Everyone can succeed at work!
An interest in themes such as wellbeing, happiness, quality of life and positive
feelings has become germane to positive psychology, a fi eld offering studies on
the positive characteristics, feelings and strengths of individuals, and one that
also seeks to identify the nature of institutions that promote and enhance such
positive attributes (Aspinwall and Staudinger 2006 ; Seligman et al. 2005 ). In this
chapter, we introduce the background of our studies and the main concepts used.
We realise that there are numerous concepts that could describe the phenomenon
of success and that therefore there was a need for careful selection. What follows
is a brief discussion of some basic theories and concepts, as well as an introduction
to our empirical studies.
Positive psychology and success at work
Focus on the positive
Gable and Haidt ( 2005 : 104) briefl y defi ne positive psychology in the following
terms: ‘Positive psychology is the study of the conditions and processes that
contribute to the fl ourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions’.
The aim of positive psychology is to study the reasons why people feel
joy, show altruism, and create healthy families and institutions. This focus has
been criticised because it concentrates on exploring normal and healthy activities
instead of helping dysfunctional people with a variety of problems. On the other
hand, perhaps focusing on problems has taken attention away from studying why
the majority of people are actually psychologically, physically and socially
healthy – or happy, so to speak (Gable and Haidt 2005 ). Simply stated, a study
on successful workers will provide hands-on and positively-toned information
about success at work.
We will connect the concept of success with an important research target of
positive psychology, namely, happiness. Research on happiness has also increasingly
taken root. In order to understand why some people are happier, regardless
The theoretical starting point
Everyone can succeed at work
6 The theory: everyone can succeed at work
of the setbacks encountered, than others, we have to understand the cognitive and
motivational processes that maintain and even increase happiness and positive
attitudes (Lyubomirsky 2001 ). Here, success at work is dissected from a positive
Positive psychology is also interested in whether the lifespans of positively
behaving people differ from those of others. If they do, what factors play a key
role during the lifespans of strong and optimistic people, and how can these
factors be recognised? These questions are essential to research on the experiences
of successful workers and in seeking to identify the factors that have
contributed to their successful careers. An individual’s differences are traditionally
characterised by achievements as opposed to the processes in which he or she
takes part (see, for example, Feldt et al. 2005 ); the process of achieving success
at work seems extremely interesting when considered from this point of view.
We will also place the phenomenon in context and acknowledge the individual,
communal and social dimensions of success. At the subjective level, positive
psychology concentrates on subjective experiences, wellbeing, satisfaction, fl ow,
joy, pleasure and happiness, as well as on optimistic and hopeful attitudes and
confi dence in the future. At the group level, the interest is in the civic skills
and institutions that turn individuals into better citizens – responsible, fl exible and
ethical workers (Seligman 2002 ).
Turner et al . ( 2002 ) have introduced the Healthy Work Model (HWM). This heuristic
model explains how to create healthy work systems. The model presents healthy
work characteristics as good work practices, positive psychological processes and
mechanisms, as well as various health-related outcomes. Healthy work systems
require good external environments and develop strategies for good work practices
(for example, autonomy, teamwork and leadership) that enhance positive psychological
processes and other mechanisms (for example, trust, perceived control and
organisational commitment) in order to increase healthy outcomes (for example,
wellbeing and proactivity). Happiness not only produces a quantitative improvement
by increasing effi ciency but also a qualitative one by making a better product or
outcome on the basis of pride, belief and commitment to one’s job.
Positive emotions and experiences
The importance of experiencing positive emotions can be reasoned in a variety of
ways. Diener et al . ( 2009 : 187) broadly defi ne subjective wellbeing as experiencing
high levels of pleasant emotions and moods, low levels of negative emotions
and moods, and high life satisfaction. If the experience of success is considered
positive, it may be one factor that also increases wellbeing. Experiences also
relate to people’s perception of them. ‘Moods and emotions, which together are
labeled affect, represent people’s on-line evaluations of the events that occur in
their lives’ (Diener et al. 1999 : 277). For example, Fredrickson’s ( 1998 ) broadenand-
build model of positive emotions explains why the propensity to experience
positive emotions has evolved into a ubiquitous feature of human nature and how
The theory: everyone can succeed at work 7
positive emotions might be tapped to promote individual and collective wellbeing
and health. Positive emotions serve as markers of fl ourishing or optimal wellbeing
(Fredrickson 2001 ), and research on experiences can be useful for measuring
wellbeing (Kahneman et al. 2004 ; Kahneman and Krueger 2006 ).
Fredrickson ( 2001 ) considers pride as a distinct positive emotion that follows
personal achievements. In order to feel pride one has to succeed; in other words,
one must experience success. Likewise, Lyubomirsky et al . ( 2005 ) claim that
positive affect or regard engenders success; positive emotions signify that one’s
life is going well and goals are being met.
Therefore, goals are also important for the emergence of the experience of
success; the types of goals one has, the structure of one’s goals, the success with
which one is able to attain one’s goals, and the rate of progress toward one’s goals
can all potentially affect one’s emotions and life satisfaction. The general conceptual
model is that people react in positive ways when they make progress toward
goals and react negatively when they fail to achieve goals. Thus, a central idea is
that goals serve as an important reference standard for the affect system (Diener
et al. 1999 ).
