Creating Sustained Organizational Success: An Application of Character Science
Dr. Neal H. Mayerson:
Chairman, VIA Institute on Character
Business is a human enterprise in which multiple people come together to produce value for shareholders and customers. Sustainable business strategies must not only consider the impact on shareholders, consumers, the broader community, and the environment, but also consider the impact on employees – the actual workforce driving all business activities. The reality is that sustained success does not evolve from mechanistic models of employees as cogs in a machine, but instead from consideration of their human attributes. This articles focuses on more recently illuminated attributes called “character strengths.”
The Challenge: Achieving Sustained Success
Business sustainability is about producing good outcomes for the business while not diminishing quality of life for its employees or for others in the broader community. This same corollary becomes apropos to employees, who are the engines that drive business outcomes. Human energy resources become more sustainable when work environments enable employees to experience engagement, meaning, and positive relationships in ways that don’t diminish the same in others. Companies that provide employees with a sense of purpose far outperform the composite returns of the Standard and Poor’s 500 companies (Sisodia, Wolfe, & Sheth, 2007). The time has come to humanize our organizations more than ever before and to bring the full force of knowledge from positive psychology to the task.
Beyond Engagement: Changing the Equation
The conventional model in companies is a command-and-control approach to leadership in which top decision-makers determine what needs to be done and then assign the tasks to people based on how well they think employees’ talents match with the role requirements. Areas of mismatch between role requirements and employee skills then become targets for employee development efforts. This approach is one that is associated with high levels of employee disengagement and one that leaves critical human energy resources untapped – resources that can be released when personal character strengths are deployed more deliberately.
Employees want to experience alignment between their work and the best parts of who they are – their character strengths. A recent survey of U.S. workers (VIA Institute, 2015) shows that 64% of workers think their success at work depends on building on their strengths while only 36% think success will improve by remediating weaknesses. Nevertheless, only about half of workers report having the opportunity to use their top strengths each day and 27% report receiving no recognition at all of their strengths from their bosses.
Today’s challenge for every company is to get the best performance they can from whatever talent they have on board at any moment in time. New evidence on the connection between character strengths and engagement, productivity, well-being, and stress buffering has been illuminating new ways to achieve this optimization for employees (Cohen, Panter, Turan, Morse, & Kim, 2014; Crabb, 2011; Dubreuil, Forest, & Courcy, 2013; Forest et al., 2012; Govindji & Linley, 2007; Harzer & Ruch, 2014; 2015; Littman-Ovadia & Lavy, 2016; Littman-Ovadia & Steger, 2010; Peterson, Stephens, Park, Lee, & Seligman, 2010; Sosik, Gentry, & Chun, 2012; van Woerkom & Meyers, 2014).
Win-Win Personality Traits
The groundbreaking book, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Peterson & Seligman, 2004), put a spotlight on 24 personality traits that are universal among human beings and that, when expressed, enhance the individual without diminishing others. These “win-win” personality traits, called character strengths, are possessed by every individual in varying degrees, supported by cross-cultural research and studies of industrialized and non-industrialized nations (Biswas-Diener, 2006; McGrath, 2014; Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2006).
Over 620 sextillion possible permutations of these 24 character strengths represent the virtually infinite faces of human character – ways each of us are good along multiple dimensions and in ways that are unique to ourselves. The breakthrough of this work, initiated and stewarded by the non-profit VIA Institute on Character under the leadership of Drs. Martin E.P. Seligman and Christopher Peterson, is that it brings forward new insights into human motivation and relationships that can help businesses sustain success over long periods of time. It helps us understand how to leverage our “diversity of goodness” to achieve desired business outcomes. Examples from research include the importance of moral character in the workplace (Cohen et al., 2014), fostering passion in employees (Forest, et al., 2012), combating work stress (Harzer & Ruch, 2015), boosting work as a “calling” (Harzer & Ruch, 2012), and enhancing the core elements of human flourishing (Seligman, 2011).
