Foundations of Positive Organizations

Principles for Designing Positive Workplaces

{Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn (Eds.), 2003. Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline

A possible subtitle: The positive dynamics in businesses and organizations that give rise to extraordinary outcomes.

The focus on optimal individual psychological states was introduced by positive psychology. The focus on optimal organizational states is introduced as the research agenda for understanding and enabling positive organizational behavior in the new field of positive organizational scholarship}

Foundations of Positive Organizations 

{Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003. In Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn (Eds.), Positive Organizational Scholarship}

Some words: appreciation, collaboration, virtuousness, vitality, meaningfulness; trustworthiness, resilience, wisdom, humility, positive energy; compassion, loyalty, honesty, respect, forgiveness; excellence, transcendence, positive deviance, extraordinary performance, positive spirals of flourishing;

POS studies positive outcomes, processes, and attributes of organizations and their members. It focuses on dynamics described by words such as excellence, thriving, flourishing, abundance, resilience, or virtuousness. It is an expanded perspective that attends to the enablers (e.g., processes, capabilities, structures, methods), the motivations (e.g., unselfishness, altruism, contribution without regard to self), and the outcomes or effects (e.g., vitality, meaningfulness, exhilaration, high-quality relationships) associated with positive phenomena.

Positive: POS seeks to understand positive states, the dynamics and outcomes associated with those states, and positive connections.

Organizational: POS examines positive phenomena within organizations and positive organizational contexts themselves. It seeks to understand, explain, and predict positivity’s occurrence, causes, and consequences, making positive states, processes, and relationships visible.

Scholarship: A balanced attention is given to research, teaching, and practice as three important elements of scholarly endeavor. A bias of POS is to develop theory and research in service of teaching and practice.

Positive Psychology

The emphasis on what is wrong with and lacking in individuals; the assumption that human beings are inherently fragile and flawed: advances in strategies for treatment and in moving people from psychological illness toward health; a deficit bias; remedies for specific human problems have brought us historically to the development of positive psychology as a supplement to the almost exclusive focus on human pathology. Its focus is on strengths and on building the best in life. Goodness and excellence are not illusions but are authentic states and modes of being that can be analyzed and achieved. Positive experiences, such as happiness, pleasure, joy, gratification, fulfillment, and wellbeing; positive individual traits, such as character, talents, values, and interests that enable positive experiences; and positive institutions that enable positive traits and thereby positive experiences, such as families, schools, business, communities, and societies are real.

Other traditions that have examined positive dynamics

Community Psychology: Jahoda (1958) identified six domains of prevention-based community psychology: positive self-attitudes, wholesome growth and development, personal integration, autonomy, accurate perception of reality, and mastery of one’s environment. The field has studied wellness enhancement programs and their positive outcomes extensively.

Organizational Development (OD) and Appreciative Inquiry:

OD brings together a set of techniques and strategies for changing, developing, and enhancing the functioning of organizations based on the internal human features of the organization.

Appreciative inquiry is a composite of change practices focused on revealing and tapping the positive core of organizations to unleash positive energy and improvement, searching for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them by asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. The change process proceeds by identifying past examples of peak performance, spectacular successes, or positive aspirations for the future. Next, key explanatory elements are identified that account for these past successes. Finally, a future vision is crafted based on what was extraordinarily successful and what can be perpetuated in the future. POS can contribute to the theory of why this approach works with research to examine and comprehend the underlying dynamics of appreciative inquiry.

Prosocial and Citizenship Behavior: These are voluntary helping behaviors exceeding role requirements designed to provide assistance or benefit to others.

Corporate Social Responsibility: These include initiatives addressing human suffering; interest in social welfare, social justice, and human rights; involvement in socially responsible activities.

By looking with a new lens, formerly invisible elements become visible. POS is not value-neutral. It holds that the desire to improve the human condition is universal and that the capacity to do so is latent in most systems. The means to unleash and organize this latent capacity is of special interest, as is the extent to which the organization can enable human possibilities and the extent systems can produce extraordinarily positive outcomes. POS is a generative lens, focusing on the generative dynamics of human organizing, unlocking capacities for elements such as meaning creation, relationship transformation, positive emotion cultivation, and high-quality connections, thus producing sustained sources of collective capability that help organizations thrive.

POS Concepts are related to virtuousness, strength, and extraordinarily positive behavior, considered good, fulfilling, and praiseworthy.

Societies cannot function without the demonstration of virtuousness. The collective glue that bonds communities together, the social stability that permits them to function efficiently, and the exchange relationships that create effective interactions all are embedded in ideas of trust, gratitude, respect, forgiveness, optimism, and other virtues.

