I’m a firm believer in the power of positive practices to improve the culture in organizations. But I know not everybody shares this conviction. Some people think it’s “soft, light-weight and even naive.” The word pollyannaish gets tossed around, thinking positive organizational scholarship is just blindly optimistic. But I also know that this perception of positive practices as having no place in the real business world is missing the basis for important opportunities for growth. I’ve seen time and time again in research, field data, and case studies that positive practices provide improvement in many hard business metrics people are looking for, including higher productivity, higher creativity, and lower turnover, just to name a few. Working toward creating a positive organization where people can thrive can make a huge difference in engagement of the people working in the organization.
I’m committed to the importance of positive practices. What I am learning, though, is how to be realistic about how we accomplish these outcomes for people in the organization and how we define success. I recently spoke with executive consultant Ron May, and we focused on how to frame positive practices to strive to create the most buy-in among people at all levels of the organization. In our previous interview, Ron emphasized that what is paramount to him is knowing that all of these practices are data-driven. I’ve also heard from Rich Smalling the importance of presenting the data in a sensible manner to create buy-in from his organization comprised of engineers. So, I was surprised when Ron said that sometimes you might not want to exclusively use the academic terminology I’ve been learning in my classes.
Having the academic terminology — such as strength spotting, job crafting, high quality connections, among others — can be helpful when it functions as a shared vernacular. But Ron explained that when you’re trying to introduce change into an organization, which is always a challenging process, initially using what might be unfamiliar jargon could alienate the teams you’re working with, putting an extra roadblock in the path to flourishing.
Instead, we could embrace curiosity and seek an understanding of where the organization is in their current state. What problems are they experiencing? What have they already tried? What have the responses been? Only after getting to know this specific organization, understanding its values and processes, can we start to pull on the research and practical concepts in a way to effectively bring about change.
One of my biggest learnings as I’ve moved from the classroom to Riverbank is how to really think about ways to apply positive organizational concepts in ways that are customized to specific teams and organizations. Positive practices shouldn’t be cookie cutter tools that you introduce the same way to every organization, as it will miss some of the intentionality and power of these concepts.
One common positive practice is thinking about how to be intentional about celebrations. I’ve mainly heard about this in case studies, where I’ve seen this concept applied as a way to frame beginnings, endings, and transitions, usually at a large scale. Ron gave an example of the way an individual in a team can implement these ideas without being a formal leader in order to bring a positive change. For example, perhaps you notice that your team typically seems really unhappy on Monday mornings, and the week begins with an early meeting in the conference room. Why not change it up? You could inject a bit of positivity to start off the week by sharing coffee and donuts, as a sort of micro celebration to set the tone. Or maybe you all have a walking meeting outside to get ideas flowing. These are small, individual and team level changes that can start to have big impacts.
We all know that there’s no one size fits all solution for individuals, and, whether we embrace it or not, organizations are fundamentally made up of individuals. And it follows, then, that there won’t be a one size fits all solution for how to employ positive practices in an organization. But by deciding to make flourishing a priority, you can focus on making the most of your business’s most important resource: people.
Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing.