Positive Organizational Scholarship and Practice: A Dynamic Duo

2011 Volume 14 Issue 2

In spite of real pressures of deadlines and competition, concentrating on virtues and strengths helps businesses and their leaders to unleash the power of an organization’s most important asset—human capital.

[powerpress: http://gsbm-med.pepperdine.edu/gbr/audio/spring 2011/pos_avramchuk.mp3]

Happy business people “Imagine a world in which almost all organizations are typified by greed, selfishness, manipulation, secrecy, and a single-minded focus on winning … For the sake of contrast, now imagine another world in which almost all organizations are typified by appreciation, collaboration, virtuousness, vitality, and meaningfulness.”[1] Which sounds better to you? The latter is the world that the discipline of positive organizational scholarship (POS) aims to explore.[2] This discipline, only recently established in 2003, was created to balance the abundant research that concentrates on the former world. Although most practitioners hear or intuitively know that being positive is generally good for morale and business, many still want to understand how to foster and sustain an organizational climate of positivity and meaningfulness. For those interested in operating within the world of appreciation and vitality, this article presents three strategies toward fostering positivity in your business practice: concentrating on virtues and strengths; supporting the psychological upward movement, and embedding sustainable positivity. The author fuses these POS concepts with the day-to-day business management routine to offer applications that are effective no matter what type of organization you are working for.

Concentrating on Virtues and Strengths

In spite of real pressures of deadlines and competition, concentrating on virtues and strengths helps businesses and their leaders to unleash the power of an organization’s most important asset—human capital.[3] The discipline of positive psychology has already educated us about the importance of positive reinforcement and, by proxy, the importance of focusing on strengths.[4] Positive psychology practitioners have been successful in their clinical practices. However, the processes of applying these well-researched ideas to specific business practices have not been highlighted enough—particularly in applying positive psychology concepts to goal management[5] and, even more elusive yet, in merging virtues with the for-profit goals.

So, what specific steps can be envisioned to comprehensively align the focus on virtues and strengths with the routines that business practitioners encounter on a daily basis?

A. Make employees’ strengths a part of (re)designing your business operations

It may seem simple on the surface, but it may not be so easy to implement. For instance, when entrepreneurs create new ventures, they are free to envision a business model that would incorporate employees’ strengths, but they do not yet have long-term employees to know what strengths to incorporate. On the other hand, when the business operations are set in place for years at an established enterprise, shifting that setup to “accommodate” employees’ true strengths can be challenging.

One step toward a solution may surprisingly resemble the concept behind the much publicized domain of social networks. The effectiveness of tools like Facebook or LinkedIn is fundamentally based on the participants’ motivation to connect and present themselves in the best possible light. I have not witnessed anyone in these networks deliberately focus on their weaknesses. To the contrary, social networkers concentrate on exposing and developing their strong suits, and they light up when others notice and take interest in their strengths. Interestingly enough, nobody needs to closely “manage” these networked relationships. In order for the desired outcomes to materialize for all participants—including the creators of the tools—the creators’ chief task is to enable the infrastructure for the networkers to thrive!

Now, how does this relate to organizational scholarship and practice? Business practitioners would be well served to take notice of the social networkers’ experience. Jay Galbraith, one of the best known authors in the field of organizational design, warned us some time ago that the modern organization has to get rid of hierarchical mentality and has to strengthen their relational, lateral networks in order to remain viable and expand globally.[6] He stressed that the networked organizing of business was especially important in the environments with matrix-management practices. The emphasis on the human “node” in these networks was unmistakable, and I see a link between Galbraith’s proven concepts of organizational design and the benefits of individual and organizational positivity.

Take, for example, the complex matrix-management structure of Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest non-governmental healthcare systems in the world. I worked there for more than a decade, helping to enable some of the widely praised information-technology capacities with electronic medical records. The simple idea of having a patient’s complete health record at a doctor’s fingertips was not easy to implement. It required a revamping of most organizational practices, from how a nurse’s station connects to an enterprise database, to how a patient experiences his or her visit. Regardless of their professional background, practitioners in most departments had to adapt to the new order of business, and the change was sometimes uncomfortably close to people’s deeply seated assumptions of how things should work. Managers who handled these fundamental shifts by incorporating and emphasizing employees’ strengths were successful in implementing the changes faster. Moreover, these managers did not have to spend much time monitoring the employees’ work. Employees were largely self-motivated by seeing that their strengths were acknowledged and brought value to the company.

