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date: 24 November 2020

Finding the Positive in the World of Work

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter opens by re-telling the story of the closure and clean-up of Rocky Flats, a nuclear facility in the United States that was closed and cleaned up in 10 years, 60 years ahead of a 70-year schedule, and at a cost of only $6 billion against projected costs of $36 billion, by adopting an abundance approach to change rather than the more traditional deficit approach. Tracing the central ideas of abundance approaches to the early work pioneered by management thinkers such as Douglas McGregor and Peter Drucker, the chapter then goes on to give a brief history of the positive in the world of work, reviewing appreciative inquiry, applied positive psychology, positive organizational scholarship and positive organizational behavior. Having set this historical and conceptual context, the chapter then introduces the reader to the structure of the volume and provides brief introductions to each of the subsequent chapters.

Keywords: abundance approach, applied positive psychology, work psychology, I/O psychology, organizations

Rocky Flats was regarded as America's most dangerous nuclear weapons production facility. Built on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, at the base of the beautiful Flatirons, Rocky Flats—as it was christened by the U.S. Department of Energy—began the production of plutonium and enriched uranium triggers for nuclear weapons in 1953, continuing until 1989, during which time it was known as the most productive and efficient facility of its kind in the world.

The Rocky Flats site covers some 6,000 acres, consisting of approximately 800 buildings. Employees worked with many of the most dangerous materials known to mankind, such that more radioactive waste existed at Rocky Flats than at any other nuclear facility in America—in fact so much so, that in 1994 an ABC Nightline program claimed that several of the buildings on the site were “the most dangerous buildings in America.” Contamination from the nuclear activities at Rocky Flats was to be found throughout walls, floors, ceilings, ductwork, the surrounding soil, and potentially the groundwater too. The largest industrial fire in the history of America had blazed at Rocky Flats in 1969, and protests, lawsuits, and antagonism characterized the constant climate of the facility, leading to a siege mentality whereby razor wire fences and guards with M-16 rifles kept outsiders outside and the perceived secrets of Rocky Flats securely inside.

Employee relations were almost constantly antagonistic, with the three unions representing Rocky Flats employees—steelworkers, construction workers, and security guards—commonly filing grievance complaints. In keeping with this dire image, safety was significantly worse than at other government facilities, and in 1989 the FBI raided the facility, opting to close it down on suspicion of unreported pollution activity. In one fell swoop, therefore, the workers at Rocky Flats were put out of future employment, their previous expertise and mission now rendered largely irrelevant.

(p. 4) This was the context in which the decision was taken by the U.S. Department of Energy to close the facility permanently and clean it up. A study of the residual pollution at the site in 1995 concluded that this closure and clean up operation would take around 70 years and cost at least a staggering $36 billion over that time. Clearly, there was not much positivity in the climate of Rocky Flats at this time—and yet what went on to be achieved can only be described as extraordinary.

Within 10 years, by October 1995, nothing less than what had previously seemed impossible had been achieved. First, all 800 buildings had been demolished. Second, all radioactive waste had been removed. Third, all soil and water had been treated and returned to levels of cleanliness that exceeded federal standards by a factor of 13. Fourth, all of this was done—not only within10years—but with cost savings of $30 billion, using only one-sixth of fees and one-seventh of the time put forward in the original clean-up estimates.1

The Abundance Approach and the Deficit Approach

The story of the Rocky Flats clean-up is a story of remarkable success, which could be one reason why we have opted to open the Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work with reference to it. But there is also a second—and far more important—reason for our choice. Quite simply, as described by Cameron and avine (2006), the single consistent theme that emerges from their analysis of the Rocky Flats story is that of taking an abundance approach, rather than a deficit approach. As they describe it, and go on to explore in depth, the overarching lesson to be learned from the Rocky Flats story is that “The impossible was made possible by adopting an abundance approach to change rather than a deficit approach” (Cameron & Lavine, 2006, p. 6, original italics).

A deficit (or problem-solving) approach is characterized by, first, identifying the key problems and challenges; second, generating alternative solutions to these problems that are based on the identification of the root causes of those problems; third, evaluating and then choosing the most optimal of these different solutions; and fourth, putting this chosen solution into practice, and following up on it to ensure that the problem is actually solved (Cameron & Lavine, 2006). Throughout this undertaking, the fundamental assumption of the manager (and of the organization more broadly) is that of taking on the role of problem-solver—dealing with the deficit, their role being to overcome the challenges and solve the problems the organization faces. Success here is defined by the optimal solution of problems and satisfactory plugging of deficits, but by definition, therefore, the focus is always squarely on the negative, in the form of the problems to be solved and the deficits to be filled.

