Positive Interventions at Work

Building Positive Organizations

{van Woerkom, 2021. Building Positive Organizations: A Typology of Positive Psychology Interventions. Front. Psychol. 12:769782.}


Different types of positive psychology interventions (PPIs) can strengthen each other.  For sustainable contribution to workers’ optimal functioning, PPIs must comprise a variety of one-off and structural interventions targeting both individuals and groups in organizations.

Furthermore, it is possible to improve long-term PPI effects by using findings from the literature on training transfer, nudging, and positive design.


Wellbeing at work accounts for a large part of adults’ life satisfaction variation.

Furthermore, happy employees perform better than their less happy colleagues. PPIs are planned activities or methods (such as training and coaching) for cultivating valued subjective experiences, building positive individual traits, or building positive institutions.


On average, PPIs in the work context have a small positive impact on improving desirable work outcomes and a small to moderate effect on reducing undesirable work outcomes. However, most PPIs focus on the individual, and one could question their long-term effectiveness, especially when the (social) work environment remains unchanged. Small effect sizes result from the difficulty of changing oneself or one’s happiness levels, and maintaining such behavioral changes, in addition to the predominant use of singular construct interventions (e.g., gratitude or optimism) that are short-term and not structurally embedded in the organizational policies.


In light of research findings, it makes more sense to implement PPIs as part of integrated culture change processes that are ingrained in the fabric of the organization, embedding the principles of positive psychology on a more structural basis in organizational HR and leadership practices with a shift from a focus on managing employee deficits to a focus on their strengths.

One-off interventions can play an important role at the beginning of a change process to inform workers about the value of positive psychology. However, structural interventions in the form of HR or leadership practices based on positive psychology principles are needed to promote, increase, and improve the wellbeing of all employees in the long term. When these structural interventions are in place, one-off interventions can again strengthen their effect by acting as a booster when the structural attention for specific positive practices in the organizations has begun to wane. Furthermore, one-off interventions can be embedded more structurally in the organization by incorporating research insights on training transfer, positive design, and nudging.


Positive psychological capacities also function at the team level and are associated with important team outcomes. The team context significantly influences whether individuals’ strengths are noticed and appreciated by others and, ultimately, whether people use these strengths. Collective awareness of the individual strengths represented in the team and the coordination of team roles based on these strengths is associated with individual and leader-rated team performance. In addition, team members’ mood-enhancing, energizing, and uniting behaviors directed toward other team members contribute to a positive team climate and teamwork engagement.

Individuals cannot be separated from the broader social systems they are part of. For example, Appreciative Inquiry (AI) interventions focus on positive organizational change by collecting stories of organizational successes, developing ideas for a positive future, designing an organization to use available strengths optimally, and setting up action plans for becoming such an organization.


Short PPIs are more popular in organizations due to reduced costs and lost working time. Yet longer interventions are more effective, allowing participants to convert the positive activities they are learning into habits. PPIs are often implemented as quick fixes to address problems with worker wellbeing instead of considering them as part of integrated culture change processes and ingraining positive practices in the organization’s cultural fabric. 


A Four-Fold Typology of Positive Psychology Interventions in Organizations

One-Off Interventions Targeting Individual Level Outcomes

Consider a 4-week web-based intervention to enhance signature strengths application at work as a typical example. Participants first filled in the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) and then learned about their four highest character strengths through a web-based training platform. Subsequently, they were asked to think about how they currently used their signature strengths in daily work activities and tasks and to develop if-then plans about using their four highest character strengths in new and different ways. Next, participants were asked to implement these plans. This intervention enhanced the perception of the job as a calling and satisfaction with life until six months after the intervention period.

The novelty aspect of this exercise, using strengths in new and different ways, is particularly relevant for increases in wellbeing. Simply displaying more strengths-based behavior in the usual ways does not translate into increases in wellbeing. This makes the intervention very suitable as a one-off since prolonging it will reduce its effectiveness.

Short one-off interventions targeting individual-level outcomes act as boosters of more structural positive interventions that workers might have grown accustomed to.


