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Positivity (Happiness) in the Workplace and Organizational Change

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Technique 10: Expectancy Theory Applied in the Workplace

Problems and challenges in the workplace can either be presented as issues of great concern, with seriously negative implications, or positioned as challenges that are exciting and can produce learning and growth – same issue, different lens and a completely different expectation from employees. Achor describes a remarkable study performed in Japan (2010, p. 69). Researchers blindfolded a group of students and told them their right arms were being rubbed with a poison ivy plant. Afterward, all 13 of the students reacted with the typical symptoms of poison ivy despite the fact that they had not actually been rubbed with the plant at all. Achor suggests that this is explained by “Expectancy Theory”, in which our expectations create brain patterns that cause reactions as if they were real. I have applied aspects of this in my project work. One example was with a project team that I inherited some years ago. This team’s members had done a rather poor job of creating and managing their project documentation. A project audit resulted in a negative rating and could have created a negativity spiral, given the intense pressure members of the project team were under. I presented the need for an enhanced document management system with a highly positive and fun approach – that of a game or puzzle to try and find and move documents, with a prize at the end. The expectation was that this would be fun, and with this expectation, it was.

Summary and Conclusion

It is abundantly clear that being happy at work is a lot more important than simply coming home from work with a smile on one’s face – it is a cornerstone of individual, team and organizational performance. In retrospect over my career, and my years of study, it is remarkable to me that the subject of happiness has been virtually absent. While in recent years, the notion of employee satisfaction and more recently employee engagement have become a more significant focus, less has been discussed on the subjects and benefits of individual happiness or positivity. Indeed, as previously noted, in my personal experience, these concepts were more often scoffed at than taken seriously in the workplace. More recently, positivity and happiness are becoming better understood. Companies like Google, SAS, Whole Foods Markets, and Cisco Systems (Hallowell, 2011, p.31) are applying techniques that promote happiness, along with the benefits that emerge from happy and engaged employees. But I believe that we are a long way from having positivity as a basic cornerstone of business practice. The methods and tools that many of my contemporaries learned in previous decades do not become “un-learned” easily, and organizational cultures do not change rapidly either. Much more progress is needed, and methods such as Appreciative Inquiry being used as a positivity-oriented change management approach provide hope, and as successful companies such as Google lend legitimacy to these methods and approaches, progress undoubtedly will be accelerated.


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