Positive feelings and experiences support problem-solving skills and the ability
to operate in an innovative way. The importance and potential of this may seem
surprising, as feelings of happiness are simple and common in nature (Isen 2006 ).
Considering the issue in the context of work, there are such interesting and useful
concepts as work engagement (referring to work drive) (see Hakanen 2002 ;
Hakanen et al . 2008 ; Schaufeli et al . 2002 ), fl ow (Csikszentmihalyi 2008 ;
Csikszentmihalyi et al . 2005 ), and joy of work (Varila and Lehtosaari 2001 ). All
these concepts describe a positive feeling toward work that one may experience
after active, motivated and engaged working, and which we will discuss in detail
later in this book. According to Isen ( 2001 ; see also Isen and Reeve 2006 ), positive
feelings sustain intrinsic motivation and help with successfully performing
pleasing work tasks and new challenges as well as enjoying them. However, this
does not mean that one would not accomplish less interesting tasks any less
responsibly. These concepts help with understanding the kinds of actions that
may lead to the experience of success. But fi rst we look at a favorable way of
achieving success, namely, optimism.
Optimism is one of the core concepts of positive psychology (Peterson 2000 ) and
affects how people pursue goals; if they believe their goals are achievable, they
are optimistic (Carver and Scheier 2002 ). This is why the concept of optimism is
often confused with hope. Gillham and Reivich ( 2004 ) explain that the difference
between these two concepts is that hope is often defi ned as a wish for something
with some expectation that it will happen, while optimism is typically defi ned as
a tendency or disposition to expect the best. Thus, hope typically refers to
expectations in a specifi c situation, while optimism refers to general expectations.
8 The theory: everyone can succeed at work
Peterson and Luthans ( 2003 ) consider optimism a vital part of hope, but emphasise
that they still are distinctively separate concepts.
Optimism therefore determines how we experience events. The author of The
Happiness Advantage , Shawn Achor ( 2010 : 109), develops a remarkable notion:
‘By scanning our mental map for positive opportunities, and by rejecting the
belief that every down in life leads us only further downward, we give ourselves
the greatest power possible’. This means that people have a habitual way of
explaining events (Peterson 2000 ; Peterson et al . 1988 ).
Peterson ( 2000 ) suggests that instead of clinging to a pessimistic explanatory
style, an optimistic one deserves more attention. Furthermore, he separates ‘little
optimism’ from ‘big optimism’ as optimism may function differently depending
on the level. Little optimism seems to be connected to concrete events, and this
is also interesting from the point of view of the experiences of success. Big optimism
provides a general state, ‘vigor’ (see also Pajares 2001 ), whereas little
optimism leads to desirable outcomes in concrete situations (Peterson 2000 ).
Optimism is shown to be connected to higher life satisfaction, health, perseverance,
and resilience, whereas pessimism has connection to depression (Reivich
and Gillham 2003 ; Reivich et al. 2013 ). Still, like too much pessimism, too much
optimism is also likely to be harmful. Optimism and pessimism are also closely
related to the phenomenon of ‘learned helplessness’. Seligman ( 1990 ) observed
that individuals who were exposed to uncontrollable negative events often overgeneralised
from this experience and became passive in other situations that were,
in fact, controllable. He also discovered that the behaviour can be turned the other
way round too, into ‘learned hopefulness’ or, in other words, ‘learned optimism’.
Dispositional optimism refers to a general tendency to expect positive outcomes,
and these positive expectations can partly result from the individual’s belief that
he or she can control good outcomes (Gillham and Reivich 2004 ).
It has also been argued that the best results in life can be achieved with ‘realistic
optimism’ (see Schneider 2001 ). Realistic optimism involves enhancing and
focusing on the favorable aspects of our experiences. Consequently, Schneider
( 2001 : 253) includes the awareness of reality in optimism by stating that ‘realistic
optimism involves hoping, aspiring, and searching for positive experiences while
acknowledging what we do not know and accepting what we cannot know’. It is
worth noticing that realistic, positive expectations closely relate to self-awareness
and self-knowledge as well as to the concept of self-effi cacy, which refers to an
expectation that one’s behaviour will be effective (Bandura 1997 ). We will
discuss these factors in greater detail later in this chapter. When considering the
phenomenon of success at work, realistic optimism may be particularly important
as it can considerably predict the likelihood of achieving future goals and plans.
P eople strive for success
According to Krueger ( 1990 ), success can be considered the fullest expression of
mastery in any area of life. However, the concept is not that easily approachable; for
The theory: everyone can succeed at work 9
instance, what factors form the elements of success? To begin constructing the
defi nition of success at work, the fi rst step is to think about and choose between
certain psychological concepts that foster positive emotions, and that are acquired
through feelings of mastery and inner drive, which perhaps form the core of success.
Indeed, there are numerous theories that explain the connection between mastery
and performance that can be viewed from the point of view of success. Psychological
research is replete with concepts that defi ne human action, motives, as well as the
outcomes of these, which can all be seen as manifestations of mastery and performance;
but the suggestion here is that their common nominator, the umbrella term,
could be success.