In contrast, an abundance approach starts from a differing fundamental assumption: that the role of the manager and the organization is to embrace and enable the highest potential of both the organization and its people. The abundance approach begins, first, by identifying the peak experiences of when the organization and its people have been at their best; second, by identifying and understanding the enablers of these optimal performances; third, by creating sustainable impact through seeing what of these enablers of optimal performance can be continued and replicated in the future; and fourth, designing interventions to create an ideal, desired future characterized by extraordinary performance. Starting from these differing fundamental assumptions, one observes how we arrive at two very different end points: one that is concerned with solving problems and filling deficits (the deficit approach), the second that is concerned with identifying, understanding, enabling, and sustaining the highest potentials of what people, both individually and collectively, have to offer (the abundance approach).

With the advent of the “triple bottom line,” and the increasing need for environmental and corporate responsibility—this realization of potential could be argued now to extend beyond the relatively narrow confines of the organization, its people, and its stockholders, also to embrace the organization's local community, their environmental impact, and their lasting legacy for future generations. As such, the abundance focus on embracing and enabling our highest potentials heralds real promise for positive psychology in the world of work—a theme to which we return in our concluding chapter (Garcea, Harrington, & Linley, Chapter 26, this volume).

With the distinction between an abundance approach and a deficit approach drawn as starkly as this, it seems inconceivable that any right-thinking leader, board of directors, or organization could have (p. 5) done anything less. With the statutory-enshrined duty to maximize returns to stockholders, if an abundance approach is shown to do so, then surely it must be the case that such an approach is the status quo of organizational life. Unfortunately, what makes the Rocky Flats story all the more compelling, is that it is not: organizations—typically at least—are characterized by deficit approaches built on implicit assumptions about the way people work and following from this, how best to manipulate their levers in order to have them deliver what the organization requires—McGregor's (1960) Theory X writ large—arguably the original identification of the prevalent deficit approach—characterizes the typical modus operandi of organizations.

Challenges to Introducing an Abundance Approach

There are four major challenges that immediately face any organization which steps out to overturn this deficit-based status quo. First, is the fact that the deficit approach is the status quo, “the way things are done round here.” Typically, both the people within organizations, and the organizations themselves (through their process, policies, procedures, and histories) are resistant to change. Deficit approaches one, abundance approaches nil. Second, as the status quo, deficit-based approaches are supported by an apparent wealth of management and organizational literature, testifying in support of the status quo ante, and the “correctness” of the deficit approach. Unfortunately, as Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) originally demonstrated with the Pygmalion effect, we tend to find what weʼre looking for, and so deficit-based researchers find deficit-based explanations. Deficit approaches, two, abundance approaches, nil. Third, whether we like it or not, as human beings we seem to be programmed from evolution to pay attention to the negative (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001; Rozin & Royzman, 2001). The simple reason for this is that it is adaptive—our ancestors who did not pay attention to problems and threats simply did not survive. Yet the challenge comes when we pay attention to the negative at the exclusion of what is going right—a challenge exacerbated in times of challenge and stress, two cultures that could be taken to characterize much of organizational life, and so which lead to this negativity bias of deficit approaches becoming even further embedded. Deficit approaches, three, abundance approaches, nil.

Fourth, and most insidious, is that these deficit approaches are based on implicit fundamental assumptions about human nature and the nature of humans in organizations, something which McGregor identified almost fifty years ago (McGregor, 1960). Further, as Joseph and Linley (2004) have described in relation to therapeutic approaches, these implicit assumptions about human nature are all the more powerful because they are unrecognized as such, and so proceed blindly accepted and unchallenged, becoming the status quo and attracting research evidence that appears to support them, as we have made the case above. Deficit approaches, four, abundance approaches, nil.

In this context, it is not difficult to see why I/O psychology (in the United States) or occupational psychology (in the UK) have become dominated by deficit-based approaches to both their research and practice (Hill, 2003)—much the same as can be said for psychology generally, a status quo ante that positive psychology set out explicitly to challenge and reframe (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

While the philosophical assumptions of psychology as a whole provide one context for the challenges facing I/O or occupational psychology, others lie closer to home. For example, Cascio (1995) posed the question of “Whither industrial and organizational psychology in the changing world of work?” arguing that I/O and occupational psychology needed to adapt if they were to keep pace with the global forces reshaping patterns of employment and organizational life, a theme to which he returns in his context-setting chapter for this volume (Cascio, Chapter 2, this volume).

