APA Center for Organizational Excellence: Good Company

Resources for Employers

Good Company Blog

Recently, the press release for an article appearing in Academy of Management Discoveries made some waves with the headline “Contagion of off-site work drains the company office of its value and appeal, new study finds.” Media picked up the headline and ran with it, offering comments such as “…people started working from home because everyone else was doing it” (New York Times) and “Giving your employees the chance to work from home might not be the win-win proposition many believe it to be” (Business News Daily).

Before you use this information to kill telecommuting because it’s bad for business, the press release about that article does not tell the whole story. In fact, a review of the methodology and results from the underlying study suggests the media’s portrayal is not exactly accurate.

The premise that working outside the office acts like a virus that kills off everyone's motivation and the company's values is not justified by the results of the study. Those comments came up only in some of the original interviews the authors conducted with 29 IT employees of the company. Follow-up surveys conducted with hundreds of employees from across the organization did not even study this “contagion effect.”

Rather, survey respondents from across the organization were more likely to indicate they telecommuted for beneficial reasons. The three most frequently cited reasons for working from home were the perceptions of being more productive (67 percent), being better able to manage work-family demands (63 percent) and because it made their job more satisfying (43 percent). Only 29 percent reported that it was because few people from their team worked in the office much. While selecting that reason predicted how much time people spent working from home, so did selecting other reasons. It was subsequently unclear how many people selected the office being empty as their primary or only reason for working from home.

To be sure, there is likely going to be some loss of social interaction when people telecommute regularly, but this is not news to anyone. In the early 2000s, the Center for Work and Family at Boston College produced a report that argued:

Not every position can be accomplished remotely and not every individual is suitable to work remotely or to manage remote workers. Assessment of person and job-fit to a telecommuting arrangement is essential.

The report also concluded that telecommuting by one or many employees will impact other organizational members, relationships among co-workers, and relationships between telecommuters and their managers.

An article written by Wayne Cascio and published by the Academy of Management Perspectives in 2000 – which was cited in the recent Academy of Management Discoveries article – already highlighted potential issues of isolation, loss of synergies due to decreased personal interactions, and decreased levels of trust, if not managed properly.

So, slow down the frenzy already.

If you have telecommuting at your office and it’s working well, congratulations: You’re helping employees by providing them a more flexible workplace. If not, then the recent article published in the Academy of Management Discoveries is not going to help you. It really does nothing but highlight two things we already knew.

First, a no-holds-barred approach to telecommuting may not always be in a company’s best interests. If employees are free to pick and choose when they come into the office (or if they come in at all), you run the risk of creating a scenario in which people stop showing up to work because when they choose to go, they don’t get anything out of it. Rather than simply letting employees do whatever they want when it comes to telecommuting, companies should be deliberate about how they go about implementing that flexibility.

Second, regardless of how well it’s managed, not everyone is going to think working from home is the ideal work arrangement. Everyone has different needs they fulfill through their work – including needs for achievement and affiliation. If people value face-to-face physical interactions as a way of meeting their affiliation needs, then obviously they may not thrive as well in a virtual environment.

Neither of these two issues, though, are new in any way and have been studied in past research (though, admittedly, more research on this topic can always be done). Regardless, it is important for us all to remember that telecommuting is not something we should allow to simply pop up in an organization. Like any other work process, it requires a strategy, effective management, and integration and coordination, among other work processes. It also requires that workers are a fit with this way of working and that management processes and infrastructure can effectively support it.

So, before you conclude that telecommuting is bad for business, you should delve deeper into the research.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/clement127 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” --- Abraham Maslow (1966)

This expression seems to be quite apropos to what has taken place in a lot – and I mean a lot – of modern organizations. Wellness programs have become the one-stop-shop for fixing all of your employees’ ills, with companies spending a record $693 per worker. Yet, many companies have found that they have put all their eggs into one not-so-beneficial basket, so companies began “incentivizing” participation, which is often met with mixed results.

But if incentives don’t work well for you, you might try another hammer that employees seem to be getting beaten with: gamification. If we gamify everything, from wellness programs to training to sales, employees will become more focused and engaged in their work, choosing to spend more effort and energy on these initiatives.

And if that doesn’t suit your fancy, one of the newest hammers is mindfulness, a favorite of companies like Aetna and Google. While there’s nothing wrong with the practice of meditation and mindfulness, companies are starting to treat it as a panacea for stress reduction, and in some cases, is creating a “cult of mindfulness.”

Yet, these three popular hammers all have two things in common in how they are implemented:

  1. They assume there is one best way to accomplish a desired goal.
  2. They put the onus squarely on the employee and remove any responsibility for employee ills on the work environment itself.

Instead, these solutions are often touted within organizations in which employees regularly work long hours and encounter a myriad of stressors that exist within the work environment. Hence, the goal seems to be to find ways to make people healthier, more motivated or more relaxed so they can navigate better the stressors that exist within the work environment, without having to put forth the effort to address issues that exist within the work environment.