Some virtues are attributes of organizations, not individuals. Social relationships are prerequisite to virtues such as peace, equity, forgiveness, justice, compassion, and love. Virtues are self-motivating and associated with intrinsic motivation; they are freely chosen and are often displayed irrespective of, or in contradiction to, organizational constraints. Virtues lead to human fulfillment. Virtues inoculate and strengthen organizations against adversity.

Virtue is context-dependent. In turbulent environments, the absence of mistakes and crises as evidence of mere normality can be considered positive organizational behavior.

Virtues and Organizations 

{Park & Peterson, 2003. In Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn (Eds.), Positive Organizational Scholarship} 

Individual- and Organizational-Level Virtues

The Values in Action (VIA) Classification of Strengths is in the spirit of contemporary trait theory of personality psychology, which recognizes individual differences that are stable and general but also shaped by the individual’s setting and thus capable of change. 

The VIA classification can be divided into tonic and phasic strengths.

Tonic strengths can be displayed on an ongoing and steady basis, except when there is a good reason not to do so, such traits as curiosity, kindness, modesty, and zest.

Phasic strengths rise and fall according to specific situational demands. For example, one can only be brave in a situation that produces fear. One can only display teamwork as a group member with a common task. One can only exercise critical thinking when confronting a complex decision.

Tonic strengths are less contextualized than phasic strengths. Both sorts of strengths matter but require different means of encouragement. For tonic strengths, it may be sufficient not to punish those who display them. For phasic strengths, the “appropriate” way to display a strength must be articulated. 

What do we mean by organizational-level virtues? First, these virtues are an enduring part of the organizational culture as a whole, embedded in practices independent of specific individuals, serving the moral goals of an organization and not simply its bottom line, and contributing to its members’ fulfillment. 

Fulfillments reflect effort, deliberate choice, and pursuing morally praiseworthy activities over time. There are no shortcuts to a fulfillment.

Wellbeing is not a consequence of virtuous action but rather an inherent aspect of such action. At the individual or organizational level, virtues may or may not have desirable long-term consequences. Rather, a fulfillment is part and parcel of the actions that manifest virtue.

A good organization enables the good life for its members. Therefore, organizational-level virtues are cultivated and celebrated and serve as a source of identity and pride for the organization’s members.

Questions arise about how organizational-level virtues develop and how they are sustained so that moral excellence and the personal fulfillment of all organizational members are afforded. 

The Good Society

What characterizes the good society?

A vision of the good society articulated in ancient Rome in the form of municipal virtues pervades organizational-level virtues familiar in the Western world. Good organizations are characterized by equity, fair dealing within the organization; good fortune, remembrance of important positive events; justice, sensible laws and governance; patience, the ability to weather crises; providence, the sense that the organization has a destiny; and safety, public health and welfare.

The Confucian vision of the good society can also be captured by a small number of organizational-level virtues embodied in the mandates to honor one’s parents, love others, do what is right instead of what is advantageous, practice “reciprocity,” and have rulers who lead by moral example instead of by force. In relationships, the “subordinate” individual has the responsibility of obedience to the “superior,” but only when the superior, in turn, displays benevolence and care. The Confucian notion of duty is an obligation to act honorably and with self-control in all personal affairs rather than with a motive for personal gain. Cultivating courteousness and deference in one’s everyday behavior is more about consideration for another’s feelings than strict adherence to rules and empty customs.

The Good Workplace

Excellent work organizations have an articulated moral goal or vision that is embraced by workers and customers alike, and this vision guides actual conduct within the organization; workers are treated fairly, and reward structures are both explicit and equitable; commitments to workers and customers are followed through, promises and contracts are honored; people are treated as individuals with humane concern.

A sign of good managing is an authoritative managerial style that entails limits with explanations and ongoing negotiation, leading to employees who are independent yet responsible.

The Good School

School is a life industry; educational practices affect students in the here and now and across the lifespan in settings far removed from the classroom.


The five widely valued organizational-level virtues are purpose, a shared vision of the organization’s moral goals, reinforced by remembrances and celebrations; safety, protection against threat, danger, and exploitation; fairness, equitable rules governing reward and punishment and the means for consistently enforcing them; humanity, mutual care and concern; and dignity, the treatment of people in the organization as individuals regardless of their position.

Positive institutions enable (or not) positive traits, which in turn enable (or not) positive subjective experiences. The good life represents a coming together of these three domains in alignment.