Structural Interventions Targeting Individual-Level Outcomes

An example in this category is an intervention that gave workers more control over their work plan and development planning and led to stronger perceptions of job control and improved mental health.

Another example is a feedforward interview implemented as an alternative to the traditional performance appraisal interview. Managers were trained to focus an employee’s attention on a positive work experience involving goal attainment by asking for a specific incident where they felt particularly good about attaining a goal, with follow-up questions on the circumstances that enabled their employees to be effective about the actions that made them feel energized, and about what they could do in the coming year to create similar circumstances. The feedforward intervention increased performance four months later, relative to the traditional performance appraisal procedure.


One-Off Interventions Targeting Group-Level Outcomes

An example in this category found that a 1-day intervention focusing on the appreciative inquiry into best practices and peak experiences led to higher levels of group identification and, in turn, group potency than an intervention focusing on creative problem-solving.


Structural Interventions Targeting Group-Level Outcomes

An example in this category is implementing wellbeing-related HR practices. Systematic, planned, and proactive efforts to improve employees’ and organizational health are associated with higher levels of teamwork engagement. These efforts included practices at the task level (e.g., by redesigning tasks to improve autonomy and feedback), social-environmental level (e.g., by bidirectional communication to improve social relationships), and organizational level (e.g., by practices that improve the work-family balance).


Enhancing the Sustainability of PPIs in Organizations 

Training Transfer 

Training should result in learning that transfers to the job and leads to meaningful work behavior changes. Three primary factors are associated with training transfer.

Learner characteristics that contribute to training transfer include cognitive ability, self-efficacy, pre-training motivation, (low levels of) anxiety or negative affectivity, openness to experience, perceived utility of the training, and having specific plans for achieving career-related goals and organizational commitment.

Intervention design and delivery involve setting explicit learning goals, training content that is perceived as relevant to the work task, providing practice and feedback, behavioral modeling (i.e., descriptions of a model’s key behaviors), and error-based examples (i.e., sharing with trainees what can go wrong if they do not use the trained skills back on the job).

The work environment conducive to transfer would include cues that prompt trainees to use new skills, incentives for correct skills use, remediation for not using skills, and supervisory and peer support. A limiting factor would be high workloads that limit opportunities to use the new learning in their work setting.


To improve learning outcomes and enhance training transfer, pre-training interventions such as offering attentional advice, preliminary information, and advance organizers, assisting trainees in monitoring their progress toward meeting their objectives, or reminding them to answer the question “why am I doing this” continuously and post-training interventions such as goal-setting and self-management are effective.


For example, contributing to training transfer of a one-off intervention such as the web-based strengths intervention, organizing supervisor or peer support for strengths use, or providing a post-training intervention on goal-setting and self-management can be effective.


Positive Design

Design strategies to enhance PPI effectiveness include empathic design, participative design, gamification, and persuasive design.

Empathic design involves empathizing with the target group, their experiences, and latent needs, for instance, by meeting the users of the intervention and visiting the places where they will use the intervention. Participative or co-design is asking end-users for their contribution to the design. Gamification applies gaming principles by introducing rewards, making progress visible, facilitating social interaction, making specific activities more challenging and fun, and accommodating basic needs of affirmation, growth, autonomy, and self-expression. Persuasive design tries to change end-user attitudes or behavior patterns by forcing or seducing them into a specific behavior, for example, by transferring knowledge, making desired behavior easier, reminding people of intended behavior, activating their norms, using social competition and rewards, or giving immediate feedback.

Habits are often strongly connected to the environments in which they occur. Therefore, changing the environment in cooperation with workers effectively supports behavior change. An example would be implementing a game that rewards expressing appreciation to other team members.



Nudging is related to persuasive design. Behavior is mostly directed by unconscious processes, and decisions are mostly made by automatic heuristic processing influenced by environmental cues that people are unaware of.

Nudging suggests a specific choice by rearranging the choice context without restricting alternative options or changing financial incentives. Making desirable behavior more visible can also be an effective nudge.

