Application of Positive Organisational Scholarship to Organisation Coaching

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The aim of this essay is to examine Positive Organisational Scholarship (POS) and its application to coaching within organisations. The relevance of POS to organisational climate and future considerations for research will also be discussed.

Positive Organisational Scholarship

Positive Organisational Scholarship. As the name suggests, the focus of this approach is on the positive, in seeking to elevate individuals and organisations, celebrate successes, inspire acts of kindness and forgiveness, promote life giving actions and recognising what is excellent (Cameron, Dutton & Quinn, 2003). POS is not value neutral, but rather takes a positive perspective at the macro level, assuming that organisations promote capability-building such as the development of energy, hope and forgiveness (Cameron & McNaughton 2014). Leaders are seen as promoting change to achieve positive outcomes, at all levels of an organisation. The leader’s role is to elevate both themselves, other individuals and the organisation, by focussing on what is right, life affirming, inspiring and extraordinary, to achieve positive deviant outcomes that dramatically pass common or expected performance (Cameron 2012).

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Since 2003, the definition of POS has developed with the emergence of this field over the last fifteen years. Cameron et al’s (2003) initial description was of an umbrella concept, to describe a organisational domain using words such as excellence, virtuousness, thriving, abundance and resilience, with a strong perspective on positive phenomena. More recent definitions include the “study of that which is positive, flourishing and life giving in organizations” (Cameron & Caza, 2004, p 731), and “organisational scholarship focuses attention on the generative dynamics that lead to the development of human strength, foster resilience in employees, enable healing and restoration, and cultivate extraordinary individual and organisational performance” (Cameron & Spreitzer 2011, p 1).

Quinn and Cameron (2019) outlined the three areas that POS targets – the Positive, the Organisational level of analysis (vs the individual) and Scholarship (empirically based and theoretically grounded). Since 2003, the concept of ‘positive’ has developed to focus on four areas – adopting a positive bias, targeting extraordinarily positive outcomes or positive deviant performance, an affirmative bias to foster resourcefulness and virtuousness. Virtuousness is seeking to promote the best of the human condition and to attain flourishing, where virtuousness may be seen as the pursuit of eudaemonism (a system of ethics that bases moral value on the likelihood of actions producing happiness) (Cameron & Winn, 2012).

POS may be viewed as part of the third pillar of positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) the other two being positive experiences and positive individual traits. POS is described by Quinn and Cameron (2019) as separate to but drawing from positive psychology. For example Meyer (2018) links virtuousness to Fredrickson’s work (2001, 2005) showing that positivity promotes and unlocks resources in individuals, teams and organisations, to broaden capability and build capacity.

Cameron and Spreizter (2011) discussed criticisms of POS, that it ignores negative phenomena, adopts an elitist viewpoint and is not clearly defined, and that there is little evidence to indicate that positivity fosters success (Hackman 2008). They acknowledged that more empirical research is needed to establish POS as a credible and important part of the positive organizational field. Other criticisms address the potential for extortion of individuals, if leaders appealed to higher values to work longer and harder, leading to concerns that POS may be suborned to only economic goals. However this criticism may also apply to other organisational approaches.

Evidence base for POS

Despite having a handbook published by a reputable publisher (Cameron & Spreitzer, 2011) within a decade of POS being introduced (Cameron et al, 2003), there is a very limited amount of empirical research. A search of PSYCINFO and Business Science Ultimate databases of the term ‘Positive Organizational Scholarship” showed, respectively, 74 (peer reviewed and English speaking) articles and 120 (peer reviewed) articles. Although the evidence base for POS is very small, it supports the idea that introducing positive strategies within a POS framework leads to improved performance on a number of organisational measures, including wellbeing and profit.

 However, many of these articles are not empirical research but rather seek to progress the discussion around applying POS. In the practical application of POS, research is harnessed from other areas such as positive psychology, biology, sociology, psychology and organizational development: with the rise of interest in positive psychology (Seligman & Csikzentmihalyi, 2000) there seems to have been a corresponding rise in interest in all areas of positive practices. For example Cameron and Caza (2004) proposed POS as a useful focus or lens to examine positive phenomena in organisations. Redman (2006) examined POS in nursing, Verbos et al (2007 addressed developing a living code of ethics, and Spreizter, Porath and Gibson (2012) reviewed thriving at work. Lavine and Cameron (2012) discussed the case study of the clean-up of Rocky Flats Nuclear Arsenal, “arguably the most remarkable example of organisational success in recent history” (Cameron & McNaughton, 2014, p455). Cameron and Plews (2012) presented two case studies of POS leadership in action, detailing dramatic improvements in financial performance and marked enhanced employee engagement (among other gains). Nilsson (2015) examined the potential to connect POS to social change and sustainability, and Meyer (2015) summarised the strengths and weakness of virtuousness in organisations. Kelly and Cameron (2017) discussed two case studies outlining the practical applications of POS in developing a culture of extraordinary achievement and abundance, and Quinn and Cameron (2019) examined POS and agents of change.