Many organizations fail to take a systemic organizational development approach to assessing and truly solving underlying problems. When an annual employee survey suggests employees are stressed, the organization offers a mindfulness program or a stress management program and hopes it will address the problem. Yet, issues like stress, health and well-being are multifaceted and require multifaceted solutions. 

When companies rely on initiatives like wellness programs or mindfulness to solve multifaceted problems, they are committing what is called the fundamental attribution error, in which they tend to assume the problem lies with an employee rather than looking at the environment and situational demands that produce the undesired outcomes. While it is true that employee health and well-being is influenced by characteristics of the person (e.g., their personality, competencies, resources and behaviors), the situation (i.e., work environment) has a profound impact as well. A failure to address one without addressing the other will, at best, result in decreased effectiveness for what we are trying to accomplish.

Instead, what we typically see is a new hammer that becomes popular, sometimes taking hold, sometimes becoming nothing but a fad – just like we see when it comes to the latest and greatest diet. Regardless of established effectiveness or return on investment, companies tend to adopt the approach until something new comes along and take hold, even if only for a short time.

And for employees, well, I’m reminded of the attempt at ironic humor found on t-shirts, hats and other trinkets: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

http://www.flickr.com/photos/zemistor / CC BY-ND 2.0


When young women come to me for career advice, they are generally just starting out in the professional world, or almost finished with school and want to discuss career paths in psychology. I talk about what it’s like to work in the field of industrial-organizational psychology and how to carve out research projects on healthy workplace topics. We also discuss the benefits of postgraduate education, leadership opportunities and long-term earning potential.

Two questions I wish more women would ask as they contemplate life after graduate school are, “How will my spouse or partner affect my career?” and “What type of workplace environment is going to be most supportive of my professional and personal goals?”

The reality for most women entering the workforce is that they will be launching their careers around the same time in their lives they’ll also be navigating marriage, balancing their partner’s professional ambitions and starting a family. A spouse who shares similar views on work and childcare responsibilities can make a big difference for women who want to flourish in a demanding career and have a fulfilling personal life.

Supportive workplace policies and leaders who understand the value of a healthy workplace help both men and women perform well in their jobs, which in turn benefits their families and organizations. This makes sense, because sure, it would be nice to have both a supportive partner in life as well as a supportive employer, but it’s not always simple to find either, let alone both.

Research has shown that the majority of us prefer egalitarian relationships, and this is what I find with most of the millennial women I mentor as well. In a study of the effect of workplace policies on the relationship preferences of young men and women, Pedulla and Thébaud (2015) found that while men and women have egalitarian attitudes about gender roles, if their companies do not offer supportive, family-friendly policies, men and women choose more traditional roles, as described in this recent New York Times article.

Many of us want partners who forge their own careers, who understand the realities women face in the workplace, and also share the household and childcare responsibilities equally. As professional millennial women, we want the best of both worlds, and we want the companies we work for to work with us so we can all succeed. In doing so, we perform better at work and everyone is happy. It’s a win-win.

More American women with advanced degrees are choosing to have both children and a career (Pew Research Center, 2015). The decision is no longer “either/or” as it was for some in previous generations, yet our workplace flexibility options and parental leave policies still lag behind both the times and other countries.

Are workplace norms and policies really limiting us from achieving gender equality in the workplace and the more equal relationships we want at home?

“Our choices are profoundly influenced by the cultural and institutional forces around us. We need to understand the real problem – that we lack the social and systemic supports that we need in order to realize our potential and share our talents with the world,” suggests Katrina Alcorn, author of the book Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink.

Something has to give in order for working parents to thrive at work and at home.

According to APA’s newly released Work-Life Survey, 51 percent of working Americans say their employer offers flexibility for when they work, and less than half report having flexible options in terms of the number of hours they work (43 percent), how many days per week they work (40 percent) and the location where they work (34 percent). Surprisingly, even fewer U.S. workers are tapping into work-life benefits, with just a quarter or fewer using work-life benefits once a month or more (APA, 2015).

APA’s Work-Life Survey also found that men are more likely than women to report frequent use of some work-life benefits, including child care resources, personal time off, flex schedules, paid leave, unpaid leave, life management support and phased transitions. Men were also more likely than women to say their employer offers many work-life benefits.

In some ways it’s easier to juggle work and family now than in earlier generations because there are more options. Yet not enough has changed – societal and workplace culture norms still set up an expectation that women should be responsible for the bulk of childcare and housework, leaving women feeling overwhelmed, burning out or opting out of the workforce all together.

Not only does the expectation persist, but, on average, women still do more of the childcare and housework, in addition to working. Mothers spend about 32 hours on childcare and housework a week, whereas fathers spend about 17, in addition to paid work (mothers spend about 21 hours a week on paid work, fathers spend an average of 37), according to the Pew Research Center.

Benefits for women to achieving greater equality at home include everything from better health and wellness to more fulfilling relationships. Yet men who strive for gender equality, those who take paternity leave or stay home with their children when they are sick, can also encounter a less receptive work environment and, in some cases, are stigmatized and “daddy tracked.”

In order for women to be successful in their careers, we don’t just need paid maternity leave and flexible workplace policies. We also need partners who have the same options and flexibility and are encouraged by organizational leaders to use them for everyone’s advantage.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/wespeck / CC BY-ND 2.0


When you think about employee recognition and rewards, what do you think of? Pay? Employee-of-the-month awards? Merit raises? Thank you cards? All of these, of course, can serve to either (1) show employees they are valued, or (2) motivate them to achieve effective performance. However, as was pointed out in the American Psychological Association’s Recognition Survey in August 2014, there is a gap between what employees value and what employers offer.

I recently had the privilege of being a panel member at the Work, Stress, and Health Conference in Atlanta, where panelists discussed common workplace myths surrounding issues of employee engagement, recognition and work-life balance. One of the issues we discussed is the myth that non-monetary recognition (e.g., awards, thank-you notes) are just as effective forms of recognition as compensation and pay raises.

According to the APA survey, 62 percent of employees value merit increases and 47 percent value fair monetary compensation, the two most valued forms of recognition. And yet, only 39 percent of employees reported their employer provides merit increases, and only 19 percent report they receive fair monetary compensation. Other tactics were much less valued, including verbal or written appreciation from one's supervisor (28 percent), peer-to-peer recognition (16 percent) and recognition ceremonies or events (11 percent).

But that wasn’t the meat of the results. Instead, it was also found that various aspects of recognition were predictive of key attitudes toward work. How effective supervisors were in providing recognition, how much employees valued the recognition they received and how fairly recognition was handed out accounted for significant amount of variance in whether employees say they work harder because of the recognition they receive (49 percent), employees’ reported motivation to do their best for their employer (44 percent) and employee job satisfaction (43 percent).

But, of course, a recent article on Forbes.com by Sarah Kauss, suggests that a “pay bump isn’t the answer to employee happiness.” While I do not dispute the importance of the issues she addresses (i.e., developing a culture of learning, creating a fun culture, executing culture imbued with purpose), and that sometimes additional funds are not available for salary requests, there are three primary problems with the article.

First, there is an illogical leap between not being able to “match a salary request” and “there are more effective ways to reward employees beyond compensation.” While I understand that sometimes the funds aren’t available for merit increases (especially as we saw during the recession), it seems like a fallacy to then simply argue that there’s more effective ways to reward employees.

Second, it is unclear what developing a learning, fun culture or executing culture imbued with purpose has to do with employee compensation. Working in a fun environment or feeling as though your work has meaning might offset the negatives of a slightly lower salary, but that’s all it does. If people could make more money in a similarly fun, meaningful environment, many of them would probably choose to do so.

Third, the implication that a fun environment is a “reward” for employees doesn’t make any sense. A reward is something that is received for doing something good – for achieving something. We reward people for their contributions, for the value they add. Creating a learning-oriented, fun culture with purpose would seem to be a driving factor to produce results.

I’m not saying that feeling as though one has made a difference or that one has fun at work is unimportant (I’ve written about the importance of being in a career or calling), but it is also important for an organization to demonstrate recognition for the contributions people made to that organization’s success. And if the APA study results are to believed, then supervisors need to be effective at providing recognition, recognition has to be provided fairly and employees have to value the recognition they receive.

Hence, my key takeaway from this article is that creating a learning-oriented, fun, mission-driven culture is a great way to create an environment that supports higher levels of engagement, performance and (to use the term expressed by the author) employee happiness, but if there isn’t any valued recognition offered when people perform well, that culture will be difficult to maintain. Providing recognition effectively means (1) understanding the type of recognition your employees value, and (2) utilizing those forms of recognition in a fair, effective way. And while I understand that sufficient funds are not always available to provide monetary forms of recognition, pretending it is unimportant (and maybe most valued by your employees), does not mitigate its actual value to those employees.

It is easy to convince ourselves that if employees just have fun at work and see purpose in their work, we can compensate (pardon the pun) for lower wages. However, the proliferation of that myth can lead to increasing gaps between what employees make and what they perceive to be fair, which can, over time, make it more difficult to attract and retain high-quality employees.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/photobunny_earl / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


In my last blog post, I tried to outline what I see as the risks and the benefits of developing healthy aggression within an organization. This important and difficult task is essential for sustaining high performance.

In most organizations, the challenge to being effective comes both from employees who are too passive as well as those whose aggression does more damage than good.

The framework I use comes from an application of insights drawn from the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (Intrinsic Motivation and Self Determination in Human Behavior, 1985). They discussed three factors in the development of motivation: autonomy, mastery and relatedness. In my application of this work, I suggest that the accelerator for increasing aggressive action in those who are too passive comes from increasing autonomy. The brakes for those who are too aggressive are to increase the value of relatedness.

When an employee is TOO PASSIVE, it is helpful to look first to systemic factors within the organization. Managers who micro-manage are more likely to create passivity within the workforce. The micro-manager gives very specific directions to a direct report who is expected to do exactly what his or her boss demands. When that task is done, he or she will wait to be told what to do next before taking on additional work. Employees need to develop autonomy to take the initiative and aggressively pursue organizational goals. This means that the task of the manager is much more one of aligning the goals of the organization with the goals of the worker, providing him or her with the tools and skills necessary to achieve those goals and supporting him or her in the work. A great manager helps an employee to have a sense of pride in a job well done.

My father spent his career at a utility company, working his way up through the ranks and eventually having responsibility for the operations of the southern district of his organization. At his retirement party an employee who worked for him told me that my father had saved his life.

This employee was close to being fired by the company when they assigned him to work for my father. The crew on which he worked had multiple responsibilities, including some very physically difficult and dirty jobs to which each member was assigned in turn. He was being placed on the difficult and dirty assignments day after day, with no rotation. After a few weeks of this, he stormed in to see my father and demanded to know what was going on. He said my father looked at him and told him that this was his last chance to make it with the company, but that meant that he had to work every job in a way that he could be proud of his accomplishments. When he showed he could do that in this difficult and dirty job, he would be given the chance to be assigned the other responsibilities, too.

My father explained to him that his job, as a supervisor, was to make sure that everyone who worked for him could be proud of the work that he or she did. That would be an attitude that they could take home to their family and, if they carried that mindset over, they could also be proud of the way they treated their family, which would help them to be ready to come back to work and do work they can be proud of again the next day. This employee was feeling angry. My father understood that his job was to help the employee to align that anger with the goals of the organization in a way that he could have the aggression to tackle the difficult challenge of changing his attitude and begin to work in a way that made him feel more worthwhile. He had to move from feeling like a passive victim to an active shaper of his own life.

This employee realized that he had not been acting in a way that made him proud of anything at work or at home and that he needed to make an attitude adjustment. He became a very successful employee who was promoted, and who went on to have a successful career with the organization.

Sometimes, however, aggression becomes TOO INTENSE and needs to be brought under better control to be an effective force for the organization. While passive workers need to develop more autonomy, the overly aggressive employee needs to develop his or her relatedness skills. Aggression is brought under disciplined control when the aggressor is cognizant of his or her connection to the organization, to the other employees, to customers and to the larger society. Aggressive actions based on narrow self-interest are usually not good in the long run, even for the individual. Humans are a social species and we need to relate to others to be healthy and successful across our lifespan.

Several years ago, I was contacted by a long-term care organization. There had been severe spring rains and one of their facilities was flooded, necessitating a move of all of the residents and staff to co-occupy a nearby facility with the residents and staff already there.

Under this stressful circumstance, staff members began reacting with narrow self-interest and aggression toward each other. This was having an impact on the quality of care for the residents of the two facilities. It was not possible to change the circumstances until the floodwaters receded and the damaged facility underwent extensive cleaning and repair.

As I listened to staff members describe the stress they were enduring and heard the anger they had toward other staff, I was aware that this conflict was arising from the staff member feeling trapped and trying to do something to protect himself or herself. So, I asked each person to tell me why he or she chose to do this work.

People who work in long-term care don’t get paid much. They don’t get a lot of respect, even from other health care professionals. It is difficult to provide care, around the clock for residents who are unable to care for themselves. Those who choose to do this work want to be part of something larger than themselves. They are willing to do difficult work because of the connections they feel with the residents and to the mission of the organization.

As each staff member reminded himself or herself of the reasons for doing this work, their anger toward the other staff members visibly decreased. (I didn’t have enough Kleenex in the office for the number of tears shed as employees talked about their commitment to this work.) They were rapidly able to channel the aggression away from their fellow workers and toward a common goal of restoring the facility that had been damaged as quickly as possible. It was remarkable to see what the combined staff was able to do once they were able to use the aggression to tackle the problem rather than to be angry at each other.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Keeping in a healthy zone, where aggression is experienced but does not become overwhelming, takes mental training. Military and law enforcement personnel undergo intense training to maintain optimal levels of aggression in very difficult circumstances. Top athletes are also beginning to receive training in this skill. It is a skill that is equally important for any organization pursuing excellent and sustainable performance.

It may be helpful for organizations, and particularly leaders within these organizations, to establish regular and rigorous mental training to work effectively with maintaining the optimal zone for aggressive action. This training involves increasing self-awareness and relational attunement. It requires developing skill in emotional regulation. Regular debriefing and reflection is essential on an ongoing basis. Your organization might consider finding a qualified psychologist who can help you make this quality more effective as a dimension of your success.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/23912576@N05 / CC BY 2.0


The Hawaii Psychological Association (HPA) recently celebrated its 14th annual Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards. We were honored to have the opportunity to formally recognize the excellence of the award candidates and the exemplary workplaces they represent.

As psychologists, consultants, students of psychology and educators—HPA’s commitment to wellness in the community is firmly anchored in the efforts of the Psychology in the Workplace Network, under the guidance of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence.

Each of us is influenced by our respective workplaces and by those around us who are, in their turn, influenced by their workplaces. Workplace wellness has ripple effects and systemic impact across many domains touched by the science of our field. Our efforts to support growth, resilience and humanity in the successful workplace stand to feed back into the betterment of our community, ourselves and in the individual lives of our clients, patients, students, mentors and loved ones.