Further, squeezed between science and practice, and with arguably irreconcilable demands from each, Anderson, Herriot, and Hodgkinson (2001) made the case that work psychologists needed to strive for pragmatic research (characterized by good science and solid application), while guarding against being lured toward the other false gods of pedantic (high academic value but with no application), populist (strong application but weak science), and puerile research (neither strong science nor application). So, whether the challenge is keeping pace with the speed of global change, or steering an appropriate course between the Scylla of academic research, and the Charybdis of real world application, work psychology has been considered by some (e.g., Hill, 2003) to be facing an uphill battle. This battle, combined with the challenge of the (p. 6) traditional deficit approach and its attendant implicit assumptions has meant that work psychology could be argued so far to have missed its chance to offer a brave new paradigm for organizational life, based on the fundamental assumptions and methodological approaches of the abundance approach, instead allowing itself to become the servant of the status quo ante of deficit approaches.

The Emergence of Positive Approaches in the World of Work

Yet, slowly but surely, over the last twenty or so years, the potential new paradigm of the abundance approach for work psychology has been emerging. It goes by different names—including names such as appreciative inquiry, the strengths approach, applied positive psychology, positive organizational scholarship, or positive organizational behavior—but whatever the appellation, the shift in perspective is clear, and growing clearer. Traditional approaches, assuming that fixing weaknesses and dealing with problems, are the royal roads to high performance, simply have not delivered.

We need another way and, just as Kuhn (1970) described in his prescient volume The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that other way has been slowly gaining ground. The first reason for this shift is that findings in both research and practice gradually build up over time that cannot be explained by the traditional models or theories. Initially these findings are dismissed as aberrations, anomalies in the data, since we prefer to stay with the models and theories we know, rather than risk admitting that we might be wrong. But then, second and subsequently, comes the realization that these findings cannot simply be dismissed as aberrations—the patterns are becoming too common to be simply ignored. And third, with the particular assistance of the forces of the competitive marketplace where work psychology is concerned, the rejection of our extant dogma and tradition by the organizations who purchase our services as work psychologists. Unbound by academic politesse or the demands of research journal gatekeepers, organizations are interested only in answering a single, simple, powerful, effective question: What works? Show me what will make a difference to my bottom line, and I'll do it—irrespective of what theory it has been developed from, or of whose reputation may be challenged in the process. For us, this is the joy of applying positive psychology at work, because organizations are interested, quite simply, in what works. And positive psychology does (see, e.g., Harter, Schmidt, & Keyes, 2003).

The early roots of our modern—and still emerging—focus on the positive in organizations can arguably be traced at their earliest to two scions of modern management thinking. First, in 1960, Douglas McGregor published his timeless classic, The Human Side of Enterprise, introducing the distinction between Theory X (the view that workers need to be cajoled or even forced to work) and Theory Y (the view that workers are self-motivated and self-directed).

Several years later, Peter Drucker, in The Effective Executive, argued that “To make strength productive is the unique purpose of organization” (Drucker, 1967, p. 60), thereby giving the clarion call to strengths-based organization that we are only now beginning to see today, some 40 years later (Smedley, 2007; Stefanyszyn, 2007; see also Garcea, Harrington, & Linley, Chapter 26, this volume). As is now being recognized, making strength productive should be fundamental to the role of Human Resources practitioners and work psychologists, who both have abundant opportunities to use their own strengths in the identification, engagement, and orchestration of the strengths of others in the organization (Ulrich, 2008).

Fast-forward then to 1987, and the work of David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva (1987), and their development of Appreciative Inquiry, based on the core principle that the assumptions with which we approach a situation, and the methodologies we use to investigate it, largely create the findings that we then go on to discover. Simply put, if we look for problems, we find them. If we look for solutions, we find them. On this basis, Appreciative Inquiry adopts an appreciative, celebratory approach, and in doing so is able to unlock possibility and potential that previously could not even have been imagined (Cooperrider & Sekerka, 2003; see also Sekerka & Fredrickson, Chapter 7, this volume).

A similarly uplifting focus on the positive is found in the seminal work of Donald O. Clifton, and his colleagues at The Gallup Organization. Starting from the question of “What would happen if we studied what was right with people?” Clifton set about studying, cataloguing and assessing people's talents, which, he argued, with the addition of knowledge and skill, could be honed into strengths (see Buckingham & Clifton, 2001; Hodges & Clifton, 2004; Hodges & Asplund, Chapter 17, this volume).

