Enriching the positive organizational behavior framework with wisdom.

Author:Gygax, Max

    Since its inception at the turn of the century (Luthans, 2000), Positive Organizational Behavior (POB) has been a successful and growing research field within business management, human resource management, and organizational behavior. A related field ensued, Positive Organizational Scolarship (POS), which extends the positive tenet of POB positivity beyond individual behavior into organizational structure, organizational change, and organizational strategy (Cameron, 2006). Generally, the field of POB is concerned with the study of positively oriented individual strengths (psychological capacities) that can be observed, measured, developed, and controlled to improve well-being and performance (Luthans & Youssef, 2007). The framework is founded on the thesis that identifying and strengthening the positive is more powerful than the mere avoidance of the bad (Cameron, 2006). POB aims to foster, encourage, and train positive actions that in turn become vehicles of organizational change (Fowers, 2003), lifestyle enhancements (Baltes, 2003), productivity enhancements and performance gains (Gardner & Schermerhorn, 2004), organizational effectiveness (Koys, 2001), and progress or success-seeking-achievement (Wiegand & Geller, 2005). The influence of POB has been especially strong in the field of organizational change (Cameron, 2008).

    POB has generated a great deal of research interest, as well as a few critics (eg. Fineman, 2006; Hackmann, 2009; Held, 2004) who point out a curious paradox: POB emphasizes the cultivation of positive capacities that drive change and progress, yet there is evidence that people tend to react more strongly to negative stimuli rather than positive stimuli (Cameron, 2008). This fact, combined with other scholarly criticisms of POB, inspired the authors of this paper to consider a potential addition to the POB framework, one that can bring balance between the irreproachably positive slant of POB and the pedagogical power of the so-called "negative". The aim of this treatise is to "re-discover" a human capacity that can be fully integrated into the POB framework and bring realism, foresight, and balance to it. That capacity is wisdom.


    Luthans (2002b), defines POB as "a micro-level, state-like study and application of positively oriented human resource strengths and psychological capacities that can be measured, developed, and effectively managed for performance improvement in today's workplace" (p.697). POB emphasizes strengths rather than the downward spiral of fixing weaknesses (Luthans, 2000). These strengths are in fact psychological capacities that drive people toward sustainable organizational progress. In POB the emphasis is not placed on the reparation of problems, the mending of lacks, or the easing of negative restraints, but rather on the search, strengthening, and development of forward-pushing and action-generating positive characteristics. The quantum contribution of the POB framework is that it aims to foster in organizational members not a mere transitory skill, but rather a "fact of being", a potentiality that can be trained, improved, measured and applied. The POB resource strengths are NOT merely a taxonomy of innate traits; as state-like psychological qualities they are applicable to organizational change and to general management practice.


    In order to be included as a valid construct within POB, a positively oriented psychological capacity must possess the following characteristics: it must be (a) state-like, (b) observable and measurable, (c) developable, and (d) controllable to improve well-being and performance. These four characteristics are described next.

    3.1. State-like capacity

    When explaining what is meant by state-like capacity, Luthans and Youssef (2007) aptly place it on a continuum ranging from trait-like constructs that are relatively stable and difficult to change to fleeting positive states such as feelings. State-like positive psychological capacities lie between the two. A state-like capacity must not be confused with a state-inherent or a state-proper psychological trait embedded in the subject's makeup. It is not an innate, fixed, and unchangeable characteristic such as a genetic imprint, a "heritage", or a psychological trait, like visual-vs.-spatial or verbal vs. cognitive processing, nor is it predominantly situational and malleable. It is not a situational characteristic (akin to personal aptness or personal growth) nor a situational feeling. These are merely context-dependent and time-situated states. A state-like POB construct cannot be a mere taxonomy of virtues or natural talents. A "state- like" psychological capacity combines the strength and stability of an inner-being characteristic with the power of creative shaping and evolution.

    3.2. Developable

    As mentioned above, capacities possess a "state" criterion, a "fact of being" engrained in the core of one's being; but this state can be trained, improved on, developed, measured and applied (Luthans, 2002a). Each of us can learn to shape a POB capacity as a psychological capacity can be nurtured, strengthened, and enriched. Therefore, a POB psychological capacity possesses the powerful combination of being anchored in the "state-makeup" of a person, while being purposefully developable and enrichable all the same.

