Organizational Flourishing: Three Steps Toward Fostering Emotions

January 8, 2013

By: Chris White

Originally posted on Lead Positively

Professor Kim Cameron, from the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship, has spent much of his career studying organizational virtuousness. How do attributes such as compassion, generosity, forgiveness and so forth get institutionalized into the processes, systems, strategies, culture of organizations?

I find this a tricky subject. I was on the phone the other day with a friend and former boss of mine. She has recently left a company that was analytic almost to a fault, and a team environment that was toxic. Her new company is at the other end of the continuum, where there is almost too much recognition and acknowledgement of contribution. Much of the recognition is for things that would fall within the scope of day to day job descriptions in the eyes of most people. For my friend, the culture often feels artificial, and doesn’t push people toward high performance.

The efforts at the new company are sincere and well-intentioned. But, for my friend at least, they don’t seem to be hitting the mark. How do you make sure that efforts to foster positive emotions in organizational architecture are genuine?  Here are three steps. I welcome others!

Authenticity. I think it is important to acknowledge when things aren’t great and be able to talk about it, but not wallow in it.

As you can probably imagine, people who know about Positive Organizational Scholarship from a distance think that it is all about “positive thinking”, which often implies the denial of any negative things in life. That is a pretty major misinterpretation of what we do, in my opinion. Sure, most people connected with our field of study seem to be happy, upbeat, optimistic, positive people most of the time. I am too. I am glad that is the case! However, most of the examples of positive deviance that I have come across in the short time that I have been involved with the field have emerged as responses to adversity. In fact, the Center itself was born as a response to the tragedy of 9/11.

We all have a story from which our characters have developed. Me included. Life is not always rosy. Any approach that denies this would be ridiculous and, in my opinion, unhealthy.

The question is: how do we respond when adversity happens, once we have acknowledged it to ourselves and others? That is where the “positive lens” comes in. That is where we can draw on personal and organizational resilience that has been built up through the processes, systems, structures and so forth that we have put in place over an extended period of time, which give us the capacity to respond positively.

Rituals.  There are patterns that can be observed in any organizational culture. A friend of mine works at Google, where they systematically crack open some beers every Friday at 5pm for a happy hour (sometimes at their computers). In Delivering Happiness, Tony Tsieh spends much of the book describing the rituals of having fun at Zappos.

So what are some rituals for fostering positive emotions in teams and organizations?

I described our use of “sugar cubes” in an earlier post. I’ve been thrilled with a couple of little developments since then. Firstly, some people have started bringing notes to meetings with me so that I can serve as a delivery boy, or using spare minutes at the start of meetings to scribble notes to take back with me and pop in the envelopes. Secondly, two of my teammates took the time and effort to switch out the plain old envelopes that I had stuck on the wall with the bright and beautiful display in the picture below. It may be too early to say, but it appears the ritual is sticking, and taking on a life of its own!

new sugar cubes

I may also have mentioned our one-minute celebrations. At the start of our monthly faculty meeting, we go around and each say one thing that we have to celebrate since the last time we met. I view this as the team version of a gratitude journal, to get each of us in a positive frame of mind for the meeting ahead.

Pro-social structures. All the evidence suggests that we are at our best and happiest when we are doing something for others. This is true in the workplace as well. Adam Grant has done some terrific work in the area of pro-social motivation, and has a book coming out this year that is sure to be a big hit. One study, for example, illustrates a significant uptick in fundraising performance among those who met a beneficiary of the fundraising before starting their shift on the phones, as opposed to those who did not. Amazingly, both groups used identical scripts, and the sample size was large enough to randomize out the possibility that one group just got “better” callers.

As you may have gathered by now, I enjoy experimenting: try things, see if they work, have fun in the process. One such experiment I was inspired to try was in the area of pro-social motivation. The Center has a dozen or so students involved in projects at any given time. In the last faculty meeting before Christmas, I invited the students to join the first half hour and share what they are working on with the faculty in two minutes or less. The students loved it, the faculty loved it, the content was helpful and informative. Two weeks later, I sent an email out to the faculty to ask for some input into my Christmas letters to our funders. “What are you most proud of about the work of the Center in 2012?”, I asked. Each faculty member independently replied, and included in their response some variation of “the work being done by our amazing students”.

Now, of  course, I am looking for a way to have students play some part in every faculty meeting!

As a final thought, I come back to Kim Cameron’s work on virtuousness. Kim references Aristotle’s concept of eudemonia, and elaborates on it as being the inherent human tendency toward that which is life giving. If that is true, then the most important thing is to create a respectful, open, supportive environment. In it, people will gradually and naturally bring their best selves to work – and feel good about it.