Time to Pull the Brakes on the Positive Psychology Train?

Positive psychology criticism

In our last post, we briefly explored the benefits of positive psychology in the workplace and how it may be used to employees’ advantages, simultaneously benefiting employers. Enhancing individuals’ experiences of work can help employees thrive. Businesses may encourage socialization to boost morale, foster a fun work environment and express gratitude through honest, positive feedback, for a few examples.

But positive psychology and its focus on strengths rather than weaknesses is not without critics. Here’s a look at the potential downside of positive psychology in the workplace.

Too much of a good thing?

Google is renowned for the lengths to which it goes “to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world,” according to a spokesman in a New York Times interview. Office employees can take advantage of many perks: putting greens, video game consoles, scooters and subsidized massages. Yet recent studies have found that when a positive mood in the office climbs too high, it can actually cause a decline in positive behaviour on the job.

According to research published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, both the least happy and most happy workers were less proactive than those who rated their mood moderately positive. The researchers note that employers should take steps to assist workers in establishing a proper work-life balance, and provide room for growth and educational opportunities for the benefit of employees.

Turning strengths into weaknesses

Positive psychology is strengths-based in focus. Strengths-based development was introduced in social services initially and garnered significant attention in the business world in the 1990s. It was further popularised at the turn of the century through Martin Seligman’s advocacy.

In the workplace, the strength-based approach focuses on identifying and fostering employees’ innate capabilities. Building on employees’ natural inclinations and talents rather than trying to correct deficiencies or weaknesses is the key to happier, more engaged, and more productive employees. Today the strengths approach is often applied in developing managers by helping them discover and maximize their own talents.

Yet some critics believe the strengths approach may have an ironic effect, as strengths may be turned into weaknesses through overuse. At the same time, shortcomings that have a negative impact on employees’ performance may be neglected.

Psychologists Robert Kaiser and Darren Overfield identify two potential problems with the strengths approach. First, the benefits it brings about for individuals are short-term, as the focus is narrow. Research has shown a broader approach to developing a wider variety of capabilities—some of them new—provides longer-term benefits. The second pitfall arises in practice, as applications of the strengths approach often ignore or overlook the extensive research on leadership development, including the problem of lopsided leadership. Overdeveloping one talent may be at the cost of losing an opposing ability. For example, an overly conscientious, detail-oriented supervisor may lose efficiency in producing reports.

It is possible to utilise the strengths approach in developmental applications in ways that minimize these potential downsides. One aspect of such an application suggested by Kaiser and Overfield might involve honest, unambiguous feedback for managers on which strengths they are overusing. The manager may then be encouraged to move toward balance by redirecting those strengths in other, more beneficial ways.

Criticism and critiques

Criticism of the use of positive psychology in organisations reflects a more general skepticism—or backlash–that questions its widespread application and growing popularity.

For example, McNulty and Fincham (2012, Beyond Positive Psychology) observe that traits themselves are not positive or negative. Rather, the context of a social interaction determines whether a particular characteristic will foster well-being. Forgiveness may be a strength, but perhaps not the full solution to discrimination, harassment or bullying in the workplace.

Steps to improve positivity at work and in other social contexts are both advocated and increasingly available for public use today. Interventions involve manipulation, and for positive psychology this means creating an experience of happiness. Is it ethical to subject employees to this? Could this lead to exploitation, or other unintended negative effects?

While positive psychology has gained popularity in Western societies, is it also applicable to other cultures? Is it helpful or even wise to widely impose its individualist bias towards positivity?

Positive psychology is new. Although it has attracted remarkable attention and rapidly growing application, empirical studies are limited compared to other areas in the field. This needs to be kept in perspective. A psychological discipline develops through rigorous investigation, rooted in scepticism, even if the topic of focus is hopeful optimism.

In addition to sources hyperlinked inline above, you can read more about positive psychology and its use in organisations here:

Rewarding Careers Applying Positive Psychological Science to Improve Quality of Work Life and Organizational Effectiveness”, book chapter by Stewart I. Donaldson, Michelle C. Bligh.

For more on criticism of positive psychology, check out:

Popping The Happiness Bubble: The Backlash Against Positive Psychology (Part 1) – First in a two-part series article from Psychology Today.

A Critique of Positive Psychology— or ‘The New Science of Happiness’  Article from the Journal of Philosophy of Education examining positive psychology from a more philosophical perspective.

Positive Psychology Criticism: All That’s Cracked Up To Be? Response to common criticisms from a Positive Psychology Program resource.

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