Thriving at Work: An Outcome of Positive Leadership?

Should companies concern themselves with the psychological well-being of their employees? After all, the prevalent assumption is that business organizations should be focusing on maximizing profits. In a landmark article, the Nobel laureate Milton Friedman famously argued that, “There is one and only one responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” This economic perspective elevates profit to the top of all organizational priorities, sometimes at the expense of employee well-being. Interestingly, recent Gallup studies show that employee engagement is a key predictor of a company performance. So how do you reconcile economic profit and human thriving?

Employee Flourishing Matters

Empirical research in organizations makes a strong business case for thriving workplaces. For example, Diener and Seligman argue that work can be highly rewarding and lead to stronger performance, greater health, and higher overall well-being. In their annual meta-analyses reports, Gallup researchers find that the most engaged units outperformed in terms of profitability, productivity, turnover, absenteeism, or customer ratings.

Satisfied workers are engaged by their work, have positive relationships and even friends in the workplace, more autonomy to apply their natural talents, and supportive managers. They usually feel they can learn and develop into the best versions of themselves and that their work is important. The relationship between thriving and success is reciprocal: success can contribute to thriving and thriving leads to more success in multiple life domains such as health, relationships, and work performance, as summarized in the paper by Lyubomirsky, King, and Diener. In other words, thriving is a worthwhile pursuit, both as an end in itself and as a means toward other ends.

Importance of Employee Morale and Motivation

Only people can make organizations great. That’s why we hear ad nauseam that human capital is a company’s most important asset. That is really nothing new. In the early 1930s, as a consequence of the stock market crash, the needs of workers made their appearance in the management literature. The famous Hawthorne studies by Roethlisberger and Dickson in 1939 showed for the first time that when workers received increased attention they worked harder.

This research also highlighted that simply eliminating the negative aspects in the workplace may prevent dissatisfaction but did not necessarily produce positive outcomes such as satisfaction, motivation, and performance. Many employers are still applying management practices which belong to a business model inherited from the late nineteenth century that is negatively biased toward finding and fixing problems and employee weaknesses, as Seligman argues in his book, Flourish.

The Dismal State of Employee Engagement

Interestingly, according to Gallup’s 2015 report, one in four American workers feels ignored by their managers. Undoubtedly, this undercuts employees’ abilities, as they feel repressed by negative contexts. Experiential studies by Kahneman and colleagues confirmed that the time of day when people are least happy is when they are in interacting with their line manager. These dismal results suggest that too many managers are out of touch with their workers. Helliwell and colleagues suggest that they rely on mechanical incentives and command. Perhaps not coincidentally, for most people in organizations, thriving and work are mutually exclusive.

As the consistently low employee engagement figures show, only 32% of U.S. employees show passion and a profound connection to their work. The others are checked out or, worse, acting out their unhappiness. More than three in four (83%) persons age fifteen and over In America spend the majority of their waking hours in a work-related activity, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Inevitably, their experience at work will greatly impact the quality of their lives. Indeed, work provides not just an income, but perhaps more importantly, work affects self-esteem, and creates opportunities for engagement, meaning, and relationships, the qualities that Seligman believes contribute to flourishing.

Positive Leaders

The latest science shows us how to improve the way we work and build better workplaces. Since the early 2000’s the science of Positive Organizational Scholarship recognizes that organizations can reach their bottom-line goals by enhancing people’s experience at work. According to Kim Cameron at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, positive leaders and organizations promote outcomes such as “thriving at work, interpersonal flourishing, virtuous behaviors, positive emotions, and energizing networks.” He points out four behaviors of positive leaders:

  1. Fostering a positive climate: Studies by Fredrickson demonstrate that positive emotions signal safety, broaden our mindset and allow us to discover and build new skills, social ties, knowledge, and behaviors. Consequently, Cameron points out that organizations that enable positive climates through high levels of compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, integrity, trust, and optimism perform better. Positive leaders cultivate a positive emotional climate that spreads across teams and the organization as a whole. The positive climate improves employee quality of life, engagement, and performance.
  2. Reinforcing positive meaning: People want to feel that what they do matters. Employees are becoming increasingly diverse and want to be empowered and engaged by meaningful work and supportive managers. Their need for meaningful work and positive relationships is more than what traditional command-and-control employers usually provide.
  3. Building positive relationships: We know that people join a good organization and leave a bad boss. More generally, whether organizations as well as their employees flourish or languish largely depends on the quality of the social connections they nurture. The quality of the workplace connections can be defined as life giving (high quality) or life depleting (low quality). Positive relationships increase trust, mutual support, collaboration, learning and thriving.
  4. Engaging in positive communication: Communication that conveys affirmation and openness improves the connection between two people. In contrast, unsupportive communication such as sarcasm, negative comparisons, threats, or win-lose interactions hinder the other person’s ability to tune in and understand the message. As Stephens and colleagues explain, what we say and how we say it should denote respect, appreciation, and dignity. Therefore, words and questions should be engaging, affirmative, and positive as much as possible because they orient the direction of the communication.

Arguably, business organizations do many things well. Creating work environments that allow employees to thrive is not among them. Work and well-being can be mutually supportive if the orientation of the organization is on strengths rather than weaknesses, if the workplace offers more autonomy and opportunities for flow experiences, and if employee thriving is a corporate objective, in addition to efficiency and profits.

In sum, complementing the traditional organizational pursuit of economic success with a focus on the ways to nurture life-giving work environments is essential to individual and organizational thriving. That is a message that should resonate with more organizations, especially those interested in optimizing efficiency and profits.


This article authored by Robert Rosales was originally posted on