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Positive Organisational Scholarship

The university department which is most focused on applying Positive Psychology to organisations is the Department of Positive Organisational Scholarship (POS) at the University of Michigan in the USA.

These academics are less interested in what makes organisations functional, and operating well, and more in what makes them exceptionally positive. In other words, they are interested in what leads to positive ‘deviance’ – to circumstances where organisations excel and their exceptional behaviour differentiates them, not just from the bad but also from the average, or the norm.

It is impossible to summarise fully the full range of work being carried out under the POS label but, as some of these scholars themselves point out, its focus can be summed up in the following words: excellence, thriving, flourishing, abundance, resilience, and virtuousness.  

The underlying theory

POS draws heavily on the work of Professor Barbara Frederickson and her ‘broaden and build theory of positive emotion’ (see Positive Psychology section for an outline). In short, POS advances the idea that abundant positive emotion is an essential pre-requisite for creativity, flourishing, and building relationships and networks – all of which are essential to the functioning of highly successful organisations. POS scholars also talk about ‘the heliotropic effect’ – the idea that human beings, and all living systems – are drawn towards the positive and away from the negative. This effect can be seen in a plant that grows towards the source of light. This means that as humans we are inclined to seek out what is positive and feel it has life-giving and generative properties.

That being said, POS, like mainstream Positive Psychology, advances the idea that positive emotion is always trumped by negative emotion – that negative or bad experiences have a greater impact on an individual’s emotions or behaviour than good or positive experiences. This means, for example, that individuals are inclined to pay much more attention to criticism than praise.

POS, again drawing on the work of Professor Barbara Frederickson, also emphasises that positive emotion, positive energy and positive connections are self-reinforcing. This means that when people behave positively towards one another the positive emotion generated encourages more positivity. In short, positive emotion can spiral upwards. Research shows that even witnessing another doing a good deed, for example, can elicit positive emotion in the observer and prompt him or her to virtuous action. What’s more positive emotion has the capacity to buffer and protect when times are tough. Inevitably organisations will meet problems. As with individuals, those which are more likely to display resilience and weather the storm are the ones with a previous history of behaviour and relationships which amplified positive emotion.

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