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Applying Positive Psychology with People in Organisations:
Nicky Page and Alex Linley

To strike a challenging note, the editorial, jarred for me with the assertion that “The field of positive Psychology was introduced by Linley and Joseph in 2004 in their seminal edited volume … etc.) I’d have thought they were building on some fairly well-established foundations, a few decades of Appreciative Inquiry, for example.

Situational Strengths: A Strategic Approach Linking Personal Capability to Corporate Success,
Laurence Lyons and Alex Linley

In the next article I found my thoughts provoked. At first, I found the approach rather mechanical, a matching between lists of individual strengths and situational demands but I did like the analogy which imagined Hercules in chains. As he was unable to use his mythical strength he had to learn oratory. While his entry-level speaking skills were poor, they served him better than his peerless muscle, straining ever harder against his chains.

It reminded me of an insight from a psychometric instrument called the IDI. It suggests that the key to success lies not in any quadrant of the grid on which the results are displayed. It lies rather in an individual’s ability to recognise the needs of other people and of situations and to adapt their own behaviour accordingly. Sometimes our awkward stretch into an unfamiliar style delivers ten times more than our highly polished best in the wrong time and place.

Whose Engagement is it Anyway?
Martin Galpin, Martin Stairs and Nicky Page.

Another paper here which stirred me up considerably. It helped me to see a pervasive assumption that HR management is a means to an end. We strive to persuade our budget-strapped leaders of its value by showing how it will improve the performance of the organisation. I know we have to do this yet it can seem perverse when our case for more meaningful human existence and respectful treatment of people has to be justified by its impact on output. Some of the contemporary research ideas referred to reminded me of Herzberg’s Hygiene Factors from the 1960s.

My biggest shock came from a reference to some research into happiness which suggests that DNA accounts for 50% of the variation, situation accounts for 10% and the remaining 40% is down to ‘volitional activity’. I really need to think about this as my sympathy has long been with the WE Deming school of thought which suggests that an individual’s scope for autonomy is tiny – less than 10%. These views seem to be incompatible but perhaps I am comparing chalk and cheese.

Suspending judgement for now, a new scope does seem to open up in how to encourage or enable or provoke people to opt into engagement. I find this an empowering idea which must be good! I love it when this exercise of responding to articles shifts me from a position of judgement and criticism to one of appreciation.

Change Leadership that Works: The Role of Positive Psychology,
Professor Malcolm Higgs and Deborah Rowland.

I found this an inspiring article. To pick some highlights: 1. It is rooted in complexity, 2. It deals with the assumption that change is bound to provoke resistance (even taking a dig at Kotter, revered titan of change management). 3. It lays out some intriguing characteristics of effective leaders of change. 4. Its model of change is one where change comes about “when a few key assumptions and patterns are changed”.

Seeking the Positive from the Negative: Morally Courageous Human Resource Management,
Susan Harrington.

Now! How wonderful. This is why I belong to AMED. Morally courageous human resource management! What a concept! That moral courage should be required to carry out human resource management. Why am I so excited by this? Twenty years ago I would not have had the vaguest notion of what this article is about. I suspect, even now, few of my colleagues at work would make much of it. It addresses a layer of complexity which may not be easy to see but which, once seen, rings with truth and clarity. It also proposes a wonderful summary of the elements of moral courage.

Envisioning, Enabling and Enacting: Individual and Organisational Development as Metamorphosis,
Nigel Sykes.

This article started me wondering when my own thinking started to change, in particular, when I started to see organisations as organisms rather than machines. Nigel describes an organic model with four S-shaped life-cycle phases: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly, beautifully illustrated with elegant graphics whose geometric precision I found just a touch too perfect. However, I loved the notion that an organisation should not hope to live forever. Rather, it should seek to broadcast its DNA and spread the influence of its values.

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I found your review of Applying positive Psychology very interesting. Its always fascinating to read about what related professional communities are thinking because we can both learn from them and potentially identify broad intellectual movements heading our way.

Re. Whose engagement is it anyway? : Does the prevailing OD worldview really assume so little individual agency as you suggest? That explains alot of what is wrong with it. Tim Harford's Undercover Economist column( FT June 13 2009) quotes Levitt and List who unearthed the original data underlying Mayo's Hawthorne Studies who concluded that in relation to the Hawthorne Effect 'existing descriptions of the supposedly remarkable data patterns prove to be entirely fictional'. So you don't need to believe Positive Psychologists data (especially as it conveniently shows we need positive psychologists). What on earth is volitional activity - and how could you measure it accurately anyhow? (rhetorical question)

Thrilled to read your remark about our younger selves' lack of understanding about need for moral courage. I raised the issue of ethics in practice at the St Albans meeting and the response of at least one person was that ' the client won't pick a consultant because they have a code of ethics'. This is exactly why I think it is fundamental to the future of OD that it begins to see itself as Business Therapy or Counselling and like all professional therapies develops ethics which protect practitioners and consultants and trains its practioners in these. Paul Z already includes such a code in his contracts so maybe we could start with his.

Have you ever heard of Autopoeisis? Organisations as organisms- Ralph Stacey (Ned lent me his 2001 Book) describes the biological idea that if you see an organisation as influencing/influenced by its environment an autopoetic organism/organ/cell responds to such change in a unique way (determined entirely by its unique internal organisation). It is the continuation of its unique way to respond to environmental perturbation which defines its identity If it changes in such a way as to stop doing so, it is no longer itself ie . it has lost its identity and become another organisation - or died. Autopoesis was a concept developed to describe the difference between living things and everything else. Feel this idea is very powerful in relation to OD. What do you think?

