Positive People Make for Healthy Workplaces


Paul Fairlie describes the attributes of positive people and their links to healthy workplaces.

We’ve known for decades that employee well-being is critical for organizational performance. This is part of the business case for promoting it among employees. But how do we do this? Does well-being come from the person, the environment, or their interactions? Decades of research suggest that it’s all of these. My recent book chapter with Edward Elgar Publishing focuses on the characteristics of positive people, and how their well-being contributes to healthy workplaces.

I refer to ‘positive attributes’ in the chapter because they’re not all personality traits. Many of them are trainable. They take their cue from positive psychology, which is about promoting positive human qualities and environments rather than ‘fixing’ the worst things about ourselves. It’s about thriving and flourishing, in addition to preventing maladjustment.

Here are some of the positive attributes that have been associated with higher well-being:

Hardiness Hope Internal Locus of Control Optimism
Meaning-Making Resiliency Self-Esteem Self-Efficacy

By well-being, we mean subjective well-being (i.e., high positive affect, low negative affect, high life satisfaction), psychological well-being (i.e., eudaimonic, meaning-based), fewer mood problems (i.e., depression, anxiety), and better physical health. At work, people with positive attributes also report higher engagement and lower burnout.

What is it about positive people that enables them to be happy, satisfied, and filled with meaning? For starters, many of these attributes are thinking styles. They’re a lens for coping with stress and developing resilience in the face of trauma. Crises and problems, viewed differently, become ‘challenges’ and opportunities for growth.

My own research delves into this a bit deeper. I wanted to know if there was a smaller number of fundamental themes that underlie more than 15 positive attributes. There have been other, similar attempts to bundle together a much smaller number of positive attributes (e.g., core self-evaluations, psychological capital).

Using national samples, I found four dimensions that seem to tell a story about how positive people think and behave, and in ways that lead to higher well-being. Essentially, they see the world as inviting and yielding to their actions. They also see themselves as able and skilled. Based on these views, they willingly interact with the world, and proactively set and strive for goals. Along the way, they gain more resources, which further strengthen their positive attributes and make the world seem all the more yielding to their efforts. Ultimately, they create the very future about which they’re optimistic. Also, when bad things happen along the way, they control their emotions and adapt to the circumstances. I’m presenting a paper on this at the annual conference of the American Psychological Association this summer.

Now, how do we make sure that positive attributes are abundant within organizations? To begin with, you can hire people that already possess them, since they’re dispositional to some extent. However, they can also be developed through work design and training.

For example, research shows that employees develop more of these attributes when they have autonomy, social support, and coaching on-the-job. A positive psychological climate also helps. Managers and direct reports could also engage in job crafting, where jobs become better aligned with employees’ motives, strengths, and passions. With a higher degree of person-job fit, employees likely feel more efficacious and optimistic about future performance.

In terms of training and development, there are too many practices to cover here. Here is a meta-analysis of nearly 40 ways of boosting well-being, some of which also target positive attributes. Self-efficacy, for example, can be developed through behavioural modeling, as well as tasks that lead to success experiences (e.g., job rotation, simulations, developmental assignments). Hope and optimism can be developed through goal-setting, scoping pathways to meet goals, obstacle planning, and re-framing problems as challenges. Resiliency development involves planned risk avoidance, and proactively building assets that buffer against future traumatic events.

There’s more. By developing positive people in the workplace, employers may also be helping to bring about change in the world. Research using the Job Demands-Resources Model (JD-R) suggests that job resources, positive attributes, and well-being continually boost one another and create upward gain spirals. Positive attributes and well-being are known to then spill over into families and communities. If we were to daisy-chain enough organizations together, employers that promote positive development among their employees would not only benefit from higher performance, but they could also be a conduit or touchpoint for the betterment of societies – a key aim of positive psychology.


This blog is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Ronald Burke. Ron was the co-editor of Creating Psychologically Healthy Workplaces. He was a prolific author, editor, and co-editor of many scholarly works.

Paul Fairlie is Founder/CEO of Heliosophy (heliosophy.ca), an organizational consulting firm based on positive psychology and science. He can be contacted at pfairlie@heliosophy.ca.

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