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Employers need to invest more in culture that fosters positivity

Building positive organizations: Jamie Gruman, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Guelph, spoke at a Strategic Capability Network event about the importance of fostering a positive workplace culture and the benefits it brings. For more information, visit

Sunny side up

Positive psychology (Organizational effectiveness)

It should be easy sell (Leadership in action)

Happiness as strategic capability? (Strategic capability)

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By Angela Scappatura

Positivity in the workplace provides employees with the resources they need to work more effectively, according to Jamie Gruman, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont.

While it may seem like an intuitive concept, employers need to invest more organizational resources in creating a company culture that fosters positivity. Those resources — such as job design, the type of feedback employees receive, coaching and supervision — lead to “positive organizational behaviour resources,” he said.

Specifically, employees gain hope, optimism, confidence and resilience.

“The more people have these personal resources, the better work they do,” said Gruman. “This spiral develops. The more organizational resources you give people, the more they develop these personal resources and that leads to more organizational resources.”

People who are self-assured are more likely to go out and network, which provides a wider base of people to draw on, he said, citing the impact of confidence on networking.

“When you have more people to draw on when you have a problem, you can get your work done better and that builds confidence,” he said.

The leader of an organization sets the tone for the rest of the organization which makes her role crucial in cultivating positivity, said Gruman, who also spoke at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto in November 2009.

Beyond company leaders, immediate supervisors have a direct impact on employee optimism.

“We all know people don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses,” he said. “If you have a boss who isn’t providing you with the resources you need to get your work done, the company may have a turnover problem and it certainly isn’t going to be building employees who can produce outstanding results.”

Fostering a work environment where positivity abounds is dependent on the state of the company culture, said Gruman.

Employers can invest in training and other programs but if the organization does not support positivity, it will not be sustainable, he said.

“If you do a good job of this, if you create the infrastructure that allows positivity to flourish, then that should, over time, feed on itself and create the culture that will allow the positivity to take hold and produce positive results,” said Gruman.

However, too much positivity can be detrimental to decision-making, he said. People in a positive mood tend to use heuristic processing and fail to scrutinize issues as closely as they would if they were in a negative mood.

“If you’re in a position where you need to make a significant decision and you know you need to be very careful and very thoughtful and scrutinize the issue very carefully, perhaps you don’t want to be in the best mood,” he said.

“You don’t want to be in a meeting where you just had a major success that morning, where you’re feeling fantastic, because you’re much more likely to be risk-taking and that may not be the best decision for you.”

In that case, employees can learn to gauge how emotions play into their decisions and adjust them accordingly, said Gruman.

Angela Scappatura is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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Positive psychology (Organizational effectiveness)

By Tom Tavares

Jamie Gruman’s cautionary note not to take research in positive psychology at face value is warranted. While it is difficult to disagree with the rallying cry of positive psychologists — to help people bring the fullness of their selves into the workplace — it is more than a little premature to classify this emerging approach as a “branch” of psychology. Positive psychology is more a belief about how research should be conducted than an actual body of knowledge.

This is more than an academic issue. The study of human behaviour in organizations is an applied discipline. Consulting firms put the latest research to work in real-life companies. Because knowledge develops in fits and starts, today’s breakthroughs often prove to be less reliable when widely applied. To the general public, this ebb and flow has the appearance of “flavour-of-the-month.”

The state of the economy has heightened concerns about workplace stress. This situation is challenging for even the most accomplished of spin doctors and sure to boost the appeal of any approach containing the word “positive.”

However, improving the well-being of people is more a question of how than what. Gruman’s answer is psychological capital — psy.cap. This intangible asset is built through factors such as personal control, skill use, variety, clarity and interaction with others. Other key ingredients include performance feedback and merit-based pay, which enhance feelings of engagement, commitment and job satisfaction.

As HR professionals know, there is a fly in the ointment of psy.cap. Performance feedback is, at best, sporadic and the impact of variable pay is, well, variable. As we have seen in banks, it can contribute to reckless risk-taking. For the average employee, pay for performance often amounts to little more than a cost-of-living adjustment.

Managers too often fail to focus on the intangible side of leadership. Perhaps in an effort to spur management to change its ways, Gruman unveiled an algorithm demonstrating impressive major financial returns on the investment in psy.cap. This turn of events was more than a little surprising.

How did this seemingly precise financial calculation emerge from a new approach about subjective phenomena such as one’s sense of self and well-being?

Tom Tavares is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on organizational effectiveness and a senior organizational psychologist. In addition to managing in large corporations, consulting in varied industries and coaching executives, he is also the author of The Mind Field, published by Carswell. He can be reached at [email protected].

