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Business - Written by on Wednesday, January 13, 2010 11:53 - 10 Comments

Joe Grochowski
We can do better than just making work “less miserable”

In 1998, Dr. Martin Seligman became President of the American Psychological Association (APA) and publicly promoted an entirely new field of study–known today as Positive Psychology. Dr. Seligman argued that for far too long psychological investigation was based on a disease model of human behavior. Essentially, psychology was focused on how to make people less miserable. So, Seligman challenged his fellow psychologists to develop something new – a science which instead placed emphasis on healthy human behavior, how to improve normal lives, and ultimately, how to make life more fulfilling.

The consequences of this emerging field are intriguing, but it hasn’t met with widespread adoption when it comes to corporate employee engagement practices. I’d argue that far too many of today’s corporations operate under a model that is centered on how to make work life “less miserable.” And despite all the money that companies pour into employee engagement tools and surveys, companies are still bad at making work more meaningful, more fulfilling, and more engaging. What if anything can be done? And what can corporations learn–if anything–from the field of positive psychology and other scholars in this area?

Now this isn’t to say that there has been no progress towards integrating positive psychology with employee engagement. A few of my favorite explorations include:

But what’s interesting to me about these resources is that there is a common theme. In one way or another they all are trying to address the following question: how can we make work (and life) more meaningful, how do we unleash the creativity, innovation, and passion of employees? Or as one of my former clients puts it, “how can we ignite the passion of our employees?” If I had all the answers, I’d be a rich man. But I’d like to put forth a few ideas and hear more from you about others.

If corporations are truly interested in getting more productive and engaged employees, it requires much more than a simple once-a-year engagement survey. A real solution demands a new take on human resources, but it also requires corporations to rethink their leadership, management practices, culture, and organizational structure.

One possible starting point for corporations is to think hard about the lens by which managers view their employees: Is the company more focused on trying to fix weaknesses (analogous to the mental illness model in psychology) or enhance strengths (more akin to the positive psychology model)? If the organization is focused on fixing weaknesses, chances are that yearly performance reviews aimed at fixing problems are the norm; if the organization is focused on enhancing strengths, chances are that there is a cooperative effort between managers and employees to match the job challenges with individual skills.

I favor the latter approach because I believe the balance of challenge and skill is a key element to increasing employee engagement. Ideally, when challenge and skill are present in just the right quantities, “flow” emerges/results – this is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” If you are extremely challenged but lack the skills, you are in a state of anxiety. If you are not challenged and have moderate skills you become bored. But how can we infuse flow into typical employee responsibilities and tasks?

In terms of practical corporate application, I’d suggest if we want to get employees more engaged, more productive, more passionate, unleash their creativity we need to re-craft work around the individual and their particular strengths, and match the challenge to the skills of the employee. Easier said than done, I know.

I think leaders and corporations can find some lessons from the field of positive psychology and the shift from mental illness to mental health. Maybe if corporations focus less on making work “less miserable” and focus instead on what inspires and unleashes creative potential, someone might crack the employee engagement code.

What do you think? Which model does your organization subscribe to, and what would things look like if it shifted to the other?


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Positive psychology and adoption without coercion « PublicOrgTheory
Jan 13, 2010 13:21

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Joseph Logan
Jan 13, 2010 13:23

All very good ideas, especially when kept in context. The org change approach to implementing Appreciative Inquiry (positive psychology’s OD offshoot) can be very useful in shifting perspectives in organizations, though its adherents have become a sort of AI Mafia unwilling to allow other approaches. I believe it is important to integrate positive psychology with an acknowledgement that not everything at work is sunshine and puppies. When I have seen AI interventions that ignore the current reality of employees, those approaches have failed spectacularly, leaving employees more disillusioned than before.

Joe Grochowski
Jan 13, 2010 16:20

Joseph – thanks so much for your comments. I am vaguely familary with the use of Appreciate Inquiry but don’t admit to be an expert. And I certainly agree with your observation that positive psychology and offshoots need be placed in the proper context as clearly not everything at work is “sunshine and puppies” especially in the current environment of massive layoffs and people just happy to keep their jobs. I think you raise another point I wasn’t able to dive into, which is, there isn’t a silver bullet here to engagement. For example, a company may use Gallup’s Q12 to track employee engagement, but that could backfire if nothing is done with the results. And clearly a comprehensive solution to the engagement problem needs to go beyond a survey. Again, thanks or you observations!

