually everything you’ve said.

And, I think we need to be careful about inter-mixing Engagement, Satisfaction, Happiness, and other terms. I think if you define happiness the way science does–as subjective well-being which is both short term positive emotions plus longer term life satisfaction–there is a lot of overlap between Engagement, Satisfaction, and Happiness. But I would argue they are not exactly the same things. Fortunately, working on any one tends to help with the others. But we should still be clear and careful about mixing up the terms as if they are the same thing.

Do you (and others) agree? I welcome your wise thoughts. 🙂

Robert Rosales 14 March 2017 - 6:38 pm

Hey Scott, you make such a valid point! The various terms are indeed different, at least from an academic perspective. Do you (and others) find that for a business audience, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish them?

Scott Crabtree 14 March 2017 - 7:09 pm

Thanks Robert,

In all honesty, I find that scientists and positive psychology practitioners care about such distinctions more than most business audiences. Many business audiences have an attitude of “spare me the science you geek, just tell me what to do”! So distinguishing those terms may matter more to us than our audiences. But with Jim Clifton at Gallup saying pursuing Happiness is foolish; we should be pursuing Engagement (http://www.gallup.com/opinion/chairman/178583/why-engaged-work-isn-simple-happy.aspx) I think it’s important to try to continue the public discussion of how those (and satisfaction) are the same, and how they are different. Perhaps it’s your–or our–next article?!? 😉

Keep up the good work!

Carolyn 15 March 2017 - 8:46 am

Thank you, Robert, for reminding us as managers to create an environment for employees to flourish. As leader of a nonprofit, our ultimate goal is to maximize the social profit of our service, and I believe we are most effective in doing so when we have employees who are engaged, find meaning in their work, feel a sense of accomplishment and have positive relationships with their colleagues. Thanks for all of your help to show us how!

Robert Rosales 15 March 2017 - 3:11 pm

Carolyn, Thank you for offering the perspective of a nonprofit organization. Love your “social profit” objective!

Margaret Greenberg 29 March 2017 - 7:06 pm

Robert, you are spot on! I do, however, see two signs of hopes: One, the next generation of MBA students will be exposed to more of the research you cite. Two, Millenials are demanding that work be more meaningful. Thank you for a very thoughtful piece. Margaret


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