For example, on the cover of Tuesday’s Star Advertiser was the headline, “Job’s wellness program pays off for whole family.” The article focuses on a family, the mother of which committed to her employer’s wellness program, a program that permits her to exercise on company time, provides a company gymnasium for employee use, and classes, mentoring and a company trainer, enabling her to lose 70 pounds. That company? A former winner in HPA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards program, ALTRES Staffing.

One important thing to note, though, is that what separates Hawaii’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards program from other “healthy workplace awards programs” is psychology. Therefore, we look at things like employee recognition, growth and involvement, work-life balance, community engagement and communication. Corporate wellness initiatives are very important, but not sufficient to have the desired, bottom-line impact that organizations are seeking. The Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards program is a holistic program of psychological well-being, not just a “best places to work” award.

This year, members of our committee conducted a program evaluation to examine the ways in which our Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards program has affected participating organizations and their employees since 2003. Responses from participating organizations have led us to conclude that Hawaii’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards program has had lasting effects on companies, employees and their families, with more than half of participating organizations adding or enhancing wellness initiatives across all areas of psychological health and wellness.

Over the past 13 years, we’ve had the privilege of recognizing more than 70 organizations that have demonstrated some remarkable practices. The organizations honored have included everything from active duty military ships, moving companies, banks and high-tech organizations to insurance and construction companies.

Despite the range of fields and industries and the different challenges each organization faces in surviving and creating a healthy workplace, you’ll find a number of characteristics common to all of them:

  • A strong sense of community- People are engaged and involved.
  • Trust- Management and staff trust and respect each other.
  • Communication- employees know what’s going on, have a say in what and how things are done, and know they will be heard.

The organizations that have been recognized by the American Psychological Association and its affiliated state, provincial and territorial psychological associations across the U.S. and Canada are on the leading edge of a growing trend. They recognize that healthy workplaces make good sense in every manner: financially, ethically and morally.

These organizations don’t just survive, they thrive, and are leaders in their industries. They are great places to work, not in spite of the workplace practices, but BECAUSE of them. People are their greatest asset, and they know it and act on it!


Early in my consulting career, the first organizations that hired me wanted help with conflict resolution. Aggressive impulses had gotten out of control and were damaging them. As a result of working with these companies, I became acutely aware of the need to develop cooperation and collaboration as a counterbalance to the unchecked anger and subsequent destructive actions that accompanied this emotion. But there is more to the story than just working on control of aggressive impulses in the workforce.

Like many complex psychological processes, there is a range of aggression that is helpful, and too much or too little can be problematic. Finding this beneficial range is a combination of internal factors unique to each individual and to external factors that change with the organizational environment. If you are working with a psychologist to coach you to be effective with aggression, it will be necessary to look at both of these contexts.

The RISKS of aggression: These are not difficult to identify. Too much aggressive behavior can leave a wake of destruction in the workplace. In addition to the kind of non-productive conflict that causes organizations to find a psychologist to help them with conflict resolution, instances of workplace bullying (see David Yamada’s: Minding the Workplace blog), cheating, lying (see Dan Ariely's: The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty) and many other forms of incivility are examples of aggressive behavior that are damaging to the organization. This can be just one of the many reasons some employees do not trust their employers (see the 2014 APA Work and Well-Being Survey results). Overly aggressive practices may result in customers becoming disillusioned with an organization and its brand. And once trust is lost, it may be extremely difficult to get it back. Aggressive individuals can become so focused on self-serving goals that they act as if they have no regard for the impact their aggression has on the organization, on customers or on other employees. In fact, when aggression is out of control, the only goal may be to “win” at all costs, and even personal goals can be lost in the rush of emotion.

The REWARDS of aggression: All of this is true, but aggressiveness is also a highly valued character trait in business settings. Aggressiveness is assessed during pre-employment psychological assessments. Individuals are hired and promoted on the basis of their ability to aggressively address situations. Talented individuals who lack this drive may be left behind. In a recent biography written by Brent Schlender, Becoming Steve Jobs, Apple CEO Tim Cook says that Steve Jobs was right to yell at him the four or five times it occurred. (Of course this doesn’t mean that it is always acceptable.)

Aggression inclines a person toward action. It is a fundamental dimension of the drive that is necessary to become good at something, to continue to improve and eventually to become great at it.

Perhaps this is why the top performers in organizations often possess high levels of aggression. And maybe this is why some of them are such difficult people to get along with! There is a “relentlessness” to this quality. The aggressive individual is willing to take risks to achieve a goal that less aggressive people are unwilling to take. He or she meets obstacles and willingly expends extra energy to overcome them. He or she sees setbacks as sources of new learning rather than defeats. These are critical qualities for organizational success.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth (How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character) uses the term “grit” in her research in educational settings, and notes that it is even more highly correlated with academic success than IQ scores. There have been fewer studies in the business world but it is likely that it is equally true that IQ is important for success but the willingness to aggressively and persistently pursue a goal is even more important.