(p. 7) These early shoots of positivity in organizational life were all given added impetus and the oxygen of publicity through the advent of the positive psychology movement, launched by American Psychological Association President, Martin E. P. Seligman (see Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Seligman argued that, as both a discipline and as an applied practice, psychology had been too focused on the study of what was wrong with people, ignoring the much bigger question of understanding and enhancing what was right with people. To redress this, he called for a new “positive” psychology—and his call was answered willingly and expansively, with an explosion of research, conferences, books, journal special issues, and even a dedicated journal focused on this appreciative study of what is right with people (see Linley, Joseph, Harrington, & Wood, 2006).

In the organizational world specifically, positive approaches flourished under the banners of positive organizational scholarship (POS; Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003), positive organizational behavior (POB; Luthans, 2002) and applied positive psychology (Linley & Joseph, 2004a). POS focuses on identifying and developing positive organizational characteristics that lead to exceptional individual and organizational performance, investigating positive deviance, that is, the ways in which organizations and their members may flourish and prosper by developing strengths such as resilience, restoration, and vitality (see Wooten & Cameron, Chapter 5; Mroz & Quinn, Chapter 20, this volume). POB seeks to improve employee performance and organizational competitive advantage by focusing on statelike strengths and psychological capacities that are positive, measurable, developable, and performance-related, with four key components including self-efficacy, optimism, hope, and resiliency (Luthans, Avey, Avolio, Norman, & Combs, 2006; see also Youssef & Luthans, Chapter 22, this volume).

Applied positive psychology is broader in perspective (as testified by the breadth of topics included in Positive Psychology in Practice; Linley & Joseph, 2004b), but applied to organizational life, is concerned with the applications of positive psychology in the organizational context (see, for example, Page & Linley, 2008). In our consulting work at the Centre of Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP; where Linley and Page are based), we draw extensively from these diverse approaches, having learned much from the early roots of the study of positivity in organisations, nurturing those roots with the later lessons of appreciative inquiry, positive psychology, and positive organizational scholarship, and extending our knowledge and practice further with our own consulting experiences and innovation (see, for example, Linley, 2008; Smedley, 2007; Stefanyszyn, 2007).

This, then, is the context in which we have sought to invite, edit, and collate the chapters of this volume on the broad church of “positive psychology and work.” As the chapters—and their authors—will testify, we are not exclusionary partisans of “positive psychology,” or even exclusionary partisans of our own consulting techniques and approaches. Rather, we strive to be open-minded, inclusive, and collaborative, recognizing that we all learn more by opening the doors of our experience than by walling-up what we know against the threats of others' adoption of it. This, in essence, is how positive psychology should be lived in practice, as well as in research.

The Structure of the Volume

We open with two chapters that set something of the global, cultural, and generational organizational context for what is to follow. Following on from his hugely influential American Psychologist article “Whither Industrial and Organizational Psychology in a Changing World of Work?” (Cascio, 1995), Wayne Cascio revisits this same question more than a decade later, providing a wider perspective and context for the forces that are shaping I/O psychology and the world of work, and to which positive psychology applied to the world of work will need to respond. Jean Twenge and Stacy Campbell focus their analysis specifically on the generational challenge of the new workforce entrants, Generation Me. While some commentators will argue that there have always been generation clashes between older managers and younger workforce entrants, Twenge and Campbell take this argument several steps further, making the compelling case for why Generation Me is more starkly different from the generations from which it has emerged, with attendant implications for their entry into, and accommodation by the world of work.

In Part 2, Positive Organizational Leadership, we turn our attention to the role of the leader in creating and leading organizations positively. Bruce Avolio and colleagues answer the question What is authentic leadership development? in exploring how authentic leaders can be developed. Lynn Perry Wooten and Kim Cameron, working from a positive organizational scholarship perspective, explore the operation of positively deviant leadership in enabling positive (p. 8) strategy execution and delivery. With a focus on leading change, Malcolm Higgs unlocks the role of leadership and positive emotions in successful change initiatives, a theme expanded further by Leslie Sekerka and Barbara Fredrickson as they examine positive emotions in transformative cooperation. Concluding the section with a strengths emphasis, Danny Morris and Jill Garrett look at how leaders deploy different leadership strengths as their leading edge, while Bob Kaplan and Rob Kaiser ensure a balanced strengths focus through their exploration of a positive psychology for leaders.