Despite tes small amount of empirical research, a detailed examination of all the empirical evidence is beyond the scope of this paper. Cameron, Mora, Leutscher and Calarco (2011) conducted two empirical studies, one with 40 business units and the other with 29 nursing units, to measure the effects of introducing POS. Given the immaturity of the field, there were no appropriate assessment instruments, so a survey specific to this study was developed. However it is unclear whether this survey was validated and further developed, for use in other studies, which would seem to be a missed opportunity. Cameron et al (2011) concluded that positive practices had a significant effect on organisational effectiveness, despite limitations of the studies.

Cameron and Winn (2012) commented that empirical research into organisational virtuousness is rare, noting that the term ‘virtuousness’ is often seen as naïve and out of place in the world of organisations, and not a worthy area of endeavour to study or research (Bright, Cameron & Caza, 2004; Cameron & Caza, 2002). Meyer (2018) defines the three key attributes of organizational virtuousness as human impact (human beings working towards personal development, flourishing relationships, meaningful work and enhanced learning), moral goodness (virtuousness is seen as something that is desired for its own sake) and social betterment as the idea of benevolence, without the need for exchange or mutual benefit. In Meyer’s (2018) review of this topic, he concluded that organisational and individual outcomes include not only more positive human wellbeing and optimal ethical behaviour, but also economic and financial improvements. Although there is evidence of correlations between measures of virtuousness and improved outcomes, this effect remains an association, not causal. POS may offer a useful approach in down- sizing, but there would seem to be significant limitations for many organisations to introduce concepts of virtuousness at such a time of chaos.

However it should be noted that Meyer (2018) reviewed the same four empirical studies as Cameron et al (2011). It seems that there has been little recent empirical research conducted in business organsitions. Rather, the approach and terminology is that of ‘using a lens’ to argue for a POS framework, tying in concepts and studies from other areas to POS.

In Cameron and McNaughton’s (2014) review of research linking POS to positive organisational change in businesses, most references were to case studies e.g. airline downsizing after 9/11, assisting students who had lost possessions in a fire, or were empirical studies that were not specifically based on POS. For example, self-report surveys discussed under the heading of ‘Virtuousness and Social Concern” did not discuss the findings in relation to either POS or virtuousness (Andersson, Giacalone & Jurkiewicz, 2007; Giacalone, Paul & Jurkiewicz, 2005). There was a stronger empirical base for positive relationships and performance, but again there was no direct link or discussion of POS or positive psychology e.g. Grant et al, (2007).

However POS continues to be adopted in the health care field, with the development of Positive Organisational Scholarship Health (POSH) e.g. Collier et al, (2019); Karimi et al (2019), Kippist et al, (2019). There is a themed issue planned in the Journal of Management & Organisation to promote the positive aspects of health management and organisation by focussing on health management associated with brilliant health care and positive deviance (Dadich & Farr-Wharton 2017).

POS and its application to coaching

There is no empirical research linking POS to executive coaching. A search in PSYCINFO for (peer reviewed in English) articles using the term ‘Executive Coaching’ as a subject heading and key word gave 503 results; however there were no results for the subject heading and key word for ‘Executive Coaching’ and ‘Positive Organizational Scholarship’. There were no results for ‘Coaching Psychology’ as a subject heading and keyword (418 results) and ‘Positive Organizational Scholarship’. Using the broader term ‘Coaching’ (7398 results) gave one article, on mentoring. There was one Australian article using the term ‘Positive Organisational Scholarship’, discussing the dearth of research in coaching and positive organisational practice (including POS) (MacKie 2017).

One area in POS which overlaps with coaching is the role of change agents. Quinn and Cameron (2019) reviewed the literature on POS and agents of change, and presented a framework of positive change for these agents. They argue that the fundamental difference between ‘normal’ and POS approach to change lies in the focus of the change agent, where POS expands the focus from simply imposing change on others to including participation by the change agent and self-change of the agent. The POS perspective moves from telling people what to do, to showing them how to be, and launches others into an upward spiral of increased strengths and virtues. POS change agents are purpose driven, internally directed towards self-concordant goals, are exceptional in that they are focussed on others and act for the greater good, and engage in adaptive self-reflection to be growth focussed. These individuals build trust and openness and demonstrate integrity.