Nudging is not effective when people have a strong preference for the alternative option. Nudges are most effective when people are indifferent to the behavior, have good intentions that they forget about, experience conflicting preferences, or do not know what to do because the situation is new to them.

For example, consider as the first point on the agenda of team meetings expressing gratitude to co-workers or incorporating feedback on strengths in performance review procedures.

Positive Psychology Interventions in Organizations

{van Woerkom, Bakker, & Leiter, 2021. Positive psychology interventions in organizations. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (2021), 94}


Positive psychology interventions are planned activities or methods for cultivating valued subjective experiences, building positive individual traits, or building civic virtue and positive institutions, thus providing a way of applying psychological knowledge to the betterment of individuals and society by helping individuals discern what qualities are authentic to them, what makes their lives meaningful, and what goals are intrinsically motivating to them.

Positive psychology is about helping individuals explore their natural qualities and the goals that intrinsically motivate them and helping organizations bring out the best in each of their workers.


Mechanisms of change: Why do positive psychology interventions work?

The quest to improve desirable and reduce undesirable work outcomes has brought us theories of psychological processes that are impacted by intervention and explain how the desired change in wellbeing occurs. The design and interventions also rely on theories on how best to facilitate learning and behavior change. For example, goal-setting theory proposes that setting clear goals enables individuals to channel their attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities, thereby improving their self-regulation and helping them accomplish positive and proactive behaviors. Nudge theory proposes positive reinforcement to prime individuals to make favorable choices by enabling the choice to participate in such behaviors so easily that they become the default heuristic. Experiential learning theory proposes that concrete experiences form the basis for observation and reflection on what is working or failing, followed by thoughts on improving future experiences and active experimentation.

Yet, interventions are usually based on a combination of theories, and it is hard to establish the intervention’s active elements responsible for its effectiveness.


Top-down or bottom-up interventions?

Top-down interventions are initiated and driven by organizations and senior managers and applied across whole teams, departments, or organizations. For example, they might target supervisory, emotional, and instrumental support behaviors, role modeling, and redesigning work to support conflicting work-life demands. In addition, interventions help leaders support their subordinates’ basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Top-down interventions create changes at the proximal level of leader behavior. Yet the effects at the distal level of subordinates are much smaller and may take more time to materialize.

Another downside of top-down interventions targeted at supervisors is that this assumes that workers are passive recipients of the interventions and that they largely depend on their supervisors to fulfill their needs. In contrast, bottom-up interventions involve employees initiating and making changes, which may be particularly relevant for workers who have little contact with their supervisor or do not have a supervisor or an employer. Moreover, self-initiated and proactive behaviors significantly influence workers’ wellbeing. 


Delivery methods

Delivery methods affect the interventions’ effectiveness, whether group or individual, with different effects on stimulating a social support climate and fostering commitment and motivation. The effectiveness of online interventions is found to be comparable to the effectiveness of face-to-face interventions. However, online interventions are associated with 50 percent and higher dropout rates.

Blended is the way to go. For example, a face-to-face group workshop at the intervention’s beginning and end and online training in between might combine the best of two worlds.


For whom are positive psychology interventions effective?

Individual features influence the effectiveness of positive activities on wellbeing, such as when participants high on wellbeing or personal resources have less room for improvement and benefit less from positive psychology interventions. This may be more a result of the sensitivity of measures than the actual benefit gained.

A major inclusion criterion in positive interventions is that participants are self-selected and not “forced” to participate, which weakens the effects of positive interventions due to doubts and low motivation to partake. Conversely, highly motivated self-selectors have high outcome expectancy, ensuring that they benefit from interventions.

Incorporating choice and variety enhances person-activity fit, thus increasing motivation to perform positive activities and their effectiveness. Involving participants in the selection of activities based on how much they liked the different activities, how easy they found it to carry them out, and their thought on how much they benefited from them contributed to the person-activity fit.

The potential effectiveness of positive psychology interventions is limited by adherence to the intervention instead of dropping out prematurely. Therefore, to optimize the effectiveness of future interventions, it makes sense to analyze which participants tend to drop out of the intervention; indicators to track may include work engagement and satisfaction levels before initiating intervention projects.