Naturally, there are also external factors that infl uence all the aforementioned
states and behaviours. For example, encouraging learning environments, loving
parents or supportive workplaces are likely to enhance one’s success, while underestimating,
oppressive or unstable environments are likely to hinder such positive
development. Therefore, this review will include a perspective on the individual
person’s success as always context-bound. What follows is a detailed introduction
of these concepts. They are partly overlapping and interconnected; in other words,
they complement each other and coalesce in such a way as to form the heart of
Success is about competence
Originally, White ( 1959 ) utilised the concept of competence to describe a
person’s ability to perform effi ciently in his or her environment. In order to do
that, one’s development must be seen as the acquisition of greater competence,
and the subjective side of competence is the sense of competence. Deci and
Moller ( 2005 ) view the concept from the perspective of motivation psychology
and have complemented White’s thoughts by adding the need for competence as
one dimension of competence. The term ‘intrinsic motivation’ refers to this need.
Deci and Ryan ( 2008 ) have later shown that autonomous motivation predicts
persistence and adherence and is advantageous for effective performance.
Furthermore, this is shown to be related to psychological health.
Adler ( 1982 ) is credited with an early defi nition of the elements of competence,
which provides a good way of analysing the multidimensional nature of the
concept. Perhaps the most important element of an individual’s competence is the
ability to perform the social roles that the community and society have set for
each and every one of us. The second element is self-conception. A competent
person has a stable and well-developed identity that includes awareness of his or
her strengths and weaknesses, an optimistic conception of the relationship with
the surrounding world, and a realistic understanding of his or her abilities to
control his or her destiny. The third element consists of interaction skills, which
include communication, credibility and reliability, sensitivity and empathy, and
negotiation skills. The fourth element is the ability to regulate emotions, especially
the negative ones such as fear, frustration, anger and guilt, and to learn to
10 The theory: everyone can succeed at work
recognise and control inappropriate reactions to these emotions. The fi fth dimension
of competence is the ability to develop and move from one developmental
stage to another. The sixth element refers to the ability to cope with stressful
experiences, life crises and other events that one cannot prevent or infl uence. The
seventh element is the ability to acquire the resources that one needs in order to
get through a certain phase.
The last element of competence is cognitive skills, that is, the ability to work
with words, concepts, symbols and to process information. Causal thinking and
planning, as well as understanding of social reality and social problem-solving
skills, are important areas of competence (Adler 1982 ).
Competence is also related to how people perceive their control over the
activities and tasks they undertake (for example, Paulsson et al . 2005 ). Karasek’s
(see Karasek and Theorell 1990 ) model of work-control shows that in situations
in which people have a high-strain job with high demands and low control, they
cannot meet challenges effi ciently. On the other hand, while a low-strain job with
low demands and high control enables optimal responses to challenges, it is not
likely to bring about satisfaction or wellbeing. A passive job has low control and
low mental strain and people can feel that their skills and abilities are misspent
and not optimally utilised. A state of indifference and lack of challenges can
expand to other areas of life as people lose the courage to develop and test their
skills. In active jobs, people have a signifi cant amount of mental strain but also
high control. They can utilise their abilities, which may, for example, lead to the
experience of total concentration and absorption, i.e., ‘fl ow’ (Csikszentmihalyi
2008 ; Csikszentmihalyi et al . 2005 ).
When considered from the point of view of success, competence combined
with opportunities to actively use skills and strengths – whether at work, in
leisure, at school, in parenting, etc. – could be one of the core elements of
success. Naturally, it is also about the person himself or herself and whether he
or she is ready to seize challenges.
Success is about motivation
The role of motivation has already been mentioned in the previous section as one
of the core elements of competence. Indeed, motivation is also a crucial element
of success. Fundamentally, motivation can be considered a critical factor in any
theory attempting to predict and explain behaviour and performance (Mitchell
1997 ). The ability to predict, understand and infl uence employees’ motivation has
increased markedly, and modern psychological studies try to pay attention to
work motivation in a comprehensive manner (Latham and Pinder 2005 ).
Actually, it is quite easy to list various obvious reasons why people work in the
fi rst place: work provides your daily bread, it activates and stimulates, it is a
source of social contacts, it is a way of structuring one’s time management, and
it can also be rewarding (Furnham 1992 ). These factors do not, however, say
much about the motivation that lies behind the foundation of true success at work.
The theory: everyone can succeed at work 11
According to Eccles and Wigfi eld ( 2002 ; see also Campbell and Pritchard
1976 ), success can be discussed from four theoretical dimensions related to motivation.
First, many theories (such as Bandura 1997 ) focus on individual employees’
belief in their talents and effi ciency, the likelihood of success or failure, and
the sense of being able to control their work results. All this starts from the question
‘Can I handle this task?’ When people are aware of their talents, they actually
do perform better and are more willing to seize new challenges.
The second theoretical viewpoint is based on engagement, which has not been
considered in the theories of personal beliefs. Even if people knew that they could
successfully perform a task, they would not necessarily have a compelling need
to do it (Eccles and Wigfi eld 2002 ) – in other words, they may not be interested
in it. Many recent studies have shown, for example, how the sense of meaningful
work, brought on by power and responsibility, can enable employees to become
engaged in their work. The worker becomes like an entrepreneur; through
engagement, he or she takes success as his or her goal. Engagement theories, in
other words theories answering the question ‘why’, include intrinsic motivation
theories and goal theories (see, for example, Deci et al. 1991 ; Latham and Pinder
2005 ). The benefi ts of this kind of positive approach are clear; it leads to greater
persistence, greater fl exibility in strategies to reach a goal, greater creativity in
solutions, better outcomes, and higher subjective wellbeing (Schneider 2001 ).