When a person is aggressive at mild to moderate levels of intensity, he or she is also more inclined to pay close attention to details. While we would all like to be happy all the time, when we are happiest we are less likely to pay attention to details, according to research done by Forgas and Koch, found in the Handbook of Cognition and Emotion. (Those who are overwhelmed by their aggression are not able to attend to details either, as the emotion becomes too intense and begins to interfere with rational thought.)

I have come to believe that aggression – with appropriate awareness and control – is an important factor in the development of excellence. Like many psychological dimensions of organizational success, aggression can be wielded in a manner that is destructive and unhealthy, but it can also be so feared that it results in an organization that is weak and unable to survive. It is finding the right proportion of aggressive action, in the right mix, at the right time that leads to high performance.

The challenge for a high performing organization, and for individuals in pursuit of excellence, is to find the optimal zone where aggression brings a multitude of benefits without becoming an overwhelming force that results in the destructive elements of this quality becoming predominant.

In my next blog post, I will try to outline some of the actions that an organization needs to take to find the optimal zone for their workforce.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/claudiogennari / CC BY 2.0


This blog post is my attempt to think through some concepts in an informal way. The thoughts I am writing do not represent a final, carefully reasoned argument but a beginning point meant to elicit some dialogue that will yield a deeper discussion of the psychological dimensions of organizational functioning.

I have been thinking about some of the processes involved in psychological functioning that support effective work. It is easy to assume that “psychologically healthy” (the designation used for the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program) equals the absence of diagnosable mental disorders. It makes sense to pay attention to this because the diagnosis of depression is the most expensive medical cost to business, by a substantial margin. Treatment costs, missed work days and loss of productivity when someone who has a diagnosis of depression is unable to fully engage in his or her job duties is very pricey. But I think that the psychological actions that promote high performance involve much more than this. From my perspective, effective psychological factors within the workforce involve healthy emotional functioning, cognitive clarity, effective motivation and ethical action. (Do you have any other additions to this list?) Let me explore what each of these concepts means to me.

Healthy Emotional Functioning: This is a more complicated dimension than it might seem. Healthy emotional functioning includes the full range of human emotion, including pleasant emotions like happiness, joy and enthusiasm, as well as uncomfortable emotions like sadness, anxiety and anger.

Two things characterize healthy emotional functioning. First, healthy emotions arise as an appropriate response to the context. Happiness is an appropriate emotional response to succeeding in something, but not to a loss of significant revenue. Anger might arise if the organization is being threatened because an employee has failed to do his or her job. But when emotions are present which don’t match the context or the reality of the situation, there is something unhealthy going on. For example, if a workplace is plagued by anxiety even though the business has a long history of being very profitable, there is likely to be something wrong that needs to be addressed.

I recommend that more organizations consider having a qualified business psychologist as part of the board of directors or a regular consultant to assist in evaluating the emotional tone of the workforce and to promote actions that will be beneficial to both the organization and to its employees.

Second, healthy emotions are transient. Healthy emotions are flexible. An emotionally healthy worker may be angry about the failure of a work process, leading to a revision of the process or holding another employee accountable for his or her actions, but the anger dissipates as the problem is resolved. In an article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, titled "Emodiversity and the Emotional Ecosystem," Jordi Quidbach and his colleagues noted that, in their study of 37,000 subjects, those who had an experience of more varied emotions were both physically and emotionally healthier.

Healthy emotions provide a competitive advantage for an organization. Essentially, emotions function as a feedback system for human beings. Anger arises when there is a perception of threat. Anxiety functions to alert the individual to be cautious and check for accuracy. Enthusiasm promotes energy for a task. This is a dimension that humans bring to the workplace that machines do not provide. Different personalities bring differing emotional tones to the workplace. It can be messy. And the other dimensions of psychological health I mentioned above are needed to provide balance and increase its value within the workplace. But healthy, variable and flexible emotions are a dynamic source of energy for the workplace.

Cognitive Clarity: The workplace has evolved to place the quality of cognitive clarity at the forefront of marketplace success in the 21st Century. There is a need for complex technological expertise, clear thinking and good decision making. The amount of data that is available today has the paradoxical effect of threatening clear thinking. In the face of information overload, some become paralyzed by analysis, while others cherry pick information to match their preconceived beliefs. In organizations that are psychologically healthy, there is an awareness of the threats to clear thinking and the cognitive discipline for making effective decisions.

Threats to clear thinking arise in the face of intense emotion. Even when that emotion is a healthy and adaptive response that is appropriate to context, it will alter cognition. For example, happiness has the effect of broadening thinking (see Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage) This is important in creativity but can require some extra effort if the organization needs a narrow and clear focus to complete a task. Anger can result in the creation of a “hostile intent” story that identifies someone as an enemy who is purposefully attempting to hurt me (See Janis Cannon-Bowers and Eduardo Salas’ book, Making Decisions Under Stress). This story may or may not be accurate, but is a part of the thought patterns that arise when anyone is angry.

The brain is more like a muscle that we once thought. It is important to continually exercise decision-making abilities so that these abilities are available during times of high stress.
A way to do this is to engage in regular after-action debriefs that answer two questions: (1) What went well and why did it go well? (2) What didn’t go well and what adjustments should we make for the next time it happens?