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It should be easy sell (Leadership in action)

By Dave Crisp

OK, I was already a convert. Having attended the First World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association in June 2009, the core theories of Jamie Gruman were familiar ones I apply in my own work. What I find most remarkable, though, is how diverse theoretical perspectives about organizations and leadership all point to the same thing: Organizations have to change dramatically and leaders have to change how they manage to maximize results and the happiness of people in organizations.

The good news is it’s not “or” — better results and people feeling better go hand in hand. Each helps the other. The message for employees: If you want to be truly happy, bring your whole self to work, be human, focus on positive growth and creativity more than just pay and putting away money so you can retire as early as possible and never work again.

The message for organizations and leaders: Build teams and work environments that help this happen or be left behind on results.

Since this is becoming so obvious and it makes good common sense — happy people work harder, stretch their goals and objectives further and develop more creative ideas — why are we having to promote this now? In short, a lot of factors are coming together — we no longer have to work nose to grindstone, the overseer with a whip is much less necessary, most work is knowledge-based in more ­industries and there are more levels of jobs. Rapid change requires organizations to ask for input, ideas and creative effort to thrive. People love to see their ideas implemented and with a more educated workforce, and with our encouragement, they have more ideas.

On the dark side, we still tend to see leaders in the heroic model — experts with all the answers who can tell a company or individual employee what to do to succeed. Leaders are expected by boards to act that way whether they feel they have all the answers or not. This doesn’t produce enough leaders who prize their ability to draw ideas out of others and seek wide input on solutions. The plain fact is when people are constantly told what to do, they are unhappy, tune out and disengage.

Today it’s a competition to see who can come up with the greatest ideas the soonest — and the CEO doesn’t have a monopoly on this. A smart boss will incorporate and give credit to all who contribute to make sure they keep on inventing in future. That’s a happy company and a highly innovative one, on the fastest route to the best available results.

The puzzle is why every leader doesn’t automatically do this when so much research from so many domains makes it clearly the best route. The answer: We’re stuck with the heroic leader model and it’s the easiest to fall into when you’re promoted — “I must know all the answers because I got the lead job.”

Some blame has to fall on HR but it must be shared with all the managers who promote the best technicians and not those who are best at stimulating everyone’s ideas and creativity. Of course, you can’t implement every idea everyday, unless you’re Toyota which averages 10 workable ideas per year per employee, all 300,000 plus. What’s the total at your shop?

Dave Crisp is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on leadership in action. He shows clients how to improve results with better HR management and leadership. He has a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co., where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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Happiness as strategic capability? (Strategic capability)

By Karen Gorsline

Here are four thoughts on the role of happiness in strategic capability:

Emotions count: Some might find a discussion on “happiness in the workplace” frivolous. The temptation, especially in tough times, is to focus on “fixing” an organization, adding more control, processes and streamlining. But what if employees brought their “full selves” to work each day? Most of us can remember a time when we accomplished a very difficult task and were overjoyed with our success.

Emotions play a significant part in how decisions are made and have a significant impact on work and business. Happiness, confidence, hope, optimism and resilience in the face of tough reality can determine which organizations remain competitive. The ability of organizations to evolve by recognizing and incorporating emotions is a key organizational capability

New glasses for organizational effectiveness: Organizations urge employees to separate their lives into compartments (work-life) and harness emotions consistent with the workplace culture. Surveys show employees feel their full abilities and potential are not being used and engagement is trending steadily downward. Younger and older workers express frustration with the work environment. People need to move from surviving in organizations to thriving. The effectiveness of organizational structures, processes and practices needs to be re-examined and revamped to tap into latent energy and resources.

Aware leaders: Leaders need to understand emotions as well as balance sheets and operations. Positive feelings can result in specific approaches to decision-making: use of heuristics, less attention to detail, enhanced creativity, increased cooperation, a broader view and over-estimation of positive outcomes or events. Negative feelings can result in: an over-estimation of risk and negative outcomes, more extensive analysis, a focus on detail and less creativity. Neither approach is a guarantee of positive or negative performance.

Happiness is not one-size-fits-all: It means different things to different people. Some don’t want to be engaged at the workplace. Others want to be challenged, grow and learn.

Also, different people will demonstrate optimism, hope and happiness in different ways. It may depend on their personalities, cultures or roles. A more sophisticated perspective is required to avoid the trap of a “happy” person stereotype.

The challenge for organizations is to start thinking differently about emotions in the work context and evolving workplaces to unleash the energy within.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at [email protected].

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May: The importance of values through crisis, with Jeannette Jones, vice-president of communications at Maple Leaf Foods (May 20).

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