Hypothesis: Strengths + Flow = Productive & Happy Employees

        In order for employees to be more productive and fulfilled at work they need to know and apply their strengths and be in the flow more often. Therefore, I argue that Peterson’s ideas about strengths and Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas about flow are directly applicable to corporate training. Identifying signature strengths and using them in new ways is a positive intervention that would be extremely effective in corporate training (Peterson et al., 2005a).  This intervention is crucial in corporate settings where frequently the deficit mode of thinking dominates.  Shifting to an abundance mode of thinking could transform both performance evaluations and the entire work experience – productivity and work satisfaction.  Being in ‘flow’ during the workday has already been shown to increase productivity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).  If employers were to combine using signature strengths with creating flow during the workday, I predict productivity and well-being would increase exponentially.

VIA History

Seligman and Peterson assembled a team of social scientists to produce the VIA Classification of Character Strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).  In the early 20th century, character fell out of favor among psychologists who were concerned that personal values could distort ‘objective’ research and theory (Peterson, 2006).  However, John Dewey (1922/1998) believed that “psychology’s empirical methods could profitably inform discussions of character and value by philosophers” (Peterson, 2006, p. 138).  Thus, positive psychology falls in line with Dewey.   Peterson has outlined the categories of the 24 strengths as strengths of:  wisdom & knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence (2006).   The VIA-IS is reliable, valid and stable over at least six months (e.g. Park & Peterson, 2005b, Park, Peterson & Seligman, 2005b, Peterson & Seligman, 2004 as cited in Peterson, 2006).

The “Applied” in Applied Positive Psychology

To use this classification in a work setting, employees would be asked to take the inventory of character strengths online at www.authentichappiness.org or www.viastrengths.org and to receive individualized feedback about their top five (“signature”) strengths (Peterson et al., 2005a).  Then they would be asked to use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week.  By taking the VIA, participants are made aware of their strengths.  With an empirically based test, the validity of results is strengthened in the participants’ mind.  This creates positive emotion which broadens and builds resources (Fredrickson, 2009).  Then participants have agency in choosing which strengths to work on.  Having a choice reinforces the goal of the positive intervention (Locke, 1996).  Finally, the act of using strengths in new ways redirects attention to intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation (Brown & Ryan, 2004).

This intervention can be used in a workshop setting highlighting signature strengths.  The list developed by Jonathan Haidt (2002, as cited in Peterson, 2006) and Tayyab Rashid and Afroze Anjum (2005, as cited in Peterson, 2006) of how to use signature strengths in new ways is instrumental in operationalizing strengths.  For the items included that could be done at home and work, I would clarify to focus on work (i.e. “at the end of every day wrote down three things that went well…at work).  For those categories that have no direct conversion I would add items (i.e. for curiosity – “go out and meet a new co-worker”).  Following this intervention, participants would engage in an exercise where they write down their strengths three times on post it notes.  On a page with various blanks they will fill in the various roles they play in life and at work:  mother, wife, manager, auditor, etc.  Then the participant will place each strength next to the role where they think they can use the strength in a new way.

Strengths = Results

Empirical data has shown that this exercise—using signature strengths in a new way—increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005).  I expect that this exercise will increase subjective well-being over the long term at work for people who continue to use their signature strengths in new ways, because of the aforementioned research.  I also predict that this will increase job enjoyment and productivity.  It could reduce sick days and increase retention if the exercise is repeated and reinforced from senior management.  When managers see the strengths of their people, they will be better at understanding what their employees value and this will give them better information which they can use to manage and motivate them better.  Implementing their strengths in the way described also gives participants a way to customize how these strengths can apply to diverse lives.    It is possible to measure effects by giving the Positive Affect Negative Affect Scale (PANAS) and Ed Diener’s Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS) pre- and post-intervention.  As the exercise gets reinforced in the organization I expect the effect size to grow.

Strengths »» Flow

Flow has actually has been shown to increase productivity at work (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).  Csikszentmihalyi states that “any job could be changed so as to make it more enjoyable by following the prescriptions of the flow model” (1990, p. 154).  Redesigning a job based on the flow model would mean concentrating on tasks that employees have a chance of completing, tasks with goals and immediate feedback, matching skills to challenges, giving employees a sense of control and satisfaction, and encouraging a deep level of concentration (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).  Csikszentmihalyi’s model mirrors the self determination theory of Deci and Ryan which focuses on autonomy, relatedness and competence (as cited in King, Ells & Burton, 2004).  Csikszentmihalyi describes individuals who can turn their profession into complex activities and therefore induce the flow state.  He describes these ‘complex activities’ as:  recognizing opportunities for action where others did not, by developing skills, by focusing on the activity at hand, and allowing themselves to be lost in the interaction” (1990, p. 151).  Identifying and using signature strengths in a new way is just one way of recognizing opportunities for action as well as developing skills and focusing on the activity at hand.  As John Rawls said: “All things being equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capabilities…and thus enjoyment increases the more capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity” (1971, p. 414, as cited in Peterson, 2006).  Realizing capacity is one result of using strengths in new ways and increased complexity is an essential part of flow.

Being in the flow state also directly benefits employees.  “Whenever people were in flow…they reported it as a much more positive experience than the times they were not in flow.  When challenges and skills were both high they felt happier, more cheerful, stronger, more active; they concentrated more; they felt more creative and satisfied” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 159).  Using signature strengths is one way to use skills at work, which can then lead to higher well-being at work.  It is clear from this research that flow increases enjoyment at work.  Csikszentmihalyi (1990) acknowledges that increasing enjoyment could preclude productivity in the short run but believes that “if workers really enjoyed their jobs they would not only benefit personally, but sooner or later they would almost certainly produce more efficiently” (1990, p. 154).  While Csikszentmihalyi’s claim is not empirically supported here, other researchers have begun to link happiness at work to career success (Staw, Sutton & Pelled, 1994 as cited in King, Eells and Burton, 2004), which may be linked to higher productivity.

The Strength-Filled Life Produces Flow

While there have been two schools of thought as to what determines our attachment to work, Wrzesniewski, Rozin & Bennett believe that both the characteristics of a job and the personality of the person in the job come into play (2003).  Since Americans spend more time at work (1824 hours/year) than any other country (with the exception of Korea (2380) and Mexico (1848)) it is a worthy goal to use our employment as a means to the good life for ourselves and the organizations where we work (“American Workplace,” 2008).  An employee can identify their signature strengths and use them in new ways to shape and transform the characteristics of their job to create more well-being.  In addition, I think future research will support the existing empirical data that those employees with who use their strengths at work to create flow are actually adding value to their employers.





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Wrzesniewski, A., Rozin, P., & Bennett, G.  (2003).  Working, playing, and eating:  Making the most of most moments.  In C. L. M. Keyes, & J. Haidt (eds.)     Flourishing:  Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived (pp.185-204).  Washington, D. C.:   American Psychological Association.


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About Shannon Polly, MAPP

Shannon M. Polly is a corporate communications trainer, facilitator and speaker and founder of Shannon Polly & Associates, a leadership development company in downtown D.C. Shannon works with executives, managers and employees of Fortune 500 companies in two areas: executive presence/presentation skills (based on over a decade of experience as a professional actor/singer in New York) and positive psychology. Shannon is one the first 100 people in the world who have received her Master in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) degree from the University of Pennsylvania under Dr. Martin Seligman. She also holds a graduate degree from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in classical acting and a B.A. with honors from Yale University. She also holds a coaching certificate from the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program.

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