Intrinsic motivation describes the need to learn new things and skills and to
develop toward greater autonomy, competence and self-determination. It also
includes the structure of personality and the development of motivation. Action
that is intrinsically motivated is experience valued as such. Action has an intrinsic
attribution and, thus, it does not threaten the feeling of autonomy, thereby leading
to satisfaction and positive experiences. Moreover, intrinsic motivation is not
regulated by extrinsic rewards or punishments, but doing becomes self-purposeful
(Ryan and Deci 2000a, 2000b).
The positive experience connected to motivation and doing is worthy of further
investigation. For example, in the 1990s, Locke and Latham ( 1990 ) introduced a
theory in which they combined work motivation and work satisfaction and called
the model the ‘high performance cycle’. The cycle starts by giving an employee
a challenging task. If the challenge includes an expectation of success, high
performance is guaranteed, assuming that the employee is engaged in the goal,
receives adequate feedback, and situational factors do not considerably affect
performance. Similar fi ndings have resulted from various educational experiments
(for example, Gilpin 2008 ; Green et al. 2012 ; Oades et al. 2011 ) and
hobbies (for example, Carruthers and Hood 2005 ).
Thirdly, there are theories that combine expectations and value constructs (for
example, Weiner 1992 ). Expectation value refers to an evaluation of the outcome
of action and the likelihood of achieving the outcome (Mitchell 1997 ). These
theories are based on the idea that employees are more interested in the outcomes
of work than working itself (Eccles and Wigfi eld 2002 ). In addition to achievements
and related outcomes, the goal or the benefi t value can be appreciation and
12 The theory: everyone can succeed at work
better self-esteem. For example, Covington’s ( 1992 : 74) self-worth theory
supposes that ‘individuals are thought to be only as worthy as their achievements’.
Expectation value also includes an assessment of the instrumentality
between the fundamental goal (for example the performance) and the secondary
outcome (for example salary or promotion), and of the valence of these
secondary outcomes (Mitchell 1997 ).
Theories that combine motivation and cognition (for example, Rosenthal
and Zimmerman 1978 ) provide a different perspective on success because they
are interested in an individual’s ways of regulating his or her behaviour and
using cognitive strategies in order to achieve his or her goals (Eccles and
Wigfi eld 2002 ).
Mitchell ( 1997 ) has presented a useful theory of work motivation that deserves
a closer look. According to his interpretation, work motivation includes various
components such as, for example, needs, goals, expectations, fairness, rewards,
social infl uences and work description. He lists seven features that can explain a
high motivation level in a work situation: the situation has to (1) correspond to
the employee’s needs, (2) involve goals, (3) reward for a good performance, (4)
be fair and equal, (5) include stimulating tasks, (6) involve colleagues who also
work diligently, and (7) have an accepting atmosphere with an emphasis on hard
work and engagement. The employee responds to the work situation with his or
her skills, knowledge, goals, values and mood, whereas the work context includes
the work task, colleagues, work environment and culture. When added together,
these categories can infl uence motivation. Motivation, together with abilities,
work knowledge and context-bound factors, leads to behaviour, which again
leads to performance – one of the cornerstones in considerations of success.
Mitchell ( 1997 ) emphasises that all theories that attempt to describe performance,
whether they are belief, goal, effi ciency or expectation value theories,
share certain features. Goals describe what we want to do, self-effi cacy describes
what we think we can do and expectations describe our best evaluation of the
consequences our action can have. All these infl uence motivation, either directly
or indirectly, and are also connected to effort, attention, persistence and
Success is about good performance
Performance is often confused with its neighbouring concepts such as competence,
behaviour or action. It is crucial to realise the differences between them.
Performance is the result of behaviour; it is something measurable and comparable,
and a clearly defi nable result. This idea is based on the fi nding that positive
experiences concerning one’s own doing make for one of the most central dimensions
of good performance (Uusiautti 2008 ; Uusiautti and Määttä 2011 ; see also
Liden et al . 2000 ). It is important to analyse some of the core concepts that might
help with an understanding of the positive experience of doing. Competence,
indeed, is often confused with performance, but they are not synonymous (Kanfer
The theory: everyone can succeed at work 13
and Ackerman 2005 ). Competence refers to a more stable state or to a person’s
characteristic. Performance is a momentary happening and can vary according to
many factors, even if competence is high in relation to the task at hand.
Kanfer and Ackerman ( 2005 ) distinguish two dimensions of performance:
maximal and typical performance. The former refers to a person’s skills and
abilities and describes all that the person can do when inner states (for example,
sleep, concentration, etc.) are optimal and when it is possible to concentrate on
the task. The latter dimension is typical behaviour, which refers to how the person
usually does things or how he or she is likely to perform. The researchers point
out that although maximal performance is an interesting research target, it would
perhaps be more benefi cial to pay attention to the difference between what the
person can do and what he or she actually does. In Kanfer and Ackerman’s ( 2005 )
model, performance consists of various factors, namely, abilities, skills and
knowledge, personality, motivation and self-image. Motivation is affected by
personal interest and general motivational tendencies. Performance lays the foundation
for a learning mechanism that is connected to features that increase
competence (see also Stoltenberg 2005 ).
The concept of self-effi cacy is also closely related to competence and performance.
