The Three Pillars of Positive Psychology

[article]

In her Personality Matters series, Leslie Sachs examines the personalities and people-issues that are found in technology groups from cross-functional, high-performance teams to dysfunctional matrix organizations.

Summary:

Positive psychology encourages positive and effective behaviors that help to bring out desired traits, and it applies well to many business and technical situations. Leslie Sachs explains the third pillar of positive psychology, which is related to organizational psychology and is of great interest to anyone who wants to be part of an effective institution.

Positive psychology is an emerging approach developed by leading psychologists, most notably Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The focus of positive psychology is on encouraging positive and effective behaviors [1] that help to bring out desired behaviors and applies well to many business and technical situations. Dr. Seligman noted in his writings that there are essentially three pillars that make up the scientific endeavor of positive psychology. The first two relate to individual behavior and the third is the study of positive institutions, which Seligman suggested was “beyond the guild of psychology.” [2]This article will focus on that third pillar, which is within the realm of organizational psychology and of great interest to anyone who wants to be part of an effective organization.

The first two pillars of positive psychology focus on positive emotion and positive character, each of which contribute to the development of a sense of self-efficacy and personal effectiveness; these are both very important to individual success. Organizations, not unlike the people who comprise them, often have unique and complex personalities. Individuals who join the army or the police force certainly experience the culture of the organization in a very real way.

When people fail in their jobs, it is sometimes due to factors beyond their direct control; perhaps they could not fit into the culture and the expectations of the organization itself or the organization's culture made success very difficult to attain. What are the traits that we might want to highlight when looking at an organization from a positive psychology perspective?

Organizations that encourage curiosity, interest in the world, and a general love of learning provide an environment that is consistent with what Dr. Seligman had in mind with his first cluster, which he termed wisdom. Technology professionals could understand these traits in terms of organizations that encourage learning new technologies and frameworks and provide opportunities for professionals to constantly improve their skills. Judiciousness, critical thinking, and open-mindedness along with ingenuity, originality, and practical street smarts are also attributes found among employees in effective organizations. Social, personal, and emotional intelligence describes organizations that encourage their members to respectfully understand both individual and group differences, including cultural diversity.

Organizations that encourage employees to feel safe when speaking up or taking the initiative can be understood to exhibit valor and courage, which is the cluster that Seligman termed bravery. Integrity and honesty, along with perseverance and diligence, are also grouped with these positive traits. The degree to which these characteristics and their active expression are valued in an organization will significantly impact that firm's functioning and results. 

Positive organizations encourage their employees to take initiative and ensure that employees feel safe, even when reporting a potential problem or issue. Dysfunctional organizations punish the whistleblower, while effective organizations recognize the importance of being able to evaluate the risks or problems that have been brought to their attention and actively solicit such self-monitoring efforts.

The cluster of humanity and love consists of kindness, generosity, and an intrinsic sense of justice. Organizations that encourage a genuine sense of delivering value to customers and also the idea of giving back to their community model these behaviors and are more likely to see employees living these values on a daily basis. Of paramount importance is good citizenship and teamwork as well as a strong culture of leadership. While many organizations may have individuals who exhibit these strengths, highly effective organizations make these values a cultural norm, which, in turn,  becomes the personality of the organization itself.

The cluster of temperance includes self-control, humility, and modesty, all of which can be understood in terms of delivering quality to all stakeholders, including ensuring real value to stock-holders instead of simply advertising and marketing hype. Gratitude is a fundamental trait of many successful organizations; this involves modeling positive behaviors and actively participating in helping the communities that support them. These are often the same organizations that have a strong sense of hope and optimism and are mindful of the future; again all traits found in Seligman’s view of positive psychology. Some organizations have a culture that exhibits spirituality, faith, and even religiousness, which aligns with their personality. Most importantly, playfulness and humor, along with passion and enthusiasm, all make for a corporate environment that breeds successful and loyal employees.

Over the years, many organizations have unfortunately become associated with greed and dysfunctional behavior. However, the study of positive psychology provides an effective, comprehensive, and attainable model to understand those companies that exhibit cultures that encourage and nurture the positive behaviors that research indicates leads to success and profitability.

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