B. Show employees how their virtues support your business virtues

As a nonprofit organization, Kaiser’s Health Plan deliberately reminded the workforce of the virtues associated with the mission of healthcare: Compassion, integrity, and service orientation were some of the key points of concentration that endured throughout the massive organizational change. Reinforcing that mission helped, not only in boosting the morale during change, but also in focusing on what was important in the long run. Many employees and managers seemed to have naturally affiliated with most of these virtues and found clear links between what they cherished and what their organization professed.

Supporting the Upward Movement

Positive Organizational ScholarshipThe next practical lesson from the positive organizational scholarship is to make sure that the unleashed power of human capital is not returning to a form of dormant asset. Robert Quinn, one of the cofounders of POS, recently coauthored Lift­­­­, a book about how to maintain the positive upward movement in organizations. It refers in part to lifting the spirits of people “touched” by a business process. When organizational members and business customers are harmoniously “lifting” each other up in every interaction, the upward movement is maintained.[7]

A. Walk the talk when supporting the psychological lifting-up process

Authenticity in the desire to maintain the upward movement must shine through personal actions. Setting one’s mind on it is very important, and so is following up with concrete steps. At Kaiser, some of the vivid examples of mutual “lifting up” came from the customer-facing practitioners. They cheered each other up and made every minute count, understanding that anything less would take the precious resources and energy away from the patients. In turn, some of the patients complimented staff members and told them how appreciated their positive energy was. Akin to a snowballing process, the mutuality of heartfelt positive reinforcement contributed to a win-win for all.

B. Create opportunities to uplift others

When was the last time you asked how someone was and were truly ready to discuss the answer and deeply focus on the positive? If you are a manager, what would you think about first when you heard your employees laughing? Would you genuinely inquire about their happiness and perhaps share in their joyous moment, or would you approach them with a confused expression and ideas on how to make the laughing stop? Thinking through these questions helps to assess how we deal with and foster positivity in the workplace and how we develop high-quality, energizing relationships.[8] Acting on the opportunities to uplift others usually benefits all stakeholders involved.

In Kaiser’s case, a happy customer is a healthier customer, and a happy employee is a healthier and more productive one. Both contribute to the decreased costs due to less spending on managing patient conditions and employee performance. Whether in managerial roles or not, business practitioners can contribute to the upward movement by seeking out opportunities to “make someone’s day.” The art of positivity should not be considered a prerogative of a few, but rather an innate capacity of all. Practicing it makes business interactions better on personal levels and contributes to financial rewards for the organization.

Embedding Sustainable Positivity

What comes next is the important step of ensuring sustainability of the newly developed trends for positive change and upward movement within the organization. Today’s business world is, of course, multifaceted and complex, and sustaining positivity may be difficult at times. There are also some scholarly arguments about counterpoints to positivity in management science that focus on objective descriptions of organizational phenomena and caution against unexamined claims around benefits of psychological positivity.[9] As with any new discipline, POS has to develop and continue testing its concepts. However, given the uplifting motivation of positive organizational scholarship and its favorable implications in practice, embedding sustainable levels of positivity is a worthy goal to pursue.

A. Encourage positivity within your reward systems

Positive traits are appealing to humans, so why not relax the internal job requirements and policies that stand in the way of letting these traits flourish? The example of Southwest Airlines comes to mind, with their happy employees and a palpable focus on love in the air. For a strictly regulated business like theirs, it is remarkable how the company designed ways to transcend “business as usual” and capitalize on the genuine smiles and care they appear to have engendered among their staff. Southwest seems to have found the win-win recipe for success by concentrating on sustained positive practices. Rewarding employees’ ingenuity in being positive—within the parameters of rigorous industrial regulatory environment—has contributed to paying off for Southwest Airlines in expanded markets and a devoted workforce. This obviously did not happen overnight. The encouragement and rewards for positivity must be sustained over time.

B. Communicate your unyielding focus on the positive

There is little dispute that communication is a vital function for organizational practitioners in leadership roles. It is an especially important function for initiating and sustaining change, including cultural and behavioral change in business operations. Kim Cameron—another cofounder of POS—authored a book on positive leadership where he describes strategies for extraordinary performance and “positive deviance.”[10] One of the lessons from his work is that successful leaders inspire people to do their best from the position of unyielding positivity. Continuously highlighting such a position and communicating such a focus helps in making some lasting changes for the better. Sam Farry wrote in his review of Cameron’s book that “one must attend consciously, practice intentionally, and learn”[11] in order to achieve the effect of positively deviant leadership behaviors. I would add that one must communicate his or her sustained focus on positivity in order to foster such behaviors in others.