Self-effi cacy means a person’s assessment of his or her own abilities to
use his or her resources and to regulate his or her behaviour in order to perform
a task (Caprara and Cervone 2006 ; Judge et al . 1997 ; Mitchell 1997 ). It is therefore
similar to the aforementioned sense of competence. It has been shown that
positive self-effi cacy improves a person’s performance and wellbeing in numerous
ways (Schunk and Pajares 2005 ). People who have high self-effi cacy devote
more to their activities and persevere more than those who estimate that their
competence is weaker. In addition, people with high self-effi cacy are likely to
select more high-level goals and engage in them (Bandura 1997 ; Mitchell 1997 ).
High self-effi cacy, as the manifestation of accurate recognition of one’s skills and
abilities, is also related to how optimistically and realistically one can estimate
one’s performances (Shepperd et al . 1996 ).
Work engagement – referring to work drive – can be used to describe wellbeing
and positive experiences at work. Schaufeli et al . ( 2002 ) have defi ned work
engagement as a positive, fulfi lling, work-related state of mind that includes three
sub-scales: vigor, dedication and absorption. Vigor refers to high levels of energy
and willingness to work well in typical and in challenging, confl ict-fi lled situations.
It could be described as the feeling of ‘bursting with energy’ when working.
Dedication refers to having experiences such as appreciation for your work
and being fi lled with enthusiasm and inspiration. Absorption refers to having a
deep focus on work and the pleasure that follows the completion of work (see also
Hakanen 2002 ; Hakanen et al . 2008 ).
Work engagement, when understood from this defi nition, is similar to the
concept of fl ow (see Csikszentmihalyi 2008 ). Flow is a subjective state of feeling
control – or, better yet, feeling that you can act without any control, without
hindrance (Csikszentmihalyi et al . 2005 ). According to Gardner et al . ( 2001 ),
14 The theory: everyone can succeed at work
contrary to common belief, fl ow is more often experienced at work than in
leisure. Furthermore, features such as gender and cultural norms affect the experience
of fl ow. However, here, the focus is on the experience of fl ow at work.
Flow at work is usually experienced when goals are high and feedback is immediate
and fair. In addition, the work itself has to include continuous challenges
that match employees’ skills. Nevertheless, fl ow is a temporary feeling, whereas
work engagement is a more stable and comprehensive state that does not
focus on any particular task, behaviour, or individual. Flow is equivalent to
absorption from the sub-scales of work engagement (Csikszentmihalyi 2008 ;
Hakanen 2002 ).
Success is about positive strategies
Although top performances or steady, quality performance can lead to success, it
can also be seen as a more comprehensive process. Namely, people who want to
develop and seize opportunities in life can be seen as following a positive strategy.
This is an interesting perspective on the phenomenon of success. Carver and
Scheier ( 2005 ) have pointed out that it is also important that people realise when
goals can be met and when it is time to give up. Ultimately, it is about the ability
to estimate the situation and act accordingly. Likewise, future expectations
greatly affect how people react to changes and challenges. An optimistic attitude
plays a salient role (Carver and Scheier 2002 ), however, the strategy of success
can also be described in other ways.
For example, Locke ( 2002 ) claims that success requires persistent trials. One
has to think about what a desirable goal is and why, what kinds of intermediate
goals should be set, how to reach the goal, how to prioritise demands that are
contradictory in relation to the goal, how to overcome future obstacles and
setbacks – how to achieve a dream?
Baltes and Freund ( 2006 ; see also Freund and Baltes 1998 ) refer to the SOC
model, which provides a general framework for understanding developmental
change and resilience across one’s lifespan. The fundamental idea is that people’s
lives are awash opportunities and limitations that can be ‘mastered adaptively as
an orchestration of three components: selection, optimization, and compensation’
(Freund and Baltes 1998 : 531) – SOC.
On the other hand, Covey ( 2006 ) considers success as a strategy in which
knowledge, skills and will are combined. Knowledge answers the question of
what to do and why. Skills can make it happen whereas will is synonymous with
motivation or the need to achieve something. As these three dimensions meet, a
strategy leading to success can emerge.
Naturally, the constant pursuit of success can lead to an endless treadmill. The
theory of the hedonic treadmill (see Brickman et al . 1978 ; Diener et al . 2006 )
claims that people constantly strive for a happier life because they believe that
greater happiness awaits right around the corner from achieving the next goal or
solving the next problem. Success is there but not yet achieved.
The theory: everyone can succeed at work 15
Success happens in context
Even though one possessed the most exquisite level of competence and high
motivation, one is still tied to a certain time and place. Behaviour depends on
context and outcome. In addition, contexts are dynamic and change during an
individual’s lifespan (Baltes and Freund 2006 ). However, according to selfdetermination
theory (SDT), people are by nature active and self-motivated, curious
and interested, vital and eager to succeed because success itself is personally
satisfying and rewarding (Deci and Ryan 2008 ).
Context-bound factors can be viewed from two perspectives: fi rst, there is the
actual work context; second, an employee’s personal development always
happens in context. The actual work context always infl uences work motivation
and the ways that employees perceive and experience their work. Considered
from the point of view of success, certain features, such as interesting or challenging
work, could be keys.
