Positive psychology and KM: what’s the nexus?

March 4, 2007 at 4:40 am 4 comments

Tyler in aristocratic poseI’ve been re-reading Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism – a book that was first published in 1990 and was instrumental in articulating the new science of Positive Psychology. I’m also mentoring high-school students in a local mentoring programme. Seligman’s book and mentoring of youth has resulted in me thinking about what links there might be between Positive Psychology and knowledge management. The mentoring has caused me to reflect on older workers and their value to the organisation. So this post is my Sunday meanderings of the mind!

Positive Psychology is about actualising human potential. Early 20th Century psychology was filled with Freudians trying to get patients to dig deep into their murky past to discover that their cat phobia was actually a manifestation of a deep, underlying disorder usually relating to sex and/or their mother. Take your pick.

Behaviouralists of the BF Skinner school sought to explain behaviours as being the result of actions that had been rewarded or punished. If you smile and receive a hug, then you’re likely to repeat this behaviour. But if you reach your hand into the cookie jar and get a nasty zap, you might think twice about helping yourself to more of those freshly baked cookies. In turn, the biomedical theorists sought to explain depression and other disorders through a malfunction of brain chemistry.

Early to mid-20th Century psychology tended to focus on the dark; the negative; the dysfunctional.

Then along came the 1970s, with its emphasis on an individual’s feelings and self-esteem. Traditional IQ tests were abandoned as a low score could result in a child feeling badly and being demotivated. This in turn could lead to a person who gives up or learns to be helpless in the face of challenges and tasks that require persistent determination and a belief in one’s abilities.

Seligman and his colleagues began asking different questions – what if it’s not about your lust for your mother? what if it’s not about your brain being wired the wrong way? what if it’s not about you being Pavlovian and responding to punishments and rewards? What if it’s not about low self-esteem producing criminal tendencies? What if the real question is:

  • Does consciousness – thinking, planning, remembering etc – have an effect on actions?

Enter the new school of Positive Psychology (PP) and the notion that how you think about your problems, including depression, will either relieve your problems or depression or aggravate it. This is called your explanatory style. Optimists view setbacks and disappointments as temporary. They do not blame themselves for what happened. They tell themselves to “rise above it”; “move on”; “pick yourself up and dust yourself off”.

Pessimists are the opposite. They view setbacks and disappointments as personal, permanent and pervasive. They tell themselves: “this always happens to me”; “my life is doomed”; “it’s all my fault”.

So PP is not about finding your weaknesses and suggesting ways to boost your weaker abilities; it’s about understanding and working with your signature strengths. It’s about emphasing the positive and allowing individuals, groups and organisations to build a web of strengths.

Since the KM field is replete with “capital”, I’m half-inclined to call what I’m talking about “Positive Capital”.

Clearly, PP, Organisational Learning and KM have a lot in common as they are all concerned, in their varying ways, with optimising performance and developing potential. In fact, KM already uses a PP methodology – Appreciative Inquiry – which seeks to build organisations around what works rather than casting around for what doesn’t work and trying to fix it.

This quick foray into PP leads me now to thinking about older workers in organisations. What are the myths about older workers and can PP help to dispel these? My mentoring has really surfaced questions for me about different generations working together.

My first impression of mentoring youth was that it would be like communicating with an alien species who only commune with MySpace :)- this must be a little bit like some younger workers looking at baby boomers and muttering the following:

  • wouldn’t know an iPod if he fell over it. He’s a technology dinosaur;
  • older workers can’t adapt and are slow to learn new concepts; or are cruising in the job as they’re closer to retirement;
  • younger workers have more zip and pizzaz; let’s get rid of the crusty 45+yrs workers;
  • older workers have less valuable or outdated knowledge.

Now, if we were to look at this through the lens of Positive Capital and exploring signature strengths, then we might be saying instead:

  • older workers have as much ability to acquire new skills;
  • they have resilience because they’ve experienced innumerable “restructures”, whereas younger workers may become quickly disillusioned and unsettled when a “restructure” is on the horizon; older workers may in fact display more resiliency and the ability to bounce back, survive and thrive;
  • older workers have spent 30-40 years acquiring a rich skill set. Coupled with the varied scenarios they’ve encountered on the job, older workers have strong confidence in their abilities and a wide array of strategies to select from;
  • older workers may have high Emotional Intelligence (a component of PP). EI being motivation, maturity, self-regulation, the ability to manage one’s own emotions etc. Awareness of the self increases with age as you become comfortable with your place in the world. As you get older, you start to become less self-centred and focus more on society and world issues. So there is an argument to say that older workers have higher EI and therefore demonstrate more sensitivity, empathy, motivation and the like.

