The business case for positive psychology in the workplace

Recently, the company Ruby Receptionists was rated the number one place to work in the United States for small businesses by the Great Places to Work Institute. The Institute departs from some popular business magazines and similar sources of lists of top companies.  Where many of those lists heavily weight pay and benefits—admittedly important to good work—the Institute preferences organisational culture. When evaluating more than five thousand candidate organisations it looks at office trust, company pride and worker enjoyment.

In short, the Institute awards its top slots not only to companies with a healthy bottom line but also to those with healthy workers, both physically and mentally. Ruby Receptionists, a rapidly growing virtual reception service with 100 employees located in Portland, Oregon is just such a place.

In their announcement the Great Places to Work Institute cited a number of cultural and policy aspects of day-to-day life at Ruby. Ruby Receptionists has a sabbatical programme, for example. Employees with five years invested in the company get five weeks of paid vacation, pre-sabbatical coaching, and a financial grant to pursue personal dreams ranging from taking a Spanish class to taking a cruise in the Mediterranean.

This perk is not reserved for leadership either. CEO Jill Nelson vocally renounced any sabbatical leave for herself and the first person to cash in was, instead, a receptionist. Ruby also boasts on-site yoga and fitness programs, paid local transportation for commuting workers and a “promote-from-within” policy. Walking the hallways of Ruby Receptionists is testament to the effectiveness of this positive leadership and policy style: The workers are generally smiling and are more than friendly with one another, many are actual friends!

Pay and benefits are correlated to job satisfaction but this relationship is less strong than is the opportunity to use strengths at work

In all fairness I should admit that Ruby Receptionists is one of our clients at Positive Acorn, a positive psychology and coaching consultancy.  They hire us on an annual basis to provide sabbatical coaching, conduct social skills trainings and undertake a yearly “climate survey.”  In our analysis of the Ruby culture we find that pay and benefits are significantly correlated to overall job satisfaction but that this relationship is less strong than is the opportunity to use strengths at work, and the effects of the Ruby culture in general.

Overall, we found that the specifics of the job (commute, tasks, pay, etc) – while important—were less strong predictors of engagement than were social and cultural variables (my voice is heard, I have opportunities to grow, I am satisfied with the friendliness of my colleagues, etc).  In fact, the culture is so important at Ruby that it predicts longevity: Receptionists working in cubicles at Ruby intend to stay with the company for an average of 3.41 years, far above industry average!

Performance metrics for the staff are high and the company enjoys a fast growth rate and annual increases in revenue

Interestingly, many leaders with whom we interact write off the Ruby story. The criticisms are many: This is Pollyanna management, it reflects American happiology, it is a one-off fluke of success.

The data seem to offer a clear rebuttal to this nay-saying.  The performance metrics for the staff are high, and the company enjoys a fast growth rate and annual increases in revenue. More importantly, Ruby does not whitewash problems. The leadership team struggles with the same types of issues that plague all expanding businesses. They fret, for instance, about the management difficulties inherent to opening a second location; a move they are forced into by their success and rapidly growing workforce. They occasionally have to confront individual poor performance and they work hard at marketing in a highly competitive world.

Again, leader Jill Nelson is quick to admit that she loses sleep during tough periods of transition. She is wary of the lightning rod of workplace problems, however, and is careful to concert effort into positivity. She has launched happiness campaigns, health campaigns and appreciation campaigns. All of these initiatives are directly rooted in the science of positive psychology.

Positive psychology is fundamentally about high-performance

Contrary to some beliefs positive psychology is not the science of happiness. It is the science of all that goes right, rather than wrong, with people. It includes happiness, to be sure, but it also extends far beyond joy to include resilience, perseverance, courage, optimism, curiosity and other positive topics.

