Positive psychology and workplace bullying


What is the relationship between the growing field of positive psychology and the challenging realm of workplace bullying?

Dr. Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania) spearheaded the development of the field of positive psychology as a way of focusing the discipline on positive human development. Many graduates of the U Penn master’s program in positive psychology are contributors to the Positive Psychology News Daily (PPND), a website and blog that serves as a useful information source and portal to the world of positive psychology.

Shannon Polly, a facilitator, coach, and U Penn program graduate, recently wrote up an excellent PPND summary of a “Work and Well Being” program in May, sponsored by the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence. I was among the presenters, giving a talk and Q&A session on workplace bullying.

In framing potential organizational and legal interventions in employee relations, Polly invokes categories articulated by Dr. James O. Pawelski:

  • “red cape interventions . . . stop bad things”
  • “blue cape interventions . . . grow good things”

She goes on to characterize efforts to address workplace bullying as needed “red cape” interventions:

Law professor David Yamada described the need for red cape interventions in addressing workplace bullying. “Allegations of workplace bullying are very threatening to organizations. Bullying targets often feel abandoned by organizational leadership, HR, and their co-workers.”

…Currently there are no laws in the United States that prevent workplace bullying unless it intersects with a protected class based on race, gender, age, and so on. Yamada has been working for over a decade researching the topic and pushing legislative efforts to support those affected by bullying in the workplace. A great red cape intervention.

Because of positive psychology’s association with the study and advancement of happiness, I sometimes have felt disconnected from it when centering on the so-called dark sides of work. Workplace bullying, after all, is inextricably associated with interpersonal abuse, as well as with inadequate and sometimes unethical organizational responses.

Polly aptly demonstrates, however, that effective interventions concerning workplace bullying can be placed comfortably in a positive psychology paradigm. In doing so, she helps to build a stronger link between advancing worker well-being and addressing forms of workplace mistreatment. This is essential toward understanding the roles of different systems and stakeholders in creating healthier workplaces that embrace employee dignity.


Update: I worked with the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence to create a webpage of resources on workplace bullying. Go here to access it.

Note: I’ve added PPND to the Minding the Workplace blogroll. I look forward to keeping up with it and discovering further connections.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Positive psychology and workplace bullying « Minding the Workplace | NewsPsicologia.com

  2. Dr. James O. Pawelski’s YouTube videos re: red cape and green cape interventions give more in-depth perspectives on what differentiates green cape vs red cape responses to situations. He aligns positive psychology more so with green cape interventions. His one slide says that a basic fundamental principle of positive psychology is “You can’t be happy without a green cape.”

    I really wonder how most psychologists who tout positive psychology principles would counsel an abused worker. Therein lies the most valid clues to the actual ‘relationship’ between positive psychology and workplace abuse.

    • It’s fair to say that of all the major branches of psychology, the clinical side has been the slowest to understand the effects of bullying, mobbing, and abuse at work. This may include clinicians who operate out of a positive psychology mode. The challenges of educating therapists and counselors about workplace bullying remain significant, as too many targets seeking mental health assistance continue to have frustrating, exasperating experiences in trying to obtain such help.

      That said, I’m pleased when adherents of positive psychology recognize the benefits of enacting workplace anti-bullying legislation. If it fits within a red cape/green cape construct, that’s fine with me. The important thing is wider recognition of the problem and the need to develop a panoply of effective responses.

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