Notwithstanding, there are several characterisations of work. In the 1970s,
Kaufman ( 1974 ) noticed that work-related challenges were also positively correlated
with work performance, professional expertise and competence later in
one’s career. Ever since, researchers have agreed that work involving the right
amount of challenges can increase productivity and motivation. In addition to
challenges, work outcomes should somehow be measurable or recognisable (by
others too). Moreover, responsibility and opportunities for self-development
boost motivation, satisfaction and engagement (see, for example, Almost and
Spence Laschinger 2002 ; Spence Laschinger et al . 2004 ) and, according to
Laubach ( 2005 ), these features are best realisable in informal organisations in
which employers can offer autonomy, fl exible schedules and an opportunity to
participate in decision-making.
Indeed, good performances and motivated working not only depend on the
employee but also on the contents of work and the conditions in the workplace
(Latham and Pinder 2005 ). On the other hand, there are also different kinds of
jobs and, for example, in monotonous or predictable jobs, autonomy is not likely
to be a very important feature.
Hackman and Oldham ( 1976 ) have defi ned three core dimensions of work,
namely, autonomy, the nature of tasks, feedback, the signifi cance of tasks and the
selection of required skills. These dimensions infl uence three psychological states:
the experience of the importance of the work, responsibility over the results and
awareness of the real consequences of the work. The fundamental idea is that an
employee, for example John, will perceive his work positively if he knows that he
has performed well in a task he considered important. John’s personal need for
growth speaks to how powerfully he reacts to the psychological states. Thus, the
dimensions of work and psychological states have impact on both individual and
work outcomes; these are high work motivation, high performances at work and
high work satisfaction, and little absenteeism and turnover of workers.
As a matter of fact, jobs that require high performance, without the attendance
of negative psychological strain, offer good opportunities for controlling one’s
16 The theory: everyone can succeed at work
work, allow employees to utilise their skills and provide the scope to develop and
learn new skills. Karasek and Theorell ( 1990 ) call them ‘active jobs’. We think
that active jobs can present an opportunity for success but, naturally, it is also a
matter for an employee himself or herself and whether he or she is ready to seize
the opportunities provided by an active job.
This leads us back to the individual. Moving from a particular work context to
a wider perspective on success requires an acknowledgement of interactions with
the surrounding environment in one’s positive development. Every one of us has
a personal history; we have not become like this in the wink of an eye, and we
take our entire background with us to the workplace. Some of us have learned to
perceive challenges positively, while others tend to stick to the familiar.
Development, including positive development, always happens in context.
Magnusson and Mahoney ( 2006 ) present four theses on the nature of phenomena
when dissecting positive development, all of which can also be relevant for
the conceptualisation of success. First, the individual acts and develops as an
active, intentional part of the integrated, multidimensional, dynamic and adaptive
person-environment system. The nature of this system changes along one’s lifespan
through developmental processes, societal changes and as a result of constant
individual-environment interaction processes. Second, the individual develops
along the course of time as an integrated, undivided organism within a multidimensional,
dynamic, adaptive, maturing and learning process. This interaction
process involves mental, biological and behavioural factors of the individual and
social, cultural and physical features of the environment. Third, the preconditions
provided by the environment, including the possibilities, limitations, demands
and expectations, are especially important for research on positive development.
Fourth is the theoretical model that aims to explain that a human being’s positive
development has to include and integrate his or her mental, biological and behavioural
aspects as well as the physical, social and cultural features of this individual’s
environment (Magnusson and Mahoney 2006 ).
These viewpoints felicitously highlight the basic idea of positive development
from the point of view of success. Positive development cannot be defi ned without
referring to the individual but merely that attention must be paid to natural
features, resources and limitations within his or her cultural, physical and historical
context (Magnusson and Mahoney 2006 ).
What this means is that success, when considered from this positive point of
view, also needs to be seen in context. First, the processes have a holistic nature that
means that success is merely a result of the functional interaction of its elements
rather than how each element infl uences entity. Second, the inner processes, such
as mental, biological and behavioural functions, and outer processes, such as opportunities,
obligations and rules, and how well these processes are synchronised,
contribute to the possibility of success.
It is therefore relevant to ask whether the lifespans of positively acting people
differ from those of others and, if they do, how. Basically, the discussion of the
phenomenon of success seeks to analyse how it can be enhanced, the ways of
The theory: everyone can succeed at work 17
conceptualising it as positive development and, most importantly, it opens up
discussion on how the elements can be recognised. The next chapters will sink
some teeth into this interesting matter.
Top workers: who are they?
We have now introduced the fundamental ideas directing our research on success.
But how do they appear in practice, if at all? Understood as the result of an inner
drive to work well and as an expression of mastery, success is an indication of
positive attitudes and wellbeing at work. Given such a defi nition, everyone has an
equal chance to succeed at work; in other words, more people would be considered
Experience has already shown that healthier and more satisfi ed employees
work better (Rissa 2007 ). However, not everyone’s goal of success at work is the
same, and a variety of motivating factors can be recognised. One may aim to earn
a living, the another’s goal may be to achieve top expertise in his or her professional
fi eld, to enhance the quality of life, or to strive for a personally signifi cant
long-term goal (Locke 2002 ) – not to mention that success is experienced
subjectively and that personal achievements are evaluated in different ways
(Maddux 2002 ).