Positive psychology is workplace relevant because it is fundamentally about high performance:

  • The experience of positive moods, for example, have been shown in a number of studies to lead directly to better team work, better customer evaluations and better organizational citizenship behaviors.
  • Learning, a basic human psychological impulse, is similarly associated with work engagement.
  • Hardiness is associated with successfully navigating workplace transitions.
  • The opportunity to use strengths has been found to be associated with greater self-esteem.

The best news is that positive psychology is an applied science. It is not simply arcane facts that help illuminate the darker recesses of human nature, it includes a set of tools that coaches, managers and leader can employ to enhance motivation, bolster good decision making and increase engagement.

Take the simple and commonly used intervention of gratitude. A number of studies have found that making simple lists of appreciations – each day writing down three things for which you are grateful, for example – can boost positivity and protect against depressive symptoms. We used a variation of this technique at Ruby.

Positive psychology enables organisations to “pull the best out of its people”

Our team collected personalised feedback on receptionists from each of their respective managers. Then, one afternoon, we surprised them at the office with small gifts and handwritten cards bearing the compliments from their supervisors. The receptionists were delighted. More importantly, when we walked the floor of the office several months later 70% of the receptionists still displayed these thank-you cards, even though the company had re-located to a new building!

Simply put the Great Places to Work Institute recognises in Ruby Receptionists a penchant for pulling the best out of its people. This is not a group of air-headed workers living in a Quixotic dream world. These are business-savvy sharpshooters who recognises that paying attention to both the positives and the negatives is the fast track to success.

In a world where reaching customers and time-to-market are increasingly level playing fields it is the human capital of companies that represents the competitive edge.  Skills and knowledge are important, to be certain, but so too are cooperation, trust, authenticity, motivation and a wide range of variables that fall squarely under the positive psychology umbrella.

Would you like to learn more?

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener will be in South Africa in April 2013 to facilitate a five day experiential Positive Psychology Coaching training. To find out more about this rare opportunity to learn coaching skills from the pioneer of positive psychology coaching contact Knowledge Resources on +27 (0)11 706 6009/ or click here now.

By Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener.

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is a Certified Mentor Coach and holds a doctorate in social psychology. He rose to prominence in his field of study—happiness—through his research with hard to access groups including the Amish, the Maasai and Inuit hunters living in the North of Greenland. His research has been featured in Time, India Outlook, Professional Manager, CNN, CBC (Canada), Science and Spirit, and a variety of other media.

Dr. Biswas-Diener has published more than forty scholarly articles on happiness, strengths and success. He is author of The Courage Quotient and several other books including Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching (2010), Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth (2008) and Positive Psychology Coaching (2007). Every year he trains hundreds of coaches and managers from around the world in positive psychology techniques.


7 thoughts on “The business case for positive psychology in the workplace

  1. Nice example of Positive Psych at work and good overview of PP core elements. Glad you are doing this work to share PP ideas.

    What you describe sounds a fair bit like Higher Consciousness Organizations. Here’s a link to a webinar as follow-up to my presentation on HCOs at the CBODN annual conference –

    Interested readers can find out more in “Path for Greatness: Work as Spiritual Service” ( ).

  2. I said almost this same sentence to a group of residence dons at a Canadian University last weel “Positive Psychology is about so much more than happiness… it is about flourishing, and resilience and high performance.” “Leadership is about the flourishing and performance of the group that you lead, figure out what will promote flourishing and performance will follow”

    Great article.
    Jim Moss
    The Smile Epidemic

  3. Pingback: The business case for positive psychology in the workplace | knowledgeresources | the leadership focus

  4. I would love to learn more about “climate survey” Are there any samples out there? I know a college that is about to implode and I suspect the issue is internal climate.

  5. In 1979, Suzanne C. Kobasa described a pattern of personality characteristics that distinguished managers and executives who remained healthy under life stress. Check out her work. You will find it pre-dates and supports what we now refer to as positive psychology. Also, here is a system I came up with that can be applied individually or throughout an organization. Possibly can help bring about a positive culture change. It’s been translated into several languages. Let me know which you need.

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