Turning to consider the organizational climate created by leaders and their leadership practices, Part 3, Positive Work Environments for Individuals and Organizations, explores the roles of engagement, meaning, and well-being in the workplace. James Harter and Nikki Blacksmith open the section with a review of the extensive Gallup work on employee engagement, examining why employees join, stay in, and leave organizations. Michael Steger and Bryan Dik focus on a specific element of the engagement experience, looking at the role of meaning in work, while Thomas Wright examines the role of employee well-being in organizational life. In the final chapter of this section, Martin Stairs and Martin Galpin's integrative chapter superbly blends what is known about employee engagement and well-being, both at work and more broadly, to propose a true positive psychology shift in organizational research and practice—from employee engagement to workplace happiness.

Examining some of the factors that contribute to a positive working life is the focus of Part 4, Enabling a Positive Working Life. Anthony Grant and Gordon Spence open the section with their examination of the role of coaching in promoting a flourishing workforce, while Oberdan Marianetti and Jonathan Passmore explore the increasing focus on mindfulness at work, and the benefits—both individual and organizational—that it can bring. Boris Baltes and colleagues highlight the importance of finding the right balance between work and non-work, emphasizing that there is no single right way to do this, but only the way that is right for those involved, both individuals and organizations. In the final two chapters of this section, Tim Hodges and Jim Asplund look at strengths development in the workplace, drawing from the Gallup Organization's extensive experience in this area, while Chris Peterson and colleagues report on their findings of occupational strengths patterns using the VIA Classification of Strengths.

Part 5, Models for Positive Organization, draws out the lens for a wider perspective, looking at organization-wide initiatives and approaches for organizing work positively. The section opens with Joanne Richardson and Michael West reviewing the extensive literature on teamworking, and proposing how dream teams can be created through blending this literature with the principles and practices of a positive psychology approach. Don Mroz and Shawn Quinn share with us their exploration of positive organizational scholarship in practice, while Susan Harrington and Charlotte Rayner deal with the issue of moral courage, and how it is an integral component of combating and preventing workplace bullying. Carolyn Youssef and Fred Luthans describe their integrated model of psychological capital in the workplace, while the section concludes with Jocelyn Davis's account of her practical experiences of consulting with organizations to create the positive workplace.

Finally, Part 6 of the volume, Looking to the Future: Challenges and Opportunities, opens up the positive psychology perspective on work to the challenge of contrary views, and the exploration of future trends and opportunities. Lynn Barendsen and Howard Gardner revisit the generational issue with which the volume opened, but this time posing the opportunity for “good work” as the solution to many of the challenges and needs of the younger generation. Samantha Warren strikes a constructively critical stance, challenging some of the assumptions of the positive psychology movement, and especially its actions in practice, before we conclude with a view from the field, and an eye to the future, of what building positive organizations is all about.

Positive psychology applied to the world of work is not a modern panacea for all organizational ills. But we do genuinely believe that it has immense potential to make a positive and constructive contribution to the debates about the future of work and organizations in a global world, and in editing this volume, we have striven to play our small part in enabling that to happen.

Directions for Research

  • What evidence—academic or applied—can be garnered in support of strengths-based abundance approaches to organizational performance and development?

  • Is it possible to conduct controlled trials in the real world of organizational life that would compare abundance approaches with deficit approaches?

  • (p. 9) Can it be shown that positive approaches to organizational life deliver the triple bottom line benefits of financial performance, individual well-being, and social responsibility?

Implications for Practice

  • Don't assume that just because deficit models are the status quo they are the right solution or the only solution. Increasing evidence points to the value and efficacy of adopting abundance approaches to organizational performance and development.

  • Examine the opportunities that already exist within your organization and within your remit for you to introduce more positive ways of working, including strengths-based approaches to traditional HR responsibilities such as performance management, recruitment, engagement, talent management, and leadership development. What opportunities are open to you? What is the smallest change that you could introduce to make the biggest difference?

  • Consider whether internal HR and OD teams have the necessary experience and expertise with strengths-based abundance approaches to be able to apply them effectively across the organization. If not, identify and retain external consultants who will partner with the organization to provide this education and capability building.


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(1.) In writing this introductory section about Rocky Flats, we have drawn extensively from the exemplary work on this topic of Kim Cameron and Marc Lavine (2006) Making the impossible possible: Leading extraordinary performancethe Rocky Flats story, San Francisco, CA, Berrett-Koehler.