Positive Interventions in Positive Organizations

{Salanova et al., 2013. Positive Interventions in Positive Organizations. Terapia Psicologica Vol. 31 (1)}

A HEalthy & Resilient Organization (HERO) as a Positive Organization

Healthy Employees: Efficacy Beliefs, Trust, Positive Emotions, Resilience, Work Engagement

Healthy Organizational Resources & Practices: Task Resources, Social Resources, Healthy Practices

Healthy Organizational Outcomes: Organizational Commitment, High Performance, Customer Loyalty/Satisfaction, Corporate Social Responsibility


Consider an organization that makes systematic, planned, and proactive efforts to improve employees’, teams,’ and the organization’s processes and outcomes. These organizations are “resilient” because they maintain positive adjustment under challenging conditions, bounce back from untoward events, and maintain desirable functions and outcomes amid strain. These efforts involve fostering healthy organizational resources and practices aimed at improving the work environment at the task (e.g., autonomy), interpersonal (e.g., transformational leadership styles), and organizational (e.g., Human Resources practices) levels, especially during times of turbulence and change.


When organizations have healthy practices and resources (team autonomy, team feedback, supportive team climate, teamwork, team coordination, transformational leadership), teams feel healthier (more efficacious, engaged, and resilient to adversity), which in turn leads to healthier organizational outcomes (team in-role and extra-role performance as assessed by their immediate supervisors).

Healthy organizational outcomes include quality products and services (excellence) and positive relationships with the organizational environment and community (community benefits).

To develop positive organizations, first, healthy and resilient factors are assessed. Then, in the next step, these factors are enhanced through positive interventions, such as strategies focused on employees, teams, and organizations that improve optimum performance and health to promote higher work quality and organizational excellence. Positive interventions that promote, increase, and improve health and wellbeing (e.g., work engagement) at the collective (teams and organizations) and individual (employee) levels include three characteristics: 

comprehension: the focus of interventions is oriented toward improving the health and wellbeing of teams and organizations; 

inclusion of the entire workforce: employees, teams, and organizations that are not sick or distressed; and 

it constitutes a long mission that requires a continuous and sustained effort.


Individual strategies to improve positivity in organizations bring about changes at three levels: 

the individual’s behavior (by practicing virtues, kindness, gratitude, forgiveness, sharing good news, and investing in social relationships); 

beliefs (blessings, cultivating optimism, and practicing savoring); or 

goals and motives (pursuing goals and increasing resilience).

The research findings suggest persistently using the strategies over time and using a variety of strategies aimed at the collective and individual levels.


Organization- and team-based interventions

HEROs may be developed and maintained by stimulating each link in their main dimensions; healthy organizational resources and practices, healthy employees, and healthy outcomes.


HERO assessment and evaluation strategies

Assessment and evaluation of HEROs are about increasing healthy organizational resources and practices (as assessed by CEOs, employees/teams, and immediate supervisors), as well as about healthy development (as assessed by teams and immediate supervisors) and healthy outcomes (as assessed by teams, immediate supervisors, and customers) following a collective approach.


Strategy: Talent attraction, recruitment, selection, and retention.

The presentation of the company brand is to appeal to and attract potential employees. Therefore, recruiting and selection are based on strengths, resulting in energized employees who are assumed to perform, develop, and function optimally.


Strategy: Establishing and monitoring the psychological contract.

The expectations of both parties need to match. The subjective notion of reciprocity requires the gains (salary) to be proportional to one’s investments (effort) or the outcomes (recognition) to match one’s inputs (loyalty). Assessing the employee’s values, preferences, and personal and professional goals; negotiating and drafting a written contract in the form of an employee development agreement that provides the resources to achieve personally meaningful goals; monitoring this agreement for goal achievement form part of a psychological contract.


Strategy: Periodic HERO audits.

Audits of the three dimensions inform improvement decisions, assessing future needs and foreseeable changes and monitoring interventions’ implementation and outcomes.