This perspective echoes that of coaching (Grant 2018), which may be defined as the “collaborative solution focussed, results oriented systematic process in which the coach facilities the enhancement of goal attainment, performance, self –directed learning and personal growth of other individuals” (Grant, 2001, p 257). Although coaching is generally focused on the individual there is a growing interest in group and team coaching. However the state of play in group coaching is similar to that of executive coaching in the early 2000s, with a lack of empirical studies to guide practice (O’Connor, Studholme and Grant, 2017).

Relevance of POS to organisational climate

Organisational climate. Organisational climate may be defined as “the recurring patterns of attitudes, behaviours and feelings, that characterise life in the organisation” (Isaksen 2007 pp4), and may be measured at both the individual and team level. Isaksen (2007) argues that climate is distinct from culture in that it is more easily observed and so more amenable to interventions. Leaders may have a profound impact on climate, including measures such as autonomy, trust, motivation and commitment.

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Cameron et al, (2004) and Cameron & Caza (2013) argued that during difficult times, leaders using virtuousness help promote teamwork, more collaboration, and more positive organisational climate. Cameron et al (2011) asserted that within the framework of POS, organisational climate is one of the key positive practices to improve effectiveness. A large financial service firm introduced POS, including refocusing the incentive system to positive practices. Key bottom line outcomes showed improvements, including three of nine factors of organisational climate. Higher scores on positive practices were associated with better employee retention, managerial effectiveness and overall work climate.

Cameron et al. (2011) concluded that positive practices implemented by health leaders were most effective when delivered in combination, by increasing the meaningfulness of work, providing a respectful workplace and compassionate support for employees, using positive and inspirational language and forgiving mistakes. Improvements were seen in areas including organisational climate, quality of care and patient satisfaction.

Meyer (2015) distinguished between ‘doing good’ and ‘doing well’, building on Cameron et al’s (2003) terms of wealth creation vs creating abundance and human wellbeing. He asserts that positive business is part of the growing framework of POS, including the role of business in society, by promoting optimal functioning of individuals (flourishing, thriving, inspiring, creating employment).

However this review must be tempered with the understanding that the theoretical underpinnings of the relations between organisational climate and POS are unclear (Quinn & Cameron 2019).

Future research

Given the lack of research into POS and coaching to date, the first question is whether studies linking these two fields would be appropriate or advantageous. There are still significant issues with the conceptual basis for POS, where Cameron & McNaughton (2014) noted that there was insufficient research to indicate what, when and how POS interventions may be most successful applied. For example, there was no underlying theory to guide the selection of positive practices in exploring the effect of these practices on organisational effectiveness and no assessment instrument to measure positive deviance, affirmative practices or virtuousness. Rather, the measures were the result of expert opinion, based on experience (Cameron, et al, 2011).

Areas that remain to be addressed include how POS variables are linked to variables such as thriving and flourishing. Issues of causality need longitudinal studies to ascertain correlation or cause. More solid research is required to fully legitimize POS; despite the increase in popularity in the broader practice of a positive organisational approach, there has been little opportunity to define and document best practices and interventions.

Quinn and Cameron (2019) commented that POS was a recently new subfield of organisational research, and suggested further research on change agents and their promotion of POS dynamics, such as positive deviance, to become excellent leaders motivating others to achieve extraordinarily successful outcomes. Given the overlap on this topic, this would seem to be the most promising area to address for coaching and POS. Group and team coaching may also offer opportunities for future research; with the rise in popularity of both, examining the most effective structures and processes in group and team coaching in relation to the coaching context would be useful.

MacKie (2017) commented on the meagre research in coaching and positive organisational psychology, including POS, noting the wider issues of disconnection between practice in organisational behaviour and published research. To promote dissemination of research in this area, he suggested a strategy for coaching to connect and align with other more established research areas. However, given the exponential growth in coaching research over the last ten years (Grant 2016), and the much greater amount of research completed on executive coaching compared to POS, it may be a useful strategy for POS researchers to align with coaching.

Although empirical research in the business application of POS seems to have slowed, POSH is a growing area. The new approach of using the POS lens to learn more about the concept of brilliance in health care seems fruitful


The links between coaching and POS are unexplored and unclear. Given the lack of research linking these two areas, the applications that POS may have to coaching may only be assumed from the commonalties between the two fields. Although POS and executive coaching are two distinct areas of study and practice that overlap in complex ways, both harness the field of positive psychology and so it is unclear why there is not more discussion and collaboration between the two fields as there seems to be a fair degree of congruence, for example the overarching concept of promoting well –being (O’Connell & Palmer 2019).


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