The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

The Wheatley Contribution: Positive Practices & Positive Techniques

“Substantial progress is being made in understanding the effects on organizations and individuals of positive practices and positive techniques.”

Kim S. Cameron | September 19, 2014
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A photograph of the Hinckley Building, which houses the Wheatley Institution, in the springtime.

The Wheatley Institution is sponsoring and encouraging work in a relatively new area of research. This area is referred to as positive organizational scholarship (POS), and it focuses on life-giving dynamics, optimal functioning, collective strengths, human flourishing, especially positive outcomes of organizations and their members, and concepts such as excellence, thriving, flourishing, abundance, resilience, and virtuousness in and through organizations (Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003; Cameron & Spreitzer, 2012). These descriptions all emphasize terms that are associated with processes, dynamics, perspectives, and outcomes in organizations that are considered to be typical of “the positive.”

A positive lens focuses attention on the life-giving elements or generative processes

POS emphasizes at least four different areas of focus. One is the adoption of a unique lens or an alternative perspective. Adopting a POS lens means that challenges and obstacles are reinterpreted as opportunities and strength-building experiences rather than as tragedies or problems. Variables not previously recognized or seriously considered in organizational scholarship become central, such as positive energy, moral capital, organizational flow, inspiration, compassion, elevation, and callings at work. Adopting a POS lens means that adversities and difficulties reside as much in the domain of POS as do celebrations and successes, but a positive lens focuses attention on the life-giving elements or generative processes associated with these phenomena. It is the positive perspective—not the nature of the phenomena—that draws an issue into the POS domain.

A second area of focus is on extraordinarily positive outcomes or positively deviant performance. This means that outcomes are investigated which dramatically exceed common or expected performance. Investigating spectacular results, surprising outcomes, and extraordinarily positive achievements—labelled positively deviant performance—have been the focus of several investigations. For example, the closure and clean-up of the Rocky Flats Nuclear arsenal near Denver, Colorado, represents almost unbelievably positive performance. A company cleaned up and closed the North American continent’s most polluted and dangerous nuclear arsenal 60 years ahead of schedule, $30 billion under budget, and 13 times cleaner than required by federal standards by applying POS principles and practices (Cameron & Lavine, 2006).

A third area of focus is on the heliotropic effect. All living systems have an inclination toward positive energy and away from negative energy—or toward that which is life giving and away from that which endangers or depletes life. This means that, indeed, every human being tends to flourish in the presence of the positive and languish in the presence of the negative (see Cameron, 2008). POS, therefore, prioritizes positive energy, positive climate, positive relationships, positive communication, and positive meaning in organizations as well as the positive value embedded in difficult challenges or negative events. POS is unapologetic in emphasizing affirmative attributes, capabilities, and possibilities more than problems, threats, and weakness, although POS does not exclude considering negative events.

POS research examines the development and  effects associated with virtuousness and eudaemonism

A fourth area of focus is the examination of virtuousness, or the best of the human condition. POS is based on a eudaemonic assumption—that is, the postulation that an inclination exists in all human systems toward achieving the highest aspirations of humankind. POS research examines the development of and the effects associated with virtuousness and eudaemonism, or what Aristotle labeled “that which is good in itself and is to be chosen for its own sake.” Studies of virtuousness in organizations focus, for example, on individuals’ behaviors in organizational settings that help others flourish, including investigating character strengths, gratitude, wisdom, forgiveness, hope, and courage. Studies of virtuousness through organizations, focus on practices and processes in organizations that represent and perpetuate what is good, right, and worthy of cultivation. This includes, for example, investigating profound purpose and transcendent objectives, healing routines, and institutionalized forgiveness, compassion, and hope.

These four areas of focus in POS—adopting a positive lens, investigating extraordinarily positive performance, espousing a heliotropic effect, and exploring virtuousness—do not precisely define POS per se, but they do identify the scholarly domain that POS scholars are attempting to map. Thus far, through Wheatley contributions, substantial progress is being made in understanding the effects on organizations and individuals of positive practices and positive techniques.

Cameron, K.S. and Lavine, M. (2006). Making the impossible possible: Leading extraordinary performance—the Rocky Flats story. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Cameron, K.S. (2008a). Paradox in positive organizational change. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 44, 7–24.
Cameron, K.S., Dutton, J.E., and Quinn, R.E. (2003), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Cameron, K.S. and Spreitzer, G.M. (2012), Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. New York: Oxford University Press.