Joseph Logan
Jan 14, 2010 0:27

I’m glad you’ve opened up this topic, Joe. I’m very interested to hear more about your experience of “silver bullet” fantasies.

Jan 14, 2010 18:07

Great post. As you said, easier said than done – primarily because positive approaches and attitude require such a dramatic cultural change in nearly every organization. Much of the frustration employees experience, IMO, is rooted in poor matches between their skills and interests and the role they have in the company. When I first read Marcus Buckingham’s writing about playing to strengths, it struck me as counterintuitive — that’s how deeply the existing work paradigm was part of my thinking. Changing the culture means changing the way management thinks about the people they selected; they are too often chosen for the list of things they have done rather than their ability and willingness to grow, learn new things, and pursue paths that can benefit both them and the organization simultaneously.
Thanks for reminding us of the value of positive thinking.

Andrew Kable
Jan 21, 2010 20:57

I couldn’t agree more that the balance of challenge and skill, as well as matching job-tasks with aptitude, is critical for workplace happiness…but certainly not sufficient.

You must also, like, or at least respect, the people you work with.

You must feel alignment with the company’s noble purpose, and the company must “walk the talk”.

Finally, I think that we must somehow move away from the model of being paid for hours worked. I am confident almost all jobs could be structured such that pay is on results, without taking away employee security.

Paying people for working hours is buying their lives…one hour at a time. You only get one life (in my world view) and it is too precious to sell! I am pretty sure that paying people for productivity would engender the “flow” you described…as there is no need for them to watch the clock.

Joe Grochowski
Jan 22, 2010 9:51


I couldn’t agree more about the need to change the model around paying for hours worked. In fact, a few companies are starting to experiment with that. Most noteworthy would proabably be Best Buy which operates under a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) model. My colleague, Tammy Erickson has also been a strong advocate of paying people based on “task not time.” Although I agree with moving toward these models, the problem is it is not always easy to measure knowledge work or break complex work assignments into simple parts. But that shouldn’t prevent companies from experimenting, where they can, with pay for productivity (or creativity) not time. Thanks for your comments.

David Jenkins
Jan 26, 2010 16:37

Interesting take on how the positivist movement within psychology interacts with business practices. Although it sounds idealistic to note that paying people to be productive is an idea worth pursuing I would argue that it would depend on the field. Take for instance healthcare or mental healthcare. What would be the measure of productivity? Traditionally in some fields within healthcare a 70% ratio is utilized to indicate bottom line productivity. Unfortunately, this productivity is measured in units served, which in turn basically equates to “billable time” within the healthcare industry. This means we are back to square one with attempts to pay those for task. Frederick Winslow Taylor attempted this many years ago with his scientific management strategies, but as seen during the Human Relations Movement, people have feelings and are not Cogs in the Machine. I agree with you regarding your thoughts about business and corporations taking away valuable insight from positive psychology and as long as there is productive bottom line stakeholder benefits, both public and private business practices due well to take head to the continued emphasis on positive proactive ness as opposed to negative reactive ness.
David J

Joe Grochowski
Jan 28, 2010 11:22


Your point that paying for productivity would depend on the field is a good one. Shows there is no one-size-fits all solution. I think it also depends on the type of job itself. One additional thought I would add to this thread…moving away from time-based toward task-based models has a lot to do with elimating the whole putting in face time culture that exists in many companies – the assumption that the person who stays the longest at the office is putting in the most effort (something we all would probably agree is a faulty assumption). For more on this topic of task versus time, it’s worth checking out Tammy Erickson’s blog at http://blogs.hbr.org/erickson/2007/03/think_task_not_time.html

Some of Today’s More Interesting Reading
Jan 30, 2010 9:03

[...] We can do better than just making work “less miserable” Published: January 13, 2010 Source: Wikinomics In 1998, Dr. Martin Seligman became President of the American Psychological Association (APA) and publicly promoted an entirely new field of study–known today as Positive Psychology. Dr. Seligman argued that… [...]

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