NEW! Coffee Talk Digest: Positive Psychology as Organizational Potential
by Donald Officer, Work & Organizations Division
Capital, for all its extensive manifestations and implications for how we live and work, remains a complex abstraction. We know it best as an economic force, but money lies buried in banks, pirate treasure chests or under mattresses before someone brings human capital, the skill and knowledge to use it, and applies social capital, the people and connections which leverage the otherwise vaulted treasure and idle hands.
What does PsyCap add to the other capital constructs?
Then a Nebraska management professor named Fred Luthans uncovered a fourth form of capital, Psychological Capital or PsyCap, the capacity to generate and sustain focused, steady intention. While PsyCap identified good things that good sense suggests would improve any workplace, they were not top of mind before professor Luthans’ carefully developed effectiveness measures began to show just how much PsyCap changes the game. Notice was taken.
Decades ago when my employer asked me to learn how people were supposed to work and what would make them effective at it, I was introduced to stopwatches, flowcharts and something called operational research. Back then, methods reflecting factory floor industrial engineering roots were about as far as science was prepared to go when tracking whatever happens between nine and five. Scientific psychology was regarded as purely academic, done in lab coats with white rats and undergraduates. This was the same “no nonsense” attitude that Fred Luthans would have faced when he began his career.
While I picked up on time and motion methods for the Canadian military, Fred Luthans was commissioned then promoted to Captain to teach at West Point about work from a different perspective. He earned his psychology doctorate from the University of Iowa following essentially the same academic path as Albert Bandura who gave efficacy – getting desired and meaningful things done – the central role in motivational science it still holds today.
Luthans attributes his own achievements, a full career as a professor, remarkably influential international consulting and the authorship of over 200 academic articles and 20 book titles (plus multiple editions of foundational texts in organizational behavior and international management) to hard work, persistence and always starting with a strategy. This is not just modesty, but what he does. Along the way he has also raised an outstanding family including two sons in the family business of university teaching who share writing credits for some of his more recent books.
Like many psychologists building careers in the late post WWII period, young Fred Luthans appreciated that funding and findings in psychology departments were built around the behaviorist theory. With degrees in mathematics and business administration as well as psychology, Professor Luthans saw that managers in most mid to larger organizations looked for the rigor of transparently measurable assumptions and statistical support before contemplating any organizational change. Indeed, many still do.
It helps if you’re present when science changes direction
Luthans acknowledges not everything in his long productive career was carefully planned or even foreseen. Now Distinguished Professor of Management Emeritus at Nebraska where he taught for over 30 years, he tries to prepare not only to execute according to strategy, but also optimize presenting opportunities that broaden and build on new evidence or ideas.
Fred Luthans told audiences how demonstrations of positive reinforcement built solid engagement in organizations watching as behavioral findings came to support cognitive behavioral methods in the workplace as well as clinical practice. On the more serendipitous side, he was physically on site to help found organizational behavior as an academic pursuit at one of the earliest positive psychology meetings where personal strengths were recognized as crucial to individual success for the whole person. This was a sea change from earlier ways of seeing strengths, often as not, as nuisances, flaws or obstacles. And yes, this propitious meeting unfolded in Lincoln Nebraska, at Luthans’ home campus!
Dr. Luthans most interesting shift has probably been to Positive Organizational Behavior (POB) through the effective use of the Psychological Capital or PsyCap construct. For a while we had understood the idea of Economic Capital as what is possessed, of Human Capital as individual knowledge and of Social Capital as the network of those you know and connect with., Luthans identifies PsyCap as the intentions you have for what you and your staff could become.
Tracing the HERO Journey
As the summary sheet lays out, PsyCap consists primarily of the four HERO components the acronym helps us recall: Hope, Efficacy, Resilience and Optimism. Mounting research familiar to students of Positive Psychology reveals constructs for these foundational components with documented supporting evidence. Professor Luthans believes we should be open to more constructs as the research base expands. In their 2015 version of the 2007 text, Psychological Capital: Developing the human competitive edge, Luthans, Carolyn M. Youssef-Morgan and Bruce J. Avolio opened the door to expanding on the Hero framework. Other emerging positive constructs suggest themselves: creativity, flow, mindfulness, gratitude, forgiveness, courage, authenticity, emotional intelligence and more. One questioner recently asked Luthans whether spirituality contributes to PsyCap. His answer was that although we might believe so intuitively, as yet no demonstrable support has been found to justify inclusion in a science-based model.
What can be seen in a PsyCap enhanced environment is contagious recognition (formal and informal) expressed in positive feedback from managers, colleagues and others. Measurable and quantifiable outcomes are now available after thousands of implementation initiatives. Fred Luthans PhD not only takes the quality and coherence of his ideas seriously but carefully considers how they will reach the people who could most benefit from using them. Link to Dr. Luthans talk to IPPA explaining the ever-evolving contributions to organizational and positive psychology that culminated in the updated 2015 book, Psychological Capital and Beyond then read the accompanying video summary sheet for an overview of PsyCap at a glance.