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Positivity (Happiness) in the Workplace and Organizational Change

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Now, though, there is gathering evidence that happiness is not what it may appear. A string of new studies suggests that the modern chase after happiness–and even happiness itself–can hurt us. Happy, it turns out, is not always the way you want to be. To be happy is to be more gullible. Happy people tend to think less concretely and systematically; they are less persuasive. A happy person is less likely to discern looming threats.

“We have put happiness under the microscope just like we do with every other mental state,” says June Gruber, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, who coauthored a recent review of happiness research, “and we see that there is this dark side.”

There is strong argument that a focus on negative aspects of life and work is important for survival – it’s the balance between the positive and the negative that is important. As Fredrickson aptly describes “without negativity you become Pollyanna with a forced clown smile painted on your face. You lose touch with reality. You are not genuine. Unchecked, levity leaves you flighty, ungrounded and unreal. Appropriate negativity grounds you in reality”.

My initial exposure to Appreciative Inquiry supports this view – AI can be and in my experience has in some cases been perceived as “Pollyanna-ish”. I have personally received a degree of dismissive “eye-rolling” responses to what is viewed as an impractically positive approach to my consulting style and approach. In my view, some of the language used in certain of the writings on AI could be construed as simplistic and naïve.

Positivity and the Changing Nature of the Modern Workplace

The workplace of today is very different from the workplace in the first half of the twentieth century. The notion of the work and employment “contract” has changed significantly in the last few decades (Marciano, 2010, pg 9). It is a fairly recent phenomenon that people work for more than just a paycheck. The collective body of research and experience in the past half century has shown convincingly that people are more motivated by the intrinsic value from the work itself, as well as the pride realized from working for a company with a positive reputation, than from just a paycheck. It is remarkable however that still in 2011, so many organizations and managers still rely on fiat on the one hand and material rewards on the other, as the primary mechanisms for employees to change, and evidence shows that neither work effectively.

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