Taking Action: Awareness, Alignment, and Appreciation
As revealed in research by the Human Performance Institute (2008), workplaces perform best when there is dynamic interaction and communication across and between all employees. Additional research in a meta-analysis that reviewed 35 years of social dilemmas research found that the strongest and most reliable predictor of cooperative behavior was task-related communication (Sally, 1995). A 2012 survey indicated that 88% of workers want to work in a setting that has a “positive culture” (Net Impact, 2012). Appreciating character strengths in oneself and others can be a way to help establish positive culture and improve critical pathways of communication.
An important starting point for employees is to become more deliberate in bringing their most core qualities (i.e., their signature strengths) to work each day (Niemiec, 2014). Awareness of signature strengths can be facilitated by obtaining results from the VIA-IS and feedback from others. With increased awareness of character strengths expression in oneself and others, individuals can improve the alignments with the kind of work they are doing. W. Ruch (personal communication, 2015) is investigating the relationship between a person’s character strength profile and the kind of work they find most engaging and satisfying. He studied seven categories of work:
- Creating ideas
- Gathering information
- Analyzing information for decision-making
- Implementing programs of work
- Influencing others internal (e.g., key decision-makers) or external to the organization (e.g., investors, consumers) as to the merits of the work
- Managing relationships of co-workers
- Energizing work to carry it through times of challenge
Preliminary findings were that people high in creativity and perspective tended to be engaged by creating ideas while people high on zest, hope, and bravery matched best with the role of influencing others. Knowledge of each employee’s unique profile of all 24 character strengths can now be used to predict which of these roles they may find most energizing and fulfilling. Combined with knowledge of skill-sets and talents, job assignments can be made to put each employee to their highest and best use by considering their strengths of character. Character strength data can be used to optimize the degree to which the various work roles are being performed by people who are highly engaged and passionate about doing their part.
Character strengths appreciation is an emerging area in which research has found strengths endorsement and deployment in couples boosts life satisfaction in both partners (Lavy, Littman-Ovadia, & Bareli, 2014). T. B. Kashdan (personal communication, 2014) shared that in a current project, preliminary results suggest that the recognition and appreciation of character strengths in romantic relationships enhances satisfaction and commitment in those relationships. Character strengths appreciation can also be practiced within all workplace relationships within a company. Though it is intuitive to think that recognition of strengths in others has a positive effect on work relationships as well, future research could test these organizational relationships specifically.
The Future of Character Strengths at Work
- Board construction: Not only should companies form board of directors based on professional skills, financial investment, and ability to network to valued resources, but they should also consider a balance of character strengths among the directors. Considering balance across mind and heart character strengths or across the six virtues are a good place to start.
- Targeted marketing for sustainability: Matching consumer products and services with character strength profiles may lead to more positive consumer experiences and ones that contribute to well-being, thereby strengthening brand alliance.
- Building cultures of strength: The key to creating a culture of strength is to recognize that establishing new habits (building upon strengths) requires deliberate action, repeated over time. Here are some examples:
- Conduct employee reviews including employee character strengths data.
- Construct high performing work teams using character strengths data.
- Strategically inject daily communications around character strengths observations.
- Infuse character strengths into routine meetings, e.g., at the onset or conclusion of a meeting.
- Elevate the role of human resource departments by transforming departments that are reactive, uncreative, and lacking business understanding (Efron, 2014) to those that drive character strengths initiatives in the organization.
In summary, character science has illuminated new ways to elevate employee engagement and meaning. Early research findings and practical applications hold considerable promise for character science in helping to improve sustainable organizational outcomes.
About the Author
Dr. Neal Mayerson, Chairman, received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology and worked in hospital, community mental health and private practice settings for 15 years as a psychotherapist with specialties in chronic pain, eating disorders, and couples therapy. Dr. Mayerson is the President of the Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation, a private charitable foundation, President of The Mayerson Company, a real estate investment and management company, and Chairman of Mayerson Academy, a non-profit professional development organization for K-12 educators.
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