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  • AutorenbildBirgit Ohlin

Positive Organizational Development with Kim Cameron: “Steve Jobs Could Have Done Better”

He has come to Vienna on a mission.

Kim Cameron, professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan, hopes to enable a one percent improvement in the workplace by the end of today’s workshop. Cameron’s workshop is part of Seligman’s Europe Tour 2016 which took place July 2 – 10 2016.

While I wonder whether it was worth coming from Zurich to Vienna for a one percent improvement, Cameron explains: “If we fly around the world and get it wrong by one percent, we would land in Scotland or Southern Italy rather than Vienna.” I smile. Never underestimate the big impact of small changes.

Cameron is a very gentle, charismatic and (of course) very positive man. He used to study the effects of downsizing in companies when he began noticing a difference…While the majority of organizations deteriorated, some actually ended up flourishing despite the pain and drama. This is how Cameron got into Positive Psychology, studying the effect of forgiveness. He has also written numerous books and journal articles (see reference list below) about the benefits of positive psychology in the workplace.

Cameron opens the workshop by outlining success stories of companies which have used Positive Psychology to turn their negative situation around. He then recaps some of the PP tools he uses and offers his ideas on the application in an organizational context. All his recommendations, he points out, are based on empirical evidence, have a theoretical grounding and have been proven to work by Cameron himself. All his recommendations, he points out, are based on empirical evidence, have a theoretical grounding and have been proven to work by Cameron himself.

Cameron’s Recommended 3 PP Tools and Advice for Application

1) Gratitude Journal

Keep a gratitude journal in which you write down three good things every day. Or write a gratitude letter to someone, telling them how much you appreciate their support.

Gratitude exercises have been found to improve well-being through the development of a greater sense of appreciation (Lyubomirsky, 2008; Seligman, 2002). The exercises work to broaden mental flexibility, improve memory and help solve problems which require more complex cognitive processes (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002; Fredrickson & Losada, 2005).

Applying Gratitude in the Workplace:

The CEO of a Mexican university had cards printed with the company’s values printed on one side (one value per card) and the other side left blank. Whenever an employee had exhibited one of the company’s values during work he would use the card with the appropriate value and write a short note for the staff member, recognizing their behaviour. This is just one way of showing gratitude in the workplace.

More Ideas for using Gratitude in Organizations:
  • Start team meetings with the question “What has inspired you this week?”

  • Celebrate successes with your team

  • Design a wall for positive milestones and provide an ideas box so that leaders and staff alike can use it to pin anything they are grateful for or proud of

  • Hand a booklet to each of your staff and invite them to keep a gratitude journal

  • At the end of the year, send a gratitude letter to your employees’ families and praise the employee. Tell the family how much you appreciate the effort their family member puts in at work and thank them

2) Contribution

By contributing to other people’s happiness we improve our own well-being. Therefore, rather than simply rewarding employees who do well, companies need to put rewards in place which include actively contributing to benefit others.

Research indicates that giving increases well-being more than receiving. Altruistic behaviour makes us happy (Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008; Warneken & Tomasello, 2006)

Applying Contribution Principles in the Workplace:

An airline handed out reward certificates to their frequent flyer guests in order to recognize their loyalty. The certificates could be handed out to Delta staff who stood out in their behavior or performance, either on the ground or during the flight. This way, guests were able to recognize their exceptional behaviour.

For guests, this had a positive effect due to the benefit experienced through contribution discussed above. For the airline, the impact was twofold. Staff received more praise and recognition, and guests would search for employee excellence, which had a similar effect to writing a gratitude diary.

More Ideas for More Contribution in Organizations:
  • Get someone who did well to mentor and coach others rather than just complimenting them

  • Reward great performance with 1 + 1. The person receives two pieces of recognition, one for themselves and one they can hand to someone who has supported them in the process

3) Strengths-based Organizational Behaviour

Rather than focusing on what is wrong using tools such as gap analysis, organizations should engage in virtuous practices, practice open and honest communication, institutionalize forgiveness and foster trust and integrity, in order to build on the strengths and resources of the company.

A positive organizational culture has been found to have an impact on performance, staff engagement and turnover. This may be due to the heliotropic effect, defined as “the tendency in all living systems toward positive energy and away from negative energy” (Cameron, 2008).

Applying Strengths-Based Behaviour in the Workplace:

Surrounded by sad stories due to its core business, Dutch Funeral Insurance Company Dela developed the campaign “Say something wonderful today”. This lead to growth in insured capital by 50 percent and the company captured a place in the top 10 best-known brands in Holland. Watch this 2-minute video on how they did it:

More Ideas for Strengths-Based Behaviour to Organizations:
  • Instead of asking your unhappy customers what went wrong, ask your satisfied customers what went right and do more of that.

  • Ask your staff to select 20 people who know them well (co-workers, friends, neighbours) and get them to write a short paragraph answering questions such as “when have you seen me at my best?”. Ask them to use the answers to create their own “best self-portrait” and think about how they can use their strengths even more

  • When giving your staff feedback on their strengths, make us of the following two ideas: “Here is what I noticed in your leadership skills…” and “Here is what lead me to this conclusion…”, the second is particularly important.

Interview with Kim Cameron:

B. Ohlin: Kim Cameron, how did you get into the area of Positive Organisational Development?

Kim Cameron: I was involved in a lot of downsizing and one day I noticed that 80% of companies actually perform worse after staff had been laid off. The majority end up suffering from problems which seem to arise as a result. I noticed consequences such as reduced information sharing, lack of shared values, trust and loyalty were damaged and negative emotions dominated those workplaces. Only a few companies managed to turn the situation around and produce an environment in which people flourished. This is how I became interested in studying virtuous practices.

B. Ohlin: Why is it so difficult to introduce Positive Leadership in organizations?

Kim Cameron: Routine and habits are the worst enemies. Especially in a professional environment, we are used to analyzing what is wrong and focus on how to improve. Also, leaders are often selfish and worry about the impact PP practices may have on them. They are afraid of being perceived weak and soft.

B. Ohlin: You talk a lot about how much companies benefit from positive leadership. So the question arises, how can leaders such as Steve Jobs who, according to his biography, possessed a rather authoritative leadership style, be more successful?

Kim Cameron: Many factors contribute to the success of organizations, and of course Steve Jobs had his qualities. Yes, Steve Jobs did well. But who knows how much further a strength-based approach would have taken him!

B. Ohlin: What books would you recommend on positive organizational development?

Kim Cameron: Have a look at the following:

  • The Positive Organization (Quinn, 2015)

  • Practising Positive Leadership (Cameron, 2013)

  • Positive Leadership (Cameron, 2012)

  • The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship (Cameron & Spreitzer, 2011)

Want to know more?

For more information on Cameron’s work you can read our article on positive organizational scholarship or get start creating your one percentage change with help from Kim Cameron speaking live at TEDx:


Cameron, K. (2008). Paradox in Positive Organizational Change. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 44(7), 7-24.

Cameron, K. (2012). Positive Leadership. San Francisco, USA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Cameron, K. (2013). Practising Positive Leadership. San Francisco, USA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Cameron, K., & Spreitzer, G. M. (2011). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship (Vol. 8). Oxford: Oxford Library of Psychology.

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science 319, 1687.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive Emotions Trigger Upward Spirals Toward Emotional Well-Being. [Article]. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 13(2), 172.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing. [Article]. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want: Penguin Press.

Quinn, R. E. (2015). The Positive Organization: Breaking Free from Conventional Cultures, Constraints, and Beliefs. San Francisco, USA: Berrett-Koehler.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happines: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees. Science, 311, 5765, 1301-1303.

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