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FEI Recap: Positive Psychology in Innovation

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(Author's Intro: Noting that FEI 2014 kicked off tonight, I thought it might be fun to take a look back at the 2013 conference, which featured two prominent researchers in positive psychology, namely Keith Sawyer and Angela Duckworth, and review some of the other influences that positive psychology has on innovation.)

I tend to refer to positive psychology as "the psychology of what works," since a lot of our research is focused on how things can "go right," and likewise on how to make things go even better.  Both the name, and the concepts that underlie the field, go back to humanistic psychology and were brought into the mainstream by Abraham Maslow.  In recent years, Marty Seligman, teaming up with Chris Peterson (of blessed memory) and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, integrated humanistic psychology with additional constructs in other areas of developmental, social, and organizational psychology to form "positive psychology"[1].  Given the many implications of positive psychology for innovation, it is no surprise that FEI brought in two positive psychology researchers last year, and is bringing in a speaker for 2014 whose ideas are largely rooted in the research of positive and humanistic psychologists.

In 2013, Angela Duckworth gave a keynote address on the relationship between grit and success, showing the importance of being able to bounce back from failure and to stick it out in the face of adversity, both of which have extensive implications for managing innovation.  At the same conference, Keith Sawyer gave a fascinating keynote and Q&A on the power of collaboration and on using improvisational techniques in innovation (two themes that appeared in other presentations, as well).

Looking ahead to 2014, FEI will have a keynote from Dan Pink, a writer whose books attempt to apply the works of many scientists to day-to-day living and to the business world.  One of the researchers whose work heavily influenced Pink is Ed Deci [2], whose research with Rich Ryan on Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is discussed and applied in Drive (which popularizes many concepts found in Deci and Ryan's seminal book).  As Deci and Ryan note,

Conditions supporting the individual's experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.

As Pink discussed in Drive, it is important for companies to foster all three aspects of self-determination in order get the most from their employees.  Some of the ways in which companies can do this is reviewed in Amy Wrzesniewski's research, which focuses on how employees find meaning in their work with respect to how well they are able to establish a professional identity that is consistent with their own self-conceptions.  As a consequence, many of her papers consider how people can turn their jobs into a calling, which reflects a level of intrinsic motivation that is crucial to getting employees to give their all in companies' innovation endeavors.

Adam Grant also does research about the value of finding meaning at work, but has more recently focused on the importance of being a giver, building a solid network, and constantly connecting with people.  As he discusses in Give and Take, what we do for others not only has a way of coming back to us, but also enriches us and gives the ideas and energy we need to pursue new ways of offering our most creative selves to the world.

It surprises no one, then, that both Grant and Wrzesniewski did their doctorates with Jane Dutton, who is one of the primary faculty members in the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship. Dutton's work focuses on both relationships in the workplace and how people can take initiative in their work through the process of job crafting (more recently, she has been doing research on compassion in the workplace).  Having the ability and autonomy to engage in job crafting can enable employees to maximize their contributions in ways that are consistent with their interests and talents, which can lead to incredible innovations (as in the case of Dr. Seuss, for example).

One of the other concepts that shows up throughout the innovation world is flow.  Csikszentmihalyi's research on this construct has indicated that flow can have any number of benefits, including better performances, mastery experiences (related to Deci's concept of competence), and higher intrinsic motivation (which also relates to Deci's work, as a whole).  Some of my own research on flow and creativity is aimed at exploring the benefits of flow-type experiences in the workplace, and also on how people's personal development is reflective in their creative development[3].

Those who follow my writing know that I often mention the research of Teresa Amabile [2] on creativity and progress, and also Barbara Fredrickson's Broaden-and-Build Theory, and how their work strongly contributes to understanding creativity and innovation.  There are also so many other researchers in positive psychology whose work applies to innovation that it would be hard to list them all, but several notables include Kim Cameron, FEI2012 presenter Rob Cross, Fred Luthans, and Sabine Sonnentag.

With the many contributions that positive psychology has already provided to the field of creativity and innovation, and likewise to the development of positive workplaces that are maximally capable of inventing the future, one can only look forward to seeing how the partnership between science and business will continue to grow.[4]

Orin's Asides
1) Though positive psychology is an interdisciplinary branch of psychology, and an independent one in its own right at this point, it is crucial to understand that the roots of the field go back not just to humanistic psychology, but to even earlier thinking (such as the Nicomachean Ethics).
2) Neither Deci nor Amabile expressly consider themselves to fall under the rubric of positive psychology, but their work has influenced a significant number of positive psychologists, and is cited widely in positive psychology.
3) As there is some overlap between my research and Keith Sawyer's, it likely shocks no one that we both did our doctorates with Csikszentmihalyi.
4) As blog posts are necessarily short, I know that I have likely raised many questions on positive psychology and how businesses can grow and develop based on the research findings.  I invite you to comment or to be in touch with queries.

Orin C. Davis is a positive psychology researcher and organizational consultant who focuses on enabling people to do and be their best.  His consulting work focuses on maximizing human capital and making workplaces great places to work, and his research focuses on self-actualization, flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. Dr. Davis is the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory and the Chief Science Officer of Self Spark. (@DrOrinDavis)

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