Conclusion

The discipline of positive organizational scholarship provides valuable lessons for business practitioners who may bolster organizational vitality through a concentration on strengths instead of focusing on deficiencies. This scholarship does not advocate for abandoning any traditional focus that works, but instead augmenting the existing knowledge toolset with a new lens. It may help you and your workforce to see a way out of the “surviving in the jungle” or “I am as good as my last quarter’s numbers” mentality of operations. For some, it may help to create conditions under which work becomes more than a pursuit of economic goals and resembles a personal calling.[12] For others, it may lead to practical steps toward positivity and meaningfulness that include the points elaborated above:

1. Concentrate on Virtues and Strengths

  • Make employees’ strengths a part of (re)designing your business operations
  • Show employees how their virtues support your business virtues

2. Support the Upward Movement

  • Walk the talk when supporting the psychological lifting-up process
  • Create opportunities to uplift others

3. Embed Sustainable Positivity

  • Encourage positivity within your reward systems
  • Communicate your unyielding focus on the positive

None of these points or steps is trivial to embrace or implement, as any sustainable practice requires some serious effort.[13] They refer to complex dynamics of human interaction,[14] and each of them will take a unique form within a particular business environment. In aggregate, however, they may help to demystify the “ivory tower” body of knowledge and give practitioners more tangible ammunition for developing lasting businesses in which humans thrive. In turn, as organizational scholars desire to study the areas of thriving practice, such practice contributes to the development of energizing research,[15] and this generative cycle benefits both sides in the end.



[1] Cameron, Kim S., Jane E. Dutton, and Robert E. Quinn. “Foundations of Positive Organizational Scholarship,” Cameron, Kim S., Jane E. Dutton, and Robert E. Quinn, eds. Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of A New Discipline. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2003.

[2] Cameron, Kim S., Jane E. Dutton, and Robert E. Quinn, eds. Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of A New Discipline. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2003.

[3] See the following book as an illustration of the point: James, Erika Hayes, and Lynn Perry Wooten. Leading under Pressure: from Surviving to Thriving Before, During, and after a Crisis. New York: Routledge, 2010.

[4] See the following work for one of the examples: Fredrickson, Barbara L., and Christine A. Branigan. “Positive Emotions Broaden the Scope of Attention and Thought-action Repertoires.” Cognition & Emotion 19, no. 3 (2005): 313-32. doi:10.1080/02699930441000238.

[5] See the following for one notable exception: Kerns, Charles D. “The Positive Psychology Approach to Goal Management.” Graziadio Business Review 8, no. 3 (2005). http://gbr.pepperdine.edu/2010/08/the-positive-psychology-approach-to-goal-management/).

[6] Galbraith, Jay R. Designing the Global Corporation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

[7] Quinn, Ryan W., and Robert E. Quinn. Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009.

[8] also see Dutton, Jane E. Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-quality Connections at Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

[9] Fineman, S. “On Being Positive: Concerns and Counterpoints.” Academy of Management Review 31, no. 2 (2006): 270-91.

[10] Cameron, Kim S. Positive Leadership Strategies for Extraordinary Performance. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2008.

[11] Farry, Sam. “A Book Corner Review of Positive Leadership by Kim S. Cameron.” Graziadio Business Review 12, no. 1 (2009). http://gbr.pepperdine.edu/2010/08/positive-leadership-by-kim-s-cameron/.

[12] Bunderson, J. S., and J. A. Thompson. “The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work.” Administrative Science Quarterly 54, no. 1 (2009): 32-57. doi:10.2189/asqu.2009.54.1.32.

[13] James. Quinn. Dutton.

[14] Dutton, Jane E., and Belle Rose Ragins. Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007.

[15] see the following for an example of how researchers thrive in their practice from deeply exploring interesting business phenomena: Carlsen, A., and J. E. Dutton, eds. Research Alive Exploring Generative Moments in Doing Qualitative Research. Copenhagen Business School Pr, 2011.

About the Author(s)

Andre S. Avramchuk, PhD, teaches Organization Theory and Management courses at the Graziadio School of Business and Management and is currently pursuing a post-doctoral program at the University of Florida's Warrington College of Business. He received his PhD in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University, and his research centers around compassion in organizations and executive development. He spent over a decade at Kaiser Permanente managing large-scale change projects and programs as well as IT governance processes. He also organized and chaired award-winning scholarly symposia at the Academy of Management, received an Outstanding Reviewer Award from its Organizational Behavior division, and has been a board member of the Organization Development and Change division for the past four years.

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