Magazine article Talent Development

Unleashing Positivity in the Workplace: Positive Organizational Scholarship Has Helped Answer Important Questions about Why Some Companies Perform So Much Better Than Others. Concepts about Virtue, Compassion, and Positivity May Seem Simple, but They Turn out to Be Crucial Implements for Broader Success

Magazine article Talent Development

Unleashing Positivity in the Workplace: Positive Organizational Scholarship Has Helped Answer Important Questions about Why Some Companies Perform So Much Better Than Others. Concepts about Virtue, Compassion, and Positivity May Seem Simple, but They Turn out to Be Crucial Implements for Broader Success

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In 1989 in Rocky Flats, Colorado (a small town 16 miles west of Denver), the FBI raided and temporarily closed a nuclear weapons production facility in response to continued allegations of environmental violations. The U.S. federal government estimated that it would take 70 years and more than $36 billion to close and clean up the site. Employees who had worked at the 6,000-acre facility since the 1950s were suddenly ostracized by the surrounding community, which feared radioactive pollution. Seemingly in a day, the Rocky Flats workforce--once hailed as patriotic heroes aiding the United States' Cold War nuclear proliferation efforts--became environmental criminals without a mission.

Six years later, the government awarded the contract to close the Rocky Flats facility to a local engineering and environmental firm, CH2M HILL. Astonishingly, CH2M HILL finished the job 60 years ahead of schedule, $30 billion under budget, and 13 times cleaner than federal standards required. The employees, who had initially filed 900 grievances, were transformed into an engaged force that worked themselves out of their jobs.

CH2M HILL's extraordinary performance has prompted the question: What did the organization do to produce such phenomenal outcomes?

The theory

The cleanup at Rocky Flats is an example of positive deviance, or extraordinary success. The study of positive deviance within the workplace is a core emphasis of positive organizational scholarship (POS). According to the Sage Handbook of Organizational Behavior, "positive organizational scholarship is a broad framework that seeks to explain behaviors in and outside of organizations. It focuses explicitly on the positive states and processes that arise from, and result in, life-giving dynamics, optimal functioning, or enhanced capabilities and strengths." This approach focuses on both an individual's and an organization's strengths and virtues.

While POS is a recent development in organizational sciences, it serves as an empirical basis and connection mechanism for preexisting topics such as appreciative inquiry, organizational change, creativity and innovation, engagement, and leadership.

The origins

The POS movement originated within the organizational studies field nearly a decade ago. Jane Dutton, a Robert L. Kahn distinguished professor of business administration and psychology at the University of Michigan, recalls that after the tragedies of September 11, 2001, she and her colleagues realized that their field had little to offer companies in terms of rebuilding strength and capability. To meet this need, the department reorganized its annual conference in November 2001, and focused on the positive cases of strengths-building in organizations during that trying time.

Additionally, the faculty created the Leading in Trying Times website, an online resource that provides a series of offerings to leaders based on the field's best research about organizational strengths building. The website received 30,000 hits within the first month. "This was an indicator to us that the world was hungry for this and that we needed to do more," Dutton says.

Kim Cameron, a William Russell Kelly professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and professor of higher education at the School of Education, traces his POS roots to the mid-1980s, when he began studying downsizing in the auto industry. From his dozen or so years of research, Cameron learned that 80 to 85 percent of organizations that implement downsizing experience significant deterioration in performance, including decreased productivity, curtailed creativity and innovation, low morale, and restricted communication. However, Cameron also discovered that the remaining 15 or 20 percent of organizations flourished after downsizing. He began referring to these flourishing few as "virtuous organizations" because they were set apart by their virtuous practices. …

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