    3.3. Observable and measurable

    Luthans (2002b) proposes that the state-like psychological capacities must be validly measurable and empirically testable for performance management. A scholarly POB framework may not be based on impressions and beliefs, but rather each POB construct must be clearly identifiable and empirically measurable.

    3.4. Controllable to improve well-being and performance

    The practical significance and saliency of a POB capacity transcends the theoretical realm; it must be tied to observable positive behavior modification and well-being improvement (Luthans et al., 2007). Indeed, psychological capacities have been tied to well-being improvements in many areas of human life (see Luthans & Youssef, 2007; Luthans et al., 2007).

    The current list of POB capacities identified as possessing the above characteristics includes: confidence, hope, resiliency, optimism, and psychological capital (Luthans & Youssef, 2007). Luthans (2002a, 2002b) and Luthans and Youssef (2007) present extensive evidence that these psychological resource strengths clearly posses the above essential attributes to be considered POB capacities. In the present study, it is argued that wisdom also possesses the traits essential to a POB capacity, and that wisdom in fact adds significant value to the POB framework.


    Philosophers argue that wisdom is akin to the most elaborate and advanced theory of minds and contexts (Pasupathi, Staundinger, & Baltes, 2001; Trowbridge, 2005). Centuries of philosophical debate about the nature of wisdom have equipped humanity with strong and varied conceptual understandings of wisdom (Bierly, 2000). Plato emphasized rational thinking, where the Knowledge of the absolute Good was the main component of wisdom. He emphasized wisdom as the acquisition of logic, the study of knowledge and mental training to achieve the ultimate rational mastery of the Good. For Plato the rational part should rule "since it is really wise and exercises foresight on behalf of the whole soul" (Plato R 411, as cited in Trowbridge, 2005, p. 22). Aristotle, on the other hand, added a second dimension to wisdom; the first dimension was theoretical (as in Plato) and the added dimension was practical. Aristotle's "eudemonia" component of wisdom (translated recently as "flourishing") added an applicative practical goal, i.e. the good end of all actions. Coupled also with Aristotle's "phronesis" component of wisdom (translated also as "practical discernment and prudence"), wisdom then becomes the correct application in matters of conduct and courses of action. Aristotle's practical wisdom therefore complements Plato's conceptual wisdom. Wisdom is extensively addressed by Aristotle in the fourth book of his Nicomachean Ethics.

    The Stoics believed in what could be called "binary wisdom" (this author's paraphrase), i.e. either one possesses it or doesn't. While modern application of justice for instance considers the achievement of good conduct by degrees, the Stoics were more compartmentalized in two moral categories, the virtuous and the corrupt, with no degrees of wise or semi-wise conduct. Christian ethics history is laced with the stoic binary view, and this dualism affected many Christian writings in matters of authority, judgment, dogma, and wisdom (Nichols, 1956).

    Studies on the history of wisdom in philosophy, theology, science, political science, and management (see Trowbridge 2005) indicate that wisdom has been defined in varied ways throughout history. Wisdom has been studied over centuries by philosophers and theologians, but has only recently begun to be integrated into organizational psychology (Baltes, 1995), organizational science (Bierly, 2000; Cameron 2008), and organizational change (Coy, 2005; Cameron 2006). Staudinger, Lopez, and Baltes (1997) of the the Max Plank Institute (MPI) in Berlin assert that "there is no general agreement on the definition and measurement of wisdom" (Staudinger et. al. 1997, p. 1211). However, in his extensive work on intelligence, creativity, and wisdom, Sternberg (2003) has isolated wisdom as a stand-alone construct, distinct from (albeit encompassing of) aspects of several kinds of intelligence (cognitive intelligence, practical intelligence, creative intelligence, emotional intelligence, and social intelligence). He observes that "'[w]isdom seems to go beyond these theoretically distinct kinds of intelligence" (Sternberg 2003, p.159). Other researchers point to specific aspects of wisdom that are culturally dependent (Clayton & Birren, 1980; Takahashi & Bordia...

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