The Effects of Positive Psychology on Organizational Success

Intent is a powerful mediator of outcomes.  An organization’s mission, vision, and values set the direction of future success simply by codifying the organization’s intent.  This intent flows through every aspect of the organization, affecting the choices people make, and the outcomes of those actions.  (Read Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why“).

For instance, suppose you start a company to develop a better mousetrap.  You might start this company simply because we all know that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door and generate huge profits.  On the other hand, you might start your company because you have a passion for eradicating the scourge of mice and their negative effects on human society.   These are both valid rationales for starting a new company and developing a better mousetrap.  If you succeed in building a better mousetrap, both intents are likely to be successful, at least initially.  Intent, however, will begin to show over time.  The company whose intent is purely profit driven will make choices supporting that mission, while the company whose intent is based on a passion for improving the world through mouse eradication will make different choices supporting that mission.  These choices affect the long-term viability of the business.

Not only will these differences in intent affect things like pricing, marketing, customer experience, and other traditional business decisions, they will also affect the people in the organization.  A positive intent keeps employees engaged and helps them grow as people and employees.  These are the effects of positive psychology and should not be discounted when an organiation considers why they do what they do.

Understanding Positive Psychology

Positive psychology, in short, is simply a focus to understand and investigate the positive capabilities and achievements of the individual, community/organization and society as a whole (Fredrickson, 2001; Quinn, Dutton, & Cameron, 2003; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Sheldon & King, 2001).  Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), suggest that, prior to WW II, psychology was normally associated with three purposes: treating mental illness, encouraging the development and growth of all people, and the identification and development of exceptional capabilities. Since WW II, however, the focus of psychology has been solely on mental illness, deficit and pathology.  The other, more positive implications of psychology withered. While positive psychology is not intended to supplant existing research and theories on mental illness (Sheldon & King, 2001), it suggests that the typical deficit models practiced for over half a decade fail to adequately describe the realities of the population as a whole, as well as be a reminder of the original tenets of psychology foundation to include the good, the exceptional and the positive.

This positive approach has spawned any number of new approaches to the understanding of human development and organizational development focused on examining the positive instead of the negative.  For instance, towards the understanding of human development, theories have evolved to demonstrate that positive emotions or moments not only broaden an individuals perceptions of the world, but also build capabilities and personal resources which help them mitigate the effects of negative experiences (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005).  Additional research suggests this broadening capability is not solely constrained to mental perceptions, but to physiological perceptions as well like visual attention and field of view (Fredrickson, 2013). The resources accumulated from positive moments may not be abstract resources related to resilience and adaptability, but more discrete resources like attention to detail and capacity to learn.

Towards understanding organizational development, positive psychological approaches have generated new ways at looking at the process of creating exceptional organizations, not by fixing what is wrong, but by amplifying what is right.  Appreciative Inquiry is a model for change practices making the assumption that all organizations have an essentially positive capability to succeed.  By examining the past moments of peak performance, achievement and success, the organization can create a vision of the future based on those positive aspects (Quinn et al., 2003).

The common element in all of these ideas is that there is benefit in focusing on what is good instead of what is bad.  Focusing on the positive aspects creates a upward spiral of reinforcement (Quinn et al., 2003) and is a self-perpetuating process under normal circumstances (Fredrickson, 2013).  The corollary is that a focus on the bad would promote a downward, self-perpetuating cycle.  Thus, attempting to make change by focusing on the negative aspects of  what not to do, while one appropriate response to challenges, creates a self-defeating process promoting blame, low self-worth and incompetence.  Positive psychology suggests that focusing on what to do, on what was successful, is a better alternative as it creates a self-fulfilling cycle promoting excellence, success and achievement.

Brining it back to Intent

One could argue that a profit intent is not inherently bad; without making money, companies cannot sustain themselves.  Yet, without a positive focus beyond profit, without an intent that can inspire and create positive feelings, the organization is likely to diminish in productivity, innovation, and, ultimately, profit.  The concepts of positive psychology push us to appreciate a focus on the existence of the extraordinary and exceptional instead of simply on what is broken and dysfunctional (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).  It is an attempt to look at the positive potential of the future instead of simply examining the future as an attempt to overcome deficit.  It tells us that our intent has significant influence on our long-term outcomes.

References

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. The American psychologist, 56(3), 218–226.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Updated thinking on positivity ratios. The American psychologist, 68(9), 814–22. doi:10.1037/a0033584

Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. The American psychologist, 60(7), 678–86. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678

Quinn, R. E., Dutton, J. E., & Cameron, K. S. (2003). Positive Organizational Scholarship : Foundations of a New Discipline. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.capella.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=260674&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5–14. doi:10.1037//0003-066X.55.1.5

Sheldon, K. M., & King, L. (2001). Why positive psychology is necessary. The American psychologist, 56(3), 216–7. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.56.3.216

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