Sparks from the torch of POS ignite new ideas in positive health care and beyond

August 11, 2016

By: Michelle Segar

Michelle Segar Carrying Olympic Torch 1992I am not an athlete or even a sports fan. Yet, in 1992, I not only became an employee of the Olympic Committee in Spain, I had the honor of carrying the Olympic Torch.

I ran through cheering crowds and passed the torch to the next runner, helping it on its way to light the fire that would ignite the Barcelona Olympic Games. Afterward, my legs and arms ached (that torch was heavy!), but the experience sparked a visceral change. I could feel the pulse of the ongoing connection between the athletes of ancient Athens and the modern Barcelona, and the shared humanity and pursuit of optimal performance that is the spirit of the Olympic Games.

Over the years, the idea of people carrying a positive spark of energy from one to the next has been a goal and an inspiration in my work as a motivation researcher at the University of Michigan, coach, and consultant. And I have been thrilled to recognize the same spirit in the “sparks” of relational energy—the energy you get when you interact with someone who energizes you—that characterize the people and work of Michigan Ross’ Center for Positive Organizations (CPO).

The Center does not take the typical approach of identifying “problems” and focusing on how to “overcome” them. Instead, guided by the philosophy of Positive Organizational Scholarship, CPO illuminates insights and identifies methods for bringing out the very best in employees, leaders, and organizations. The focus is on optimizing instead of avoiding. Their work has been so influential among their peers that in 2010 the Academy of Management awarded them the prestigious Joanne Martin Trailblazer Award for opening up a new field of inquiry in management science. Torch carriers indeed.

CPO’s purposeful goal is both important and vitally worth pursuing, and it sparked changes in how I thought about my own work. As a motivation scientist who works in the wellness and healthcare industries, I study systemic ways to create sustainable health-related behavior. In this regard, it is important to help individuals and organizations see behaviors like exercise not as a vaguely threatening prescription against future disease that must be grudgingly endured, but as a gift of immediate energy and well-being that fuels what matters most every day. I became involved with the Center in 2012 because it was clear we were moving in the same direction.

CPO faculty’s discoveries for creating contexts, leaders, and practices that enhance business outcomes had significant overlap with the principles I had discovered and been using to drive the sustainable individual behavior that underlies well-being and health.

For example, Gretchen Spreitzer (CPO’s faculty director and Keith E. and Valerie J. Alessi Professor of Business Administration) and Christine Porath have identified two key levers of organizational thriving, indicated by improvements in key outcomes: When employees have opportunities to learn and experience vitality, they report enhanced performance, commitment, and job satisfaction, and lower burnout. What if these same levers—learning and vitality— become the foci within organizational health and well-being initiatives? Can we promote employee health and well-being using methods and messages that can simultaneously also boost outcomes tied to the bottom line, such as better performance? Talk about a strategic and efficient investment!

Pursuing answers to this question within organizations is one of the many ways that my work has been sparked and deepened by CPO insights. In my current ongoing work with a large health care organization, for example, we are interested to see if reframing so-called “healthy” behaviors (such as exercise and dietary change) as “vehicles of vitality and opportunities to learn”—the levers or organizational thriving—also brings greater engagement in self-care and behavioral sustainability. My work, in addition, has been sparked by CPO Co-Founder Jane Dutton’s (et al.) high quality connections. Through informal yet quality conversations fostered by the Center, we have formed a new sub-group of academic and industry professionals interested in exploring how evidence-based positive principles can be used to create systems and practices within healthcare to improve health among employees and patients. And this is just one small spark from the torch that has passed from hand to hand and mind to mind.

CPO’s flame is fueled by the intellectual friction of combining faculty, staff, organizational leaders, and student perspectives. Sparks from this powerful flame jump easily from individual to individual, from organization to organization. We are not just lone runners, lighting a dark path; we are powering up the myriad positive connections that will broaden and enrich our lives at home, and work, and as part of the global community.

New work by the CPO’s Kim Cameron and Wayne Baker (with Brad Owens and Dana Sumpter) suggest real benefits from relational energy, including a positive association with employee job performance. And there are numerous other exciting projects and studies underway. If these ideas ignite your enthusiasm, consider joining us in our pursuit of excellence. There are many ways to receive the spark:

Michelle Segar, motivation scientist and author of critically acclaimed “No Sweat! How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness,” is a leading authority on what motivates people to maintain changes in health-related behaviors. She directs the U-M Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center and is an Affiliate Faculty with the Center for Positive Organizations. Featured in The New York Times, No Sweat achieved the #1 selling book in Exercise & Fitness on Amazon. Her 360-degree perspective on creating sustainable behavior change and well-being is informed by more than two decades of award-winning research, individual health coaching, and organizational consulting.