Strategy: Workshops on positive experiences.

Workshops that build positive experiences by increasing personal resources such as cognitive, behavioral, and social skills are structured group meetings of employees to promote health and wellbeing. They are usually implemented quickly and include work engagement, positive emotions, and emotional intelligence. Building these resources is achieved by the active participation of employees to develop the abilities needed to enjoy and commit to working, manage interpersonal relationships among colleagues, supervisors, and customers, and improve work quality. In addition, training programs increase self-confidence, self-knowledge, communication and conflict resolution skills, personal resilience, positive emotions, positive behaviors, and positive cognitions impacting employee wellbeing.


Job and organization design and changing workplaces

The HERO model posits that investing in healthy organizational resources and practices is the best mechanism to promote healthy employees and produce healthy organizational outcomes.


Strategy: Investing in task and social resources.

Investing in task resources (time control and method control) and social resources (supportive team climate, coordination, teamwork) positively affects collective work engagement and performance.


Strategy: Investing in organizational practices.

Healthy organizational practices (i.e., work-family balance, mobbing prevention, psychosocial health, and communication strategies) increase the level of healthy employees in terms of organizational trust (i.e., vertical trust) and teamwork engagement.


Strategy: Investing in work changes.

Job rotations, special project assignments, or reassignment to different jobs are likely to increase work engagement, particularly when employees feel challenged in their new jobs while they have the necessary competencies to meet the challenges.


Positive and Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is a social resource in increasing health and wellbeing at work, especially in times of change. A transformational leader is charismatic, inspiring, and visionary; motivates employees and builds work engagement; displays conviction; takes stands; challenges followers with high standards; communicates optimism about future goal attainment; stimulates and encourages creativity and innovation; and listens to followers’ concerns and needs. In addition, such leaders should inspire trust, respect, and pride to increase optimism, hope, and resilience.


Work training in efficacy beliefs

According to Social Cognitive Theory (SCT), efficacy beliefs lie at the core of human agency. They are important because they influence employees’ and teams’ behavior, thinking, motivation, and feelings (Bandura, 2001). Moreover, high efficacy beliefs are related to wellbeing (e.g., work engagement, flow) and positive outcomes (e.g., job satisfaction, performance, organizational commitment, and academic success) by positive reciprocal cycles and spirals.

This means that efficacy beliefs serve as a self-motivating mechanism: as a consequence of evaluating their competence, employees set new goals that motivate them to mobilize additional efforts, focus on achieving those goals, and persist in facing difficulties.

Training programs should include practical exercises to provide experiences of vocational success (mastery experiences), role models of good performance (vicarious experiences), coaching and encouragement (verbal persuasion), and reduce fear of rejection or failure (managing emotional states) at the individual (self-efficacy for employees) and collective levels (team efficacy and organizational efficacy).

The best way to evoke mastery experiences is by tackling work problems in successive, attainable steps.

If people see similar others succeed by sustained effort during work training, they believe they also can succeed.

Using social persuasion to convince employees that they have what it takes to succeed will support them in making more effort and persevering when obstacles arise.

Finally, the employee’s negative emotional states may be reduced by applying stress-management techniques and enhancing positive emotional states through positive interventions.


Career management

To operationalize this strategy, periodically complete HERO audits and monitor the development of healthy and resilient employees, teams, and organizations as a whole over time; include the development of specific skills and competencies in the Employee Development Agreement; re-design jobs and organizations or change the workplaces thereby fostering employee development; and design specific work training, especially to increase efficacy beliefs and work engagement.


Individual-based interventions

Individual positive interventions involve the person’s core values, interests, and preferences and trigger changes at three levels: the individual’s behaviors, beliefs, and goals and motives. The benefits of individual interventions include the positive reactions elicited from others which encourages the employee to continue with the positive behavior, increases in employee wellbeing (e.g., work engagement), and also a positive social climate fostered through group cohesion, resolving conflicts, and increasing loyalty, team spirit, and pro-social behavior.


Behavioral strategies

Practicing virtues.