Awareness of the impact of emotion on cognition is essential to provide stable responses within an organization. It is also true that thoughts can quiet or even change emotions. Taking time to ascertain whether the “hostile intent” story that arises, associated with feeling angry, can provide a correction to the emotional response that quiets the anger if the facts reveal that there is no enemy or attempt to harm. Healthy cognitions promote a clearer picture of reality.

A second dimension of the importance of effective cognition is found in the process of decision-making. Behavioral economics alerts organizations to common mistakes that humans make when analyzing data and making choices. Daniel Kahneman identifies two systems for decision making in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. These systems differ greatly, one being more intuitive and fast, and the other being more thoughtful and slow, and through this difference provide flexibility in the way we make choices. When we better understand these systems we can make decisions much more effectively because we are more likely to use the right process for the right problem we are trying to solve. This cognitive clarity promotes organizational success.

Effective Motivation: Motivating human beings is one of the most essential tasks of an organization. It can also be one of the most mysterious endeavors. If motivation were the simple, straightforward task as it is often conceptualized, it would be a matter of setting priorities for what is most important in the organization and giving the highest monetary reward for that, and tapering the reward down to the least important priority. If you needed someone to work harder, you simply give him or her more money. But things are not that simple.

Many things can affect motivation. Some of those are internal factors like a person’s values, preferences, or even physiological factors like hunger, fatigue, etc. Motivation is also influenced by external factors, like money and recognition from others, among many other things. And these factors are changeable. A value may be a strong dimension of motivation in one context and have less influence in another.

Intrinsic motivation is connected to being able to connect to a greater purpose. Tools like “strengths-finders” and “appreciative inquiry” can be helpful if they are consistently applied as part of the effort to motivate the workforce.

A psychologically healthy workplace is a dynamic environment. In an organization in which the entire workforce is engaged with one another, managers and employees, there is an ability to balance the need for just and fair compensation, for finding opportunities for workers to use their talents and make a contribution, and for working to solve the inevitable problems that arise that are de-motivating.

Because of its complexity, the effort to support the best that each person has to bring to the workplace is an ongoing endeavor. Fortunately, this is an area where making an honest effort to do things right has a major positive impact. It is impossible to make the perfect choices at all times for all individuals within an organization (and even more difficult if the scope is broadened to include customers). But making progress on creating an environment where each contribution is valued is important. In fact, feeling valued at work is one of the hallmarks of companies that have been identified as psychologically healthy workplaces.

Ethical Action: It may be a surprise to consider ethics to be a part of the psychologically healthy workplace, but I believe it is an important element, because it highlights the way these effective workplaces treat employees and customers. One of the problems that organizations face is that it is valuable to have aggressive behavior in order to be successful. But that aggression can spin out of control and cause damage within the organization or between the organization and potential customers. The resulting damage often has more than momentary impacts and can reduce the effectiveness of the organization for a long time.

Many professional groups, like the American Psychological Association, maintain a code of ethics as a way of reminding professionals to employ their skills in a way that promotes the best outcomes for all involved.
Would it be beneficial for organizations to adopt their own code of ethics as part of the practice of doing business in a way that promotes the good of all involved?

Alternatively, it is common that some members of a workforce will expend minimal effort to stay employed. This can also have a significant negative impact on an organization. It is a breach of ethical responsibility to others in the organization to harm others by not putting in the effort expected within the contract for employment.

Ethics are codes of behavior that attempt to put reasonable controls in place to identify what actions are acceptable within the organization and which behaviors are unacceptable.

“Ethics” is primarily a way of recognizing that there is an obligation to others that guides behavior, beyond the pursuit of personal gain. When a team thinks and acts ethically, it is more likely that everyone will benefit because there is an advantage when humans work together to accomplish tasks that are beyond the reach of any individual effort. For that cooperation to be achieved, it is likely that there will be times when some individuals must sacrifice immediate gain for the benefit of all. Formalizing the decision-making about this results in a code of ethics.

This dimension of the workplace is rarely discussed. Sometimes I have heard well meaning and intelligent people articulate - what I think is a naive belief – in which the competing forces of the marketplace will somehow automatically result in an acceptable cooperative environment. While it may be that, through trial and error, the pursuit of personal gain in an unfettered marketplace will eventually be tempered to include obligations to others, the failure to act with responsibility toward others can have serious and lasting impacts on co-workers and customers that may result in a loss of trust. Ethical systems provide guides to behavior so that we can learn from the mistakes others have made and create more successful organizations based on that knowledge, avoiding the long term damage that comes from self-interested behavior that damaged others when it occurred and damaged future relationships. Throughout human history, there have been some who reflect on and set expectations for ethical action to promote thinking that fosters the long-term responsibilities of action that foster a better society.

Getting all of these aspects of an organization pursuing psychological excellence for all employees to work together is challenging. It can be a time consuming endeavor and it must be ongoing if it is to be successful. But in the effort to craft the most successful and sustainable organization, effective psychological functioning is an essential component of success.

