State of Mind Matters

December 13, 2018
By Dr. John Stayton
Executive Director of Graduate & Executive Programs
School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University
Are you generally optimistic, hopeful, and resilient? Or are you pessimistic, fatalistic, and defensive? As it turns out, your answer has big implications. Having a positive psychological orientation improves work performance, job satisfaction, and overall happiness. This leads to greater health and success. However, maintaining a positive frame of mind is not so easy. After all, we have been impacted by the devastating California fires, the fractured US political climate, and the overall state of the world as reported in the news. We experience personal crises and traumas. It is easy to slide into persistently negative mindsets. 
A bit of history: The term "positive psychology" was introduced in 1954 by Abraham Maslow, who recognized that psychologists had focused almost exclusively on mental illness and the alleviation of suffering; psychologists equally needed to understand psychological strengths and develop practices for fostering positive frames of mind (Maslow, 1954; Sheldon & King, 2001). The field exploded into the mainstream after Martin Seligman made positive psychology the theme of his term as president of the American Psychological Association in 1998. 
The field of positive organizational behavior emerged a few years later to study how management can encourage positive psychological states in the workplace. Studies have shown that individuals who are optimistic, hopeful, and resilient perform better at work, are more satisfied with their jobs, and are more committed to their organizations (Luthans et al, 2007; Youssef & Luthans, 2007). How departments and organizations are managed have a significant influence on the psychological well-being of those who work there. 
Promoting positive frames of mind should not be a pollyannish sweeping of negativity under the rug. There is such a thing as being too positive, which results in denial of reality and undervaluing risks in decision-making. Realism is important, especially when outcomes are not meeting expectations. The trick is to create a safe work environment that allows people to bounce back from personal or professional difficulties and keeps them focused on a more healthy and productive future.
We see this play out in our MBA programs. Most of our Executive and Professional MBA students take advantage of every opportunity to learn and grow, assertively pursue their interests, and squeeze every bit of value possible from our programs. They tend to love their E/MBA program, and appreciate their graduate learning experiences, even when not delivered neatly. They offer honest and constructive feedback about the program and trust that it will be received graciously. On the other extreme, a few of our students have viewed their graduate program through a dark lens, focused only on its flaws, and disengaged in such a way that no matter how perfectly we executed, they would never be satisfied. Same program, same investment, entirely different outcomes. We do our best to create an educational environment that focuses on valuable learning experiences, listens to feedback and acts on it as we can, and demonstrates genuine caring for the well-being of our students and faculty. For most of our students, that results in a transformative and highly valued learning journey.
How can you create a positive work environment? Fostering engagement at work is critical. Engaged workers have more positive attitudes, improved health, and greater resourcefulness. Factors that support engagement at work include social support, autonomy, feedback on performance, learning and growth opportunities, and the need for multiple skill sets (Bekker & Demerouti, 2008). The individual still has to step up to the plate to take advantage of these resources, but making them available creates a happier, healthier, and more productive workplace.