Living an authentic life and realizing one’s strengths, talents, and potentials fosters sustained happiness. Identifying and developing one’s signature strengths, receiving individualized feedback about one’s top-five signature strengths, and using them more often and each day of the following week in a new and different way increases happiness.

Taking up activities to develop one’s dominant talents at work significantly increases employees’ work engagement.


Being kind to others.

Acts of kindness likely generate positive individual benefits since they elicit positive feedback (e.g., gratefulness and appreciation), stimulate reciprocation and positive social interaction, influence altruistic self-image, and boost self-esteem and confidence. Practices include performing a variety of kindness acts in a short period; designating a “kindness day” to practice collectively with colleagues, supervisors, and customers at work or with friends and family outside the work context.


Expressing gratitude.

Individuals who express gratitude are more likely to savor positive life experiences, bolster self-worth, build social bonds, and develop an antidote to toxic workplace emotions.

Writing and sending a gratitude letter to someone who has been especially kind or important increases individual happiness; stimulates moral behavior such as helping, and builds social bonds; is incompatible with negative emotions and thus inhibits feelings of envy, bitterness, anger, or greed; enhances positive affect and other wellbeing measures; feels good and produces a cascade of beneficial social outcomes by upward spirals.


Learning to forgive.

People who forgive are happier, healthier, more agreeable and serene, less anxious, depressed, and neurotic. Learning to forgive lowers levels of anxiety and increases self-esteem. Examples of ways to forgive include writing a letter of forgiveness to someone who did wrong, empathizing with an offender and granting them imaginary forgiveness, and practicing empathy for the person that hurt you.


Sharing good news.

Sharing good news or telling about positive experiences increases positive emotions because one remembers the good news and savors the experience over time. Likewise, celebrating one’s successes at work with other team members increases happiness (in terms of work engagement) and bolsters team spirit because of engagement “contagion.”


Nurturing social relationships.

Giving social support in crises times; providing help or assistance, emotional support, or information; spending time together with colleagues and one’s immediate supervisor; talking about work and personal matters; being loyal and giving supportive help to others; listening to others, and giving them useful information positively impact health and wellbeing.


Cognitive strategies

Counting one’s blessings.

Savoring positive life experiences by keeping a daily journal to write three things one is currently grateful for, or choosing a fixed time and contemplating each of the things one is grateful for and reflecting on why one is grateful and how one’s life has been enriched enhances happiness.


Cultivating optimism.

Optimism is the expectation that the future is bright and one can accomplish one’s goals. For example, the “Best Possible Future Self” exercise is a mental exercise in which the individual focuses, visualizes, and writes a narrative of her best future self. Another exercise is disputing and replacing pessimistic explanations with more optimistic ones to generate a learning and optimistic attributional style.



To accentuate and sustain pleasurable moments and deliberately remember experiences enjoyably, one could reminisce together with colleagues; recall happy days; be open to beauty and excellence; take pleasure in senses; step back, take time out, and deliberately shift one’s attention to particular pleasurable events and experiences; or simply enjoy the moment or look at a joint festivity with the colleagues.


Volitional strategies

Setting and pursuing personal goals.

Clarifying, choosing, and achieving meaningful and important self-concordant personal goals that fit one’s interests and values enhance wellbeing and personal growth. Brief interventions involving the development of goal-setting and planning skills increase life satisfaction, efficacy beliefs, and positive affect. Lyubomirsky (2007) distinguishes intrinsic goals that are gratifying, authentic goals rooted in one’s core interests, and harmonious goals that are complementary rather than conflicting. Different ways to set and pursue personal goals include writing the legacy one would leave after one died, critically examining one’s commitment to a particular goal, and breaking down a higher-level goal into smaller, low-level goals.


Increase resilience.

In the work context, resilience is conceptualized as maintaining positive adjustment under challenging conditions. Strategies to foster resilience include writing about one’s deepest thoughts and feelings related to the negative event for about fifteen to thirty minutes each day, 3 to 5 consecutive days; and offering adequate job resources such as colleague and supervisory support or job control, and mastery motivation which involves optimism and self-efficacy.