Now this is not to say that younger workers aren’t resilient or have low EI. I’m not saying that because someone is older ergo they are more optimistic, smarter etc.

What I am saying is that as baby boomers head fast to retirement, organisations (if they’re going to be sustainable) need to find smart ways to retain those older workers who don’t wish to head off into the sunset with the gold watch.

I personally know a 70+ yr man who is still working full-time and who has more energy and zap than a person half his age. If we take a PP perspective, then we look at the signature strengths of ALL employees, INCLUDING older workers. Instead of quietly getting rid of 50+ yrs people and bringing in “fresh blood”, organisations need to think about giving older workers flexibility – perhaps a phased retirement that shifts from full to part-time work; coming back as a mentor; offering training opportunities; offering bonuses to stay on the job and work with KM practitioners to devise a robust and workable knowledge transfer programme.

As for older workers having “fossilised” knowledge, I am reminded of this popular story:

There was an engineer who had an exceptional gift for fixing all things mechanical. After serving his company loyally for over 30 years, he happily retired. Several years later the company contacted him regarding a seemingly impossible problem they were having with one of their multimillion-dollar machines. They had tried everything and everyone else to get the machine to work but to no avail. In desperation, they called on the retired engineer who had solved so many of their problems in the past. The engineer reluctantly took the challenge. He spent a day studying the huge machine. Finally, at the end of the day, he marked a small “x” in chalk on a particular component of the machine and said, “This is where your problem is.” The part was replaced and the machine worked perfectly again.

When the company received a bill for $50,000 from the engineer for his service, they demanded an itemized accounting. The engineer responded briefly: One chalk mark $1. Knowing where to put it $49,999.

Need I say more.

And should you be curious to find out whether you are an optimist or pessimist, take Seligman’s Learned Optimism Test here.



Entry filed under: Knowledge Management, Positive psychology.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stan Garfield  |  March 21, 2007 at 8:48 pm

    I linked to this entry from http://h20325.www2.hp.com/blogs/garfield/archive/2007/03/20/2809.html


  • 2. thinkingshift  |  March 21, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    thx for that Stan :)-
    Kim Sbarcea

  • 3. Oldude59  |  April 10, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    I think you make a number of excellent points. My beef with Prof Seligman is not with how brings strength building into the discussion but in how he restricts and assumes those to non spiritual groundings, which I won’t clutter my remarks here that rant. What I will say is that KM has always meant to me is the “intelligent design” – no pun intended – of systems that facilitate the acknowledgment and distribution of what some collection of people appoint as knowledge within its ranks. As implied in your final example of the engineer knowing where to use the chalk – I would point out that PP needs the same rigor.

    I am in the midst of working with addicts of all types and I have adopted as our lead strategy the tool of positive psychology. The crucible on which our intervention is provide is in demanding that the tool of execution lead to the patient’s managing their life in terms of thriving. Therefore, KM like any and all tools for human intervention need to express the goal set out in the user’s reasoning for its selection. That being said my caution to anyone deciding to use PP is to be sure it is only a strategy not an expression of faith. This is the point where Dr Seligman and I part company – he claims that Aristotle’s eudaimonia, with its building arrogance, racist, sexist roots is some how more modern and relevant to modern life than Christianity’s arrogance, racist, sexist roots. The issue for me is to adopt the method Thomas Aquinas used to Christianize Aristotle which includes the bringing into high relief the notion of Grace opposed to science.

  • 4. Dave Shearon  |  November 3, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    Nice post! I was particularly struck by your recognition that AI operates in the organizational change arena much the way PP works with individuals. Also, you correctly included EI as part of PP and noted that the data suggest that EI increases with age!

    You mention signature strengths — for those interested in an instrument to help identify those, try the VIA Signature Strengths Survey at http://www.authentichappiness.org.


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