The purpose of this book is to introduce the positive sides of work: how you
can not only manage your work life, but also succeed. We will introduce our
empirical research on the phenomenon. Although we take a specifi c viewpoint of
success, it is not very straightforward to fi nd suitable people to represent top
workers. How do you defi ne whether someone has achieved success at work or
not? Who can defi ne this?
How to study success at work?
As referenced in the introduction to this book, we considered any employee in
any occupation as having the chance to succeed. However, in order to fi nd the top
workers, we could not just go into workplaces to interview employees. Instead,
we decided to contact workers who had received a top-worker award in their
fi eld. Every now and then in Finland – and we know that the same is true for
numerous other countries – people are selected as excellent workers in their
specifi c fi elds.
The main research on which this book is based included participants who
represented top workers from different occupations (see Uusiautti 2008 ). Each
participant was nominated ‘Employee of the Year’ by Finnish labour unions as
most Finnish workers are members of a labour union in their respective fi elds.
These top workers were considered representatives of successful workers and
suitable informants for describing their experiences of success at work. The selection
of successful employees was not done by the researchers, thereby ensuring
that there was public justifi cation for selecting the participants. The criteria for
18 The theory: everyone can succeed at work
the award of ‘Employee of the Year’ were gathered for the 20 occupations from
which the participants were chosen (examples of these professions include fi elds
such as psychology, policing, teaching, etc.). The criteria were mostly found on
the internet, but some of them were obtained through email inquiries to the labour
We will now briefl y introduce how the participants were described with reference
to the criteria for Employee of the Year. In different occupations, the award
emphasised different qualities that could be categorised into three groups. Firstly,
having a high professional standard was named as one of the most important
qualities among the participants. Regarding this quality, expertise was recognised
as referring not only to excellent work quality but also to the ability to actively
develop one’s work and skills. The following occupations best represented this
theme: priest, police offi cer, nurse and psychologist. The second group consisted
of employees’ actions that led to making their work and occupation recognised.
Examples of these actions included paying attention to the contents of the occupation
(for example work tasks), publicly discussing current topics regarding
their occupational fi eld, and facilitating the recognition of Finnish profi ciency
abroad. For example, the criteria for the ‘Artisan of the Year’, ‘Journalist of the
Year’, and ‘Athlete of the Year’ awards typifi ed this theme. The difference
between these two themes was that the fi rst emphasised winners who had developed
their fi eld through their own professional development, while the second
emphasised winners who used their profi ciency to gain publicity.
Some of the rewarded employees were selected not by their colleagues but
through competitions. These competitions differ remarkably, depending on the
occupation (for example ‘Chef of the Year’ and ‘Cleaner of the Year’). However,
one feature was common among them, namely, professional skills in several
sectors were evaluated (for example, customer service skills and working methods)
as these depicted core occupational expertise. In other words, only a true
professional can win this kind of competition. Therefore, employees who had
won a competition were also asked to participate in this research. On the other
hand, employees who had been selected for these competitions from their workplace
had also already been nominated by their colleagues as excellent workers.
In addition to the three themes mentioned above, the criteria for ‘Employee of
the Year’ awards can be studied by analysing the specifi c words describing the
awards. Three different categories were found: attributes that described top workers,
action-related attributes and profession-specifi c qualifi ers. The most common
attributes were adjectives such as competent, innovative, punctual, celebrated,
effective, open-minded and social. Action-related descriptions covered factors
such as developing work and occupation, improving one’s occupation, making
one’s occupation noted in Finland and abroad, dedication to one’s occupation and
active cooperation. Profession-specifi c qualifi ers were language profi ciency, tidiness,
expertise, care for one’s own and others’ wellbeing at work, punctuality, a
well-functioning business idea, courage to create new ideas, cooperation skills
and service skills. Top workers’ attributes were essentially words that described
The theory: everyone can succeed at work 19
employees, regardless of occupation. Action-related attributes paid attention to
how an employee had been working or what an employee had done in order to
earn the nomination. Profession-specifi c qualifi ers referred directly to occupation
and specifi c profession-bound skills. Thus, one qualifi er could describe several
occupations but with different meanings (for example, tidiness can be considered
differently among taxi drivers, chefs and cleaners).
It was interesting to note that the criteria for Employee of the Year did not
differ substantially between fi elds. The aim of this introduction was to give an
idea of the kinds of characteristics emphasised in the criteria. Nevertheless, it is
worth deliberating on how much this actually framed the picture of successful
employees used in this research, as winners of Employee of the Year awards
were, and still are, mainly selected by their own labour unions. For example,
making one’s occupation renowned can be advantageous for a particular union,
thereby infl uencing one’s chances of being selected. Additionally, persons who
are more sociable could be seen as more appealing, further infl uencing the likelihood
of their selection for Employee of the Year.
Nonetheless, and most importantly, Employee of the Year winners are top
workers rewarded in their own fi elds. Thus, they constitute a group of successful
and excellent workers.
The data and analyses
The research consisted of two phases. In the fi rst phase, success at work was
analysed by focusing on motivation as well as on work engagement. In addition,
those work characteristics considered most rewarding by participants were studied.
The participants were nominated employees of the year in a variety of occupational
fi eld 1 . Altogether, 44 employees were contacted. Of this fi gure, 16 participated by
answering the questionnaires. Five of them were men and 11 were women. Seven
of those who responded to the questionnaires were interviewed during the fi rst
phase of the study. Participants were between 29 and 71 years old (mean = 49).