In a psychologically high performing workplace, these elements I have discussed contribute to increased employee involvement, work-life balance, employee growth and development, health and safety, and recognition; the components used to measure an organization for a Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award.

I hope these ideas will give the reader a chance to pause and wonder what might be possible. I am certain that there are other thoughts and ideas that might be useful critiques or additions to mine, so I look forward to reading your reactions. I do not think I have the last word on this, and I am interested in your thoughts too. Please add your comments!

http://www.flickr.com/photos/karola / CC BY-ND 2.0


The 2014 Workplace Flexibility Survey of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) presents significant data about the use of work-flex programs and its benefits for the organization. These include: improvements in recruitment and retention, employees’ health, job satisfaction (Families & Work Institute, 2008), work engagement and reduction in turnover and levels of psychological strain (Timms, et al., 2015).

Nevertheless, only 27 percent of the participant organizations reported offering at least one kind of flexible work arrangement (FWA), and of those who have them, only half offered some information to their employees during the recruitment (30 percent) or onboarding process (19 percent). This suggests that organizations may not have been taking full advantage of this benefit. Maybe this explains why so few of them (1 to 25 percent) use it.

Shockley and Allen (2012) found that employees were more motivated to use FWAs for work-related motives than for life management motives. Why don't some employees use this benefit? Stigma may be a powerful reason. Brescoll, Glass and Sedlovskaya (2013) found that managers were most likely to grant these requests to high status men seeking flexible schedules to advance their careers; requests from female employees were unlikely to be granted, irrespective of their work status or the reason for their request.

Vancello, et al. (2013) reported that even though men and women valued work flexibility equally, women had greater intentions to use it. Nevertheless, they seemed reluctant because of the perceived impact on their careers, as they thought their careers might be negatively affected in terms of salary, performance evaluations and promotion opportunities if they used the FWA (Crowley & Kolenikov, 2014). Men identified some consequences too -- they thought that they would be perceived as less masculine and receive lower ratings on masculine traits and higher on feminine traits. Cech and Blair-Loy (2014) referred to this as a flexibility stigma, or the devaluation of workers who seek or are presumed to need FWAs. Employees who report this stigma have lower intentions to continue, poorer work-life balance and lower job satisfaction.

The number of employees working under FWAs has increased and this tendency should continue, as employees need time to take care of their families. There is evidence of the benefits of FWAs for employees and the organization, but they are not using it to its fullest potential. Nevertheless, it seems to be an inconsistency in the way this benefit is communicated, which suggests the need for adequate policies and procedures to address FWAs. This might include, among others: adequate, timely and consistent communication of this alternative through the organizational channels; criteria to determine in which positions and under which circumstances it might be possible to have this kind of arrangement; what infrastructure the employee and the organization need to have in place to grant a request to work from home; how the communication will be maintained though virtual channels or in person, and how the performance and outcomes will be evaluated.


Brescoll, V. L., Glass, J., & Sedlovskaya, A. (2013). Ask and Ye Shall Receive? The Dynamics of Employer-Provided Flexible Work Options and the Need for Public Policy. Journal Of Social Issues, 69(2), 367-388. doi:10.1111/josi.12019

Cech, E. A., & Blair-Loy, M. (2014). Consequences of Flexibility Stigma Among Academic Scientists and Engineers. Work & Occupations, 41(1), 86-110. doi:10.1177/0730888413515497

Crowley, J. E., & Kolenikov, S. (2014). Flexible Work Options and Mothers' Perceptions of Career Harm. Sociological Quarterly, 55(1), 168-195. doi:10.1111/tsq.12050

Shockley, K. M., & Allen, T. D. (2012). Motives for flexible work arrangement use. Community, Work & Family, 15(2), 217-231. doi:10.1080/13668803.2011.609661

Timms, C., Brough, P., O'Driscoll, M., Kalliath, T., Siu, O. L., Sit, C., & Lo, D. (2015). Flexible work arrangements, work engagement, turnover intentions and psychological health. Asia Pacific Journal Of Human Resources, 53(1), 83-103. doi:10.1111/1744-7941.12030

Vandello, J. A., Hettinger, V. E., Bosson, J. K., & Siddiqi, J. (2013). When Equal Isn't Really Equal: The Masculine Dilemma of Seeking Work Flexibility. Journal Of Social Issues, 69(2), 303-321. doi:10.1111/josi.12016

Campaign Cover Photo.jpg

How can a more trusting, open and honest work environment make you more productive and boost your well-being? In business, a little psychology can have a big impact!

We're featured in the Employee Benefits supplement in USA Today's weekend issue. Pick up a copy on the newsstand today, or check out the digital version here -- Wake-Up Call: Psychological Health Matters.

In honor of National Employee Appreciation Day, we joined industry influencers, organizations and celebrity advocates for a campaign to promote the creation of more positive and productive work environments, in turn cultivating employee well-being and organizational success.

The Employee Benefits campaign was distributed through USA Today on March 6th, 2015 and is published online at futureofbusinessandtech.com.



  • Bookmark and Share


  • General