St. Mary’s professor Rob Briner recently launched a discussion around a systematic review of the scientific literature on positive psychology. The topic is a bit vague, which is one of the criticisms of the field from a scientific point of view, but it includes ideas like focusing on strengths, not weaknesses.
Positive psychology is popular with HR professionals because it is easy to understand, has face validity, and has a positive spirit.
The critique of positive psychology makes several points
The field is not well-defined
The methods and measurements are weak
There is little evidence and poor replicability
Has HR made a mistake in embracing positive psychology?
Does any of this matter to practitioners?
Frankly, none of these critiques matter all that much to experienced practitioners. Experienced HR pros find that it is often useful to, for example, focus on strengths not weaknesses while being savvy enough to know that strengths are not the whole story.
HR pros don’t care if the scientific grounding of positive psychology is shaky. They feel that the ideas from positive psychology are useful in the same way folk wisdom is. With folk wisdom we say, “Look before you leap” but also the contradictory “He who hesitates is lost”. The usefulness comes from knowing which folk saying—or which psychology finding—to apply in a given circumstance.
Naïve practitioners may be badly served by uncritically accepting the simple view that positive psychology is a silver bullet, but naïve practitioners are bound to make mistakes. They shouldn’t be making decisions about interventions on their own, they should have oversight from a mentor.
If you are new to HR, then recognize that pretty much any idea you come across will be useful sometimes and harmful in other circumstances. Don’t get overenthusiastic, but hang on to the useful elements of any new idea.
What this means for the science of management
It can be discouraging to pay attention to the science of management because we continually learn that things we were taught are not, in fact, true—or at least not as true as we thought. We discover that techniques that appear to be good solutions when they are sold to us are only useful in limited ways.
In this case, the systemic review concludes that things are not as bad as you might think. Psychologists are well aware of the conceptual weaknesses of positive psychology and are working to address them. Furthermore, issues like problems with measurement and replicability exist across much of psychology, not just positive psychology. The state of positive psychology looks bad mainly in relation to its overly optimistic reception by HR consultants, not in relation to the rest of psychology.
A way forward
While it may be that HR pros are satisfied with taking psychology findings with a big grain of salt, I find the lack of rigour discouraging. I believe the fundamental tools we use to do psychological research, such as self-report questionnaires, are too limited to provide a firm basis for a science. It is like we are in the era of naked-eye astronomy and are struggling to understand the stars. The solution isn’t going to be to squint harder but to invent entirely new tools for understanding the problem. In the case of astronomy, it was the telescope. In the case of psychology, the best hope is in tools like neural networks and causal modelling. I look forward to a whole new science of psychology and how it will change HR even if it means waiting many years.