Regards, Deb
Thanks for your response, Deb

I started writing these reviews in an effort to draw people into the journal after a Council discussion in which I confessed that I always felt good when O&P arrived and then never opened it. When I started reading it I became a fan but the responses never threatened the capacity of the Ning servers. Do you have a copy of the May 2008 issue?

Deming was a statistician who was interested in quality - not really from the OD movement. The idea of the tiny percentage of autonomy is easiest to understand in the context of machine operators. No point blaming the operator for poor quality output. He can only work to the capability of the machine. For me it stretches quite comfortably into the area of management. In the moral courage article, for example, the reason HR professionals need it is because they may perceive a conflict between the interests of the individual and those of the company.

I did see that piece about how the Hawthorn data appeared to be folklore. Intriguing. I remember you saying you didn't have much patience with positive psychology. I am persuaded that going after more of the good stuff pays a better return than trying to fix the bad. I know it can sound like burying one's head in the sand but it really isn't.

Have you seen the AMED Ethical Charter? I believe this is a relatively recent formulation but I can't remember when or who by. I will find out.

I have heard of Autopoeisis but am not at all familiar. I will look out for Ralph Stacey. Certainly, for me, the essence of OD is organisations as organisms in contrast to a prevailing assumption of organisations as machines and people as the interchangeable and programmable parts.

Would be good to speak about these things. Hope we may have a chance soon.

Thanks again.


Thank you . I just assumed that if AMED/Concepta had details & money O& P would just arrive (albeit by cyberspace) so I've just requested to join.

Why do you value Deming's ideas? Is his influence widespread? Am going to look him up, now.

Actually I'm quite a fan of Positive Psychology because it focuses on the study of 'normal' 'adaptive' behaviour as its research topic, enabling us to discover, for example, that truly happy people acheive this state through meaningful work, not endless pleasure. This is an individual psychology and if it has been extended recently into the study of 'normal organisations' I think it could be very interesting. Are we are experts on sick orgs and super-orgs right now ? What is their research tecnique?

I'm not a fan of moving towards the solution of an org's problems without a diagnosis of its ills (A.I. etc). This is akin to missing out akey stage of the learning cycle (Action- fixated learning cycle - Bob Garratt in Pedler, M (ed.) 1983: Action Learning in Practice). I can see this could be very attractive to those managers who don't want to have to openly acknowledge their own responsibility for organisational failings and might work where organisational business environments are favourable to slow adaptation. In the current/immediate future climate such strategies will not deliver organisational change change fast enough.

Have looked at AMED ethical Charter. It's agood start. Are all AMED members invited ti include it in their contracts? The bit I feel least comfy with is the loyalty conflict. Where are a consultant's loyalties, where should they be? Am I bound to be a tool of my client (who wants to increase control of the means of ?knowledge production at the expense of his/her staff) because I've taken their money? Am I loyal to my own humanistic values, so not fully committed to the client's interests? Do I shade this conflict by accepting at face value my client's denial of it's existence?

. Anthropologists (in USA) recently decided they would openly state their humanistic values in their own ethical code and openly include this in every contract with the military (Afghanistan/iraq etc). That way an individual would be underr less pressure to act unethically when required by such an employer because he/she could point to the code in the original employment contract . A neat trick was to insist that all research findings are disseminated through the anthropological community, which also forced military employers to think whether they want their use of anthropological research publicised!

All the best,


Have just confirmed what I suspected. Deming is associated with TQM etc and Japanese management tecniques. I did my MBA dissertation on 20th century Japanese/US/British managerial control tecniques. The Deming/Japanese approach only works to the degree that it confers extra legitimacy on manageriaal control over the production process through imbuing the latter with the cultural values of employees. If you change the cultural values, you have to change the control system to get the same result. In UK research shows that only by meeting CULTURAL NEEDS of employees do you get good output/quality results. Deming and/ or his followers have very cleverly given his tecniques a (spurious) legitmacy for managers ie Quality, Systems etc. It isn't in capitalists' interests to acknowledge that their empoyees have a great deal of power/autonomy - they might wish to exert it. We should take a very critical view of theories which purport to describe the human world as one in which it is 'natural' for one person/group to have less autonomy than another. These theories are themselves instruments of oppression.

End of Rant. Sorry. I get carried away by 'theories' which are used for political purposes and are not actually theories.I favour the Vienna Circle's ideas that empirical knowledge must be based on observation(Schlick) and Bourdieu's assertion that social theories which hide the arbitrariness of the social order serve only to justify the legitimacy of existing social structures .

Do people use Deming's stuff to do OD? I should have thought evidence of the obvious protracted decline of US manufacturing (for whom Deming appeared asa saviour in the 80s) would be enough to make people question his theories (14 Principles). I'm sure you will have read that the real value of wages has declined for over 20 years in the US while the real value of top people's salaries/bonuses has increased. TQM has been very successful ---at acquiring a disproportionate amount of 'surplus value' from workers. It hasn't been able to save the US Car Industry from its competitors, either.

That's where the idea of looking at orgs which are 'normal' might help focus on what works ,rather than on what is pathological (ie Positive Organisational Psychology), but any findings would relate ONLY to their specific cultural/business context. In 100 years Social Anthropology has been doing this. It has only one theory so far: distaste for incest is universal!

Looking forward to further debate. I want to explore what theories people are attached to , and why? Am I attracted to Positive Psychology because I once studied Anthropology? Or because it is critical of prevailing assumptions and I love an intellectual punch up? Probably both. What about you?

Best regards, Deb

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