The Fuel for Employee Engagement is Positive (Psychology)


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I spent the end of last week and weekend at the 5th World Congress on Positive Psychology, an event hosted by the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), which brings together researchers and practitioners working in this domain. In case you aren’t familiar with positive psychology, here’s a definition from the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania:

“The scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance the experiences of love, work, and play.”

Here at Temkin Group, we believe that a number of the underlying principles of positive psychology apply to our work on customer experience (CX) and employee engagement. After the last World Congress, we summarized the implications of a few key themes and you can read more about the connection to CX here.

As I did after the 4th World Congress in 2015 (see my recap), I left this year’s Congress full of new knowledge and an even stronger belief that the models and approaches emerging from the work being done need to be understood and more widely applied to how organizations engage their employees. Here are just a few of my key takeaways from the sessions I attended:

Bring out organizational empathy by designing systems that encourage it. We’ve been talking about empathy here at Temkin Group for some time and how important it is to raise organizational empathy to deliver a better CX. The presentations enlightened me further to the intricacies of empathy. Dr. Jamil Zaki’s presentation stressed that for individuals, empathy is a choice and can be turned up or down to suit our own goals and whether we anticipate that it will “feel good” or will be difficult or hurt us. Drs. Monica Worline and Jane Dutton stressed that our ability to feel empathic concern – concern for what others are going through, which can trigger demonstrations of compassion to alleviate perceived suffering – can often be blocked at work by the organizational systems in place that create time pressures, emphasize taking a task (rather than person) focus, or establish a high cost for making errors. One of my takeaways from this is that companies that want to foster more empathy in the workplace to improve employee engagement or CX can’t only talk about how important it is. They also need to look at what Worline and Dutton call the social architecture of an organization – the networks, culture, roles, routines, and leaders’ actions and stories – and make adjustments where needed to encourage empathic concern for others.

Design jobs to bring more meaning to the people doing the work. All too often at work, job descriptions and assignments focus on the “functional” aspects of what needs to be done and overlook the elements that make it meaningful and rewarding for the individuals taking on these roles or assignments. Meaning can come from many different things on the job – from experiencing high-quality connections or having learning and growth opportunities, to seeing the impact of the end-results on those who benefit from the work that was done. If the organization is dominated by a mindset of role-taking, described by Worline and Dutton as how roles are taken on based on how they are formally designed and trained, individuals will comply with those explicit expectations and stay within the “boundaries” of the job as defined, often resulting in lower levels of satisfaction and engagement. However, when individuals undertake role-making, they craft new tasks into their defined roles and shift their relationships (with employees or customers) to link their work to personal values or to the broader values and purpose of the organization, leading to a stronger sense of meaning and engagement. One of my takeaways from this is that an organization can help foster meaning in people’s work by incorporating its values and brand promises to customers into all roles from the outset and by designing organizational routines – from training and performance management to rewards and recognition – to support employees’ success as they make their roles into their own. In fact, it’s very likely current employees can provide useful input on how to do this because many have probably already engaged in role-making on their own.

Maximize the Positive Energizers in your organization. Dr. Kim Cameron, in addition to being an experienced researcher in this field, is the co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizations at University of Michigan. In his presentation, he highlighted the importance of generating positive energy in organizations and that employees who are sources of positive energy can be found at all levels of the typical corporate hierarchy. He argued that unlike our physical or mental energy, which diminishes as we use it, our relational energy – generated when we interact with someone who energizes us – elevates and strengthens relationships and is renewing rather than draining. His research found that not only are people who generate positive energy in an organization high performers, the people who interact with or are connected to them also perform better and are more engaged in their work. Teams led by positive leaders are more cohesive, perform better, and demonstrate higher levels of innovation and team learning. I was most excited to hear that people can be trained in the behaviors of positive energizers, which range from problem-solving and seeing opportunities to inspiring and instilling confidence in others and expressing gratitude and humility. Companies should look at how they develop and grow these behaviors in employees in addition to the technical skills required for their role. And if maximizing positive energizers really is important to the company, it needs to recognize and celebrate employees who demonstrate these positive energy-generating behaviors with their teams, fellow employees, and customers.

When elements of positive psychology become part of how an organization operates every day, research shows that people are more collaborative and innovative, demonstrate greater empathic concern for fellow employees and customers, and have greater satisfaction and stronger commitment to their work, among many other individual and organizational benefits. If these benefits reflect the type of workplace you want to create for your employees, I encourage you to check out organizations like IPPA and its Work and Organizations Division, or the institutions where much of this research is happening including University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations, the Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry, University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, and the Centre for Positive Psychology at University of Melbourne (Australia). Personally, I greatly appreciate this community’s willingness to share, explore, experiment, and learn together and look forward to the 6th World Congress in 2019!


  1. Aimee –

    In supporting all of the points raised in your excellent post, I’d suggest that, to optimally leverage the focus around staff empathy, energy, and role experience, commitment to customers will take organizations beyond the constraining lines created by engagement. Truly stakeholder-centric cultures create ambassadors, where employees are committed to the company itself, to the product/service value proposition, and customers. There is no doubt, and much supportive proof through targeted research studies, that customers react to ambassadorial behavior by employees. This can be seen in such recent examples as the Southwest Airlines service rep and the passenger with cancer:

    Michael Lowenstein


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