Review: Positive Organizational Change – Kim Cameron & Jon McNaughtan

Kim Cameron and Jon McNaughtan took the Anniversary of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science as an opportunity to publish a summary of the works in the field of positive organizational change published over the last ten years.

Positive organizational change is itself a part of the wider field of positive organizational scholarship (POS). As such it is rooted in the four main connotations of POS.

1. Adopting a positive lens

POS focuses on the positive and generative processes of change. Challenges are not ignored but reinterpreted as opportunities to learn and build upon.

2. Focusing on positively deviant performance

The indicators of performance that exceeds expectations, and the actors who generated it, are the focus of POS research.

3. Assuming an affirmative bias

It is a core belief of POS, that positivity in an organizational context unlocks and strengthens resources and capabilities in individual actors, groups and whole organizations.

4. Examination of virtuousness

Based on the idea, that people always strive for happiness or “[…] the best of the human condition […]” (p. 447) POS research is interested in the effects of virtuousness in the context of positive change and organizations.

The authors explain the emergence of positive organizational change as a field of research, stressing its focus on phenomena and themes that had been ignored in organizational theories and research previously. While change literature mainly looked at factors like profitability, economic efficiency and competition, positive organizational change turn its head to the well-being of the actors and social integrative factors.

Cameron & McNaughtan go on to give an overview of empirical studies conducted between 2004 and 2014. They identify the following aspects of positive organizational change:

Organizational Virtuousness:

Virtuousness in an organizational context includes practices like forgiveness, compassion, optimism and trustworthiness. Several studies have shown, that virtuous behavior has positive effects, not only on the well-being of workers and clients, but also on different performance measures. Virtuous practices also decrease the negative effects of down-sizing in an organization. The authors cite a study of U.S. airline industry following the events of 9.11. Airlines were confronted with a drastic drop in passenger numbers. Different approaches, from no lay-offs while taking the financial loss to laying-off people without any compensation, where adopted at the time. The airlines who were the most virtuous in their down-sizing strategies came out on top, measured by the development of the stock prices, five years after September 11, 2001.

Virtuousness and Social Concern:

Different studies have shown, that virtuous behavior can increase social concern, both between the members of an organization and for social matters outside of the organization.


Several studies examined the connection between positive leaderships and organizational outcomes. For example the expression of positive emotions by a leader facilitates similar emotions in their workers and thus increases well-being and performance. Two studies have also shown the importance of positive leadership in recovering from harmful events, like a college campus shooting.

Positive Relationships and Performance:

Positive relationships and the quality of interpersonal connections in an organization have strong positive effects on performance and other measures of outcomes. For example the aforementioned study on airlines after 9.11. showed that airlines with stronger interpersonal relationships were more resilient and recovered quicker in the years after 2001.

Psychological Capital and Strengths:

A good psychological capital (resilience, optimism, self-efficacy, hope) and the focus on individual strengths in the work place have positive effects on individual and organizational outcomes, as could be shown in several studies.


Positive relations lead to an exchange of relational energy which has an positive effect on the well-being and the performance of the individuals.

Job Crafting:

Job crafting describes the individual’s ability to design and define its own work context like tasks, relationships and goals. Several studies show positive effects on motivation, job identification and performance.

Cameron & McNaughtan mention some limits of the research on positive organizational change. The studies conducted present a wide variety of themes, methods and contexts but as such may not be focused enough to draw firm conclusions regarding the general relationships between variables. Also questions of causality can’t be sufficiently answered with the data available. Another problem is that the practices of positive organizational change have not always been documented consistently and are not always based on clear and universally accepted definitions.

The goal of the article was stated as giving an overview of the empirical works on positive organizational change over the last ten years. As such, I think it succeeded. What it lacks for me is giving the reader a clear idea on how positive organizational change actually can be defined and what it implies. They give a lot of empirical examples, some more detailed than others, but I, as a reader without experience in the field of positive organizational change, don’t get a concrete picture of the field of POS.

The examples mostly show how positive organizational change can increase individual and organizational outcomes. But the actual implementation of this change stays vague in many cases. Is it a top-down process or does it spring from the base of the organization? Can positive organizational change happen solely on an individual level or has it got to be facilitated in an organization as a whole? These are some of the questions that I am left with and that maybe are to specific for an article of this style.

I think it is important to know about the limitations of a theory to fully understand it. The sections on “caveats” by Cameron and McNaughtan is rather brief and doesn’t go deep enough into what can’t be explained by POS for my liking.

The article is a good starting point to get an overview of POS. From here the reader has the opportunity to go into more specifics. The website by the University of Michigan, as suggested by the authors, could be a chance to deepen ones understanding of POS. The Website includes a collection of materials on positive organizational change like lectures, readings and exercises as well as the opportunity to connect with other researchers.

Source:  Cameron, Kim & Jon McNaughtan (2014). Positive Organizational Change. In: The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. 50(4). 445-462.


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