The power of positivity


For or against: Is there such a thing as too much positivity in the workplace? Dr Doug Mackie, CSA Consulting, and Dr Suzy Green, founder of The Positivity Institute, discuss.

Dr Doug Mackie: Yes

There is a growing consensus in business that strengths can be overdone and potentially lead to derailment and poor performance. There are a number of factors at play here that may be influencing this relationship.

Firstly, the relationship between strengths and performance is curvi-linear, with too much of a good thing adversely impacting on performance. Imagine confidence becoming arrogance, or inclusive decision making turning into procrastination.

Secondly, strength-based approaches can ignore the context and system in which the individual is embedded. This is especially true when strengths are assessed with inventories that measure traits (for example, the commonly used VIA Scale) and then the recipient is exhorted to use their top five strengths more without qualification of adaptation to their local environment and role.

Thirdly, strength-based approaches can ignore or underestimate the value and function of negative emotions. There is a reason why we have evolved negative emotions like sadness (to cope with loss), anger (to respond to an unjustified attack) and anxiety (to promote self-preservation).

Finally, positive approaches, including strength-based approaches, can be used as part of a culture of happiness enforcement where negative emotions are unacceptable in the pursuit of a culture of happiology. The reality is that, as with all approaches, balance is key. You will get a lot out of the mindful and measured development of your strengths, but ignore those fatal flaws and red flags at your peril.

Dr Suzy Green: No

Examining the impact of positivity at work is not new. In 1932 Hersey conducted a year-long study, considering the role of emotions on efficiency. He observed an 8 per cent difference when workers experienced positive emotional states, as contrasted with their output when in a negative emotional state. In 2000, Daniel Goleman reported that up to 20 to 30% of business performance can be determined by the mood of employees, while a large body of this research has been grounded in the concept of positive organisational scholarship (POS) (Cameron, Dutton & Quinn, 2003), which emphasises the importance of positive workplace practices more broadly to produce desirable change in organisational performance.

Professor Kim Cameron and his colleagues at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan (2011), have found that positive practices in combination, including expressing gratitude, clarifying the meaning of work, reinforcing an environment of respect, and demonstrating compassion, have the most powerful impact.

Despite the hard science, the practical application of positive organisational research to transform organisational culture and to help individuals to flourish is still lacking as an every day practice in many workplaces. Many misconceptions still exist mostly based on taking a black and white approach to the use of strengths or from a superficial ‘happiology’ perspective. The latest ‘positive’ approaches in the workplace are nuanced, balanced and strategic with research supporting increased uptake, such as Google’s ‘Search Inside Yourself’ program.

This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the August 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘For or against’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here

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The power of positivity


For or against: Is there such a thing as too much positivity in the workplace? Dr Doug Mackie, CSA Consulting, and Dr Suzy Green, founder of The Positivity Institute, discuss.

Dr Doug Mackie: Yes

There is a growing consensus in business that strengths can be overdone and potentially lead to derailment and poor performance. There are a number of factors at play here that may be influencing this relationship.

Firstly, the relationship between strengths and performance is curvi-linear, with too much of a good thing adversely impacting on performance. Imagine confidence becoming arrogance, or inclusive decision making turning into procrastination.

Secondly, strength-based approaches can ignore the context and system in which the individual is embedded. This is especially true when strengths are assessed with inventories that measure traits (for example, the commonly used VIA Scale) and then the recipient is exhorted to use their top five strengths more without qualification of adaptation to their local environment and role.

Thirdly, strength-based approaches can ignore or underestimate the value and function of negative emotions. There is a reason why we have evolved negative emotions like sadness (to cope with loss), anger (to respond to an unjustified attack) and anxiety (to promote self-preservation).

Finally, positive approaches, including strength-based approaches, can be used as part of a culture of happiness enforcement where negative emotions are unacceptable in the pursuit of a culture of happiology. The reality is that, as with all approaches, balance is key. You will get a lot out of the mindful and measured development of your strengths, but ignore those fatal flaws and red flags at your peril.

Dr Suzy Green: No

Examining the impact of positivity at work is not new. In 1932 Hersey conducted a year-long study, considering the role of emotions on efficiency. He observed an 8 per cent difference when workers experienced positive emotional states, as contrasted with their output when in a negative emotional state. In 2000, Daniel Goleman reported that up to 20 to 30% of business performance can be determined by the mood of employees, while a large body of this research has been grounded in the concept of positive organisational scholarship (POS) (Cameron, Dutton & Quinn, 2003), which emphasises the importance of positive workplace practices more broadly to produce desirable change in organisational performance.

Professor Kim Cameron and his colleagues at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan (2011), have found that positive practices in combination, including expressing gratitude, clarifying the meaning of work, reinforcing an environment of respect, and demonstrating compassion, have the most powerful impact.

Despite the hard science, the practical application of positive organisational research to transform organisational culture and to help individuals to flourish is still lacking as an every day practice in many workplaces. Many misconceptions still exist mostly based on taking a black and white approach to the use of strengths or from a superficial ‘happiology’ perspective. The latest ‘positive’ approaches in the workplace are nuanced, balanced and strategic with research supporting increased uptake, such as Google’s ‘Search Inside Yourself’ program.

This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the August 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘For or against’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here

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