Their occupations represented different fi elds and could be divided into the following
professional groups: academic occupations, artistic occupations and labourers.
The research used a mixed-methods approach (see, for example, Creswell
2002 ; Teddlie and Tashakkori 2003 ). Data were collected via questionnaires and
interviews. Questionnaires consisted of both quantitative and qualitative sections.
The quantitative section was designed to assist answering the open-ended questions.
The participants were asked to describe:
• their experiences about their work (How do you usually feel about your work
[for example, rewarding/frustrating, interesting/boring] and why?);
• the significance of their work (How important do you consider your work,
• their job satisfaction (Are you usually satisfied with your work, and why?
Please, also write about what inspires you about your work);
20 The theory: everyone can succeed at work
• work-related challenges (Is your work challenging? Do you think that you
are capable of handling these challenges? How so?);
• whether their work was rewarding (Is your work rewarding?);
• the most important characteristics of their work (Mention three things that
you consider to be most important about your work. Why have you chosen
this particular work/occupation?);
• themselves as workers (In your opinion, what kind of employee are you?
Please describe yourself as a worker).
The interviews were based on the questionnaires and were qualitative theme
interviews, i.e., all themes included in the interviews were decided beforehand,
but the order and form of the questions were not (Hirsjärvi et al . 2000 ). In other
words, the interviewer ensured that all the predetermined topics were discussed,
but the order and extent could vary (Eskola and Vastamäki 2001 ). In this research,
the researcher analysed the questionnaires before each interview and, based on
that analysis, determined the focus of each interview. For example, if a participant
had found it diffi cult to answer a certain question on the questionnaire, that
theme was discussed more thoroughly in an interview. Therefore, the themes in
the interviews were the same for everyone (work motivation, experiences about
work and participants’ characteristics as workers) but were given varying degrees
of emphasis according to the participants’ answers on the questionnaires.
In this research, the data were analysed through qualitative content analysis
with predetermined categories derived from a theoretical background (such as ,
for example, the key concepts mentioned). Qualitative content analysis emphasises
a relevant selection and rational organisation of categories (Kracauer 1952 ;
Mayring 2000 ). This formed the basis for analysis. Furthermore, these categories
were divided into reasonable subcategories that emerged in the data (based on the
number of references).
The second phase of the research concentrated on the process of becoming a
top worker. In this phase, the employees of the year (n = 8) were Nurse of the
Year, Farmer of the Year, Police Offi cer of the Year (n = 2), Psychologist of the
Year, Priest of the Year (n = 2) and Artisan of the Year. Six of them were men
and two were women. Participants were between 36 and 64 years old (mean =
49). In the interviews, the participants were asked to discuss the following
themes: factors that enhance success, diffi culties and obstacles they had
confronted, and choices and decisions they had made during the course of their
lives. As this was a piece of narrative research, the data were collected using
Narrative research can be defi ned as research that utilises or analyses data
collected via narratives (for example, biographies) or other similar ways (for
example, anthropologists’ observational narratives). Thus, a narrative can be
either a research object or a means to study a phenomenon (Lieblich, Tuval-
Mashiach, and Zilber 1998 ). Narrative research does not focus on objective and
generalized facts but on local, personal, and subjective information – this is
The theory: everyone can succeed at work 21
considered a strength of narrative research because informants’ voices can be
heard authentically (Guba and Lincoln 1994 ). Narratives can also be used when
analyzing the reasons for actions (Moilanen 2002 ). To best serve this research the
narrative interview was complemented with characteristics of the themed interview,
thereby aiming at a thick description of the phenomenon of success at work
(see Rubin and Rubin 1995 ).
Polkinghorne ( 1995 ) distinguishes the analysis of narratives and narrative
analysis. The former means categorising by types, for example, and metaphors.
The latter refers to the composition of a new narrative based on various original
narratives. Both of these analytical methods were used in this research. On the
one hand, the participants’ narratives were categorised by predetermined categories
and, on the other hand, a narrative of becoming a top worker was composed
(see also Kuusela 2003 ).
In this research, an analysis of narratives and narrative analyses was conducted.
The analysis consisted of narrative structuring, which tries to put together a cohesive
narrative of experiences and events during interviews (Kvale 1997 ).
Furthermore, the analysis typifi ed a category-content-focused approach, with
parts of narratives being placed in different categories (Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiac,
and Zilber, 1998 ).
As the participant group was quite a selective one, some reliability issues need
to be addressed. To what extent are the stories of top workers biased? Certainly,
they already had a particular attitude and idea of the purpose of the study when they
answered the questionnaire and were interviewed. Indeed, the aim was to study
their positive experiences, although the themes and questions did also cover negative
happenings. However, they were regarded as top workers, examples of
successful people, and that starting point may have affected their responses.
However, especially in the interviews, the participants thoroughly contemplated
their experiences. In the second phase, in particular, when they described their
entire life stories, their answers could not have been structured entirely on the basis
of extrinsic norms or expectations and were thus considered reliable and valuable.
Furthermore, when the participants describe their experiences of success, there was
no reason to think that they were not be honest. Consequently, the question was
merely about what the participants considered so important that it was worth telling.
Studies on the factors contributing to success at work
Research on employees of the year forms the main study on which this book is
grounded. However, we have complemented and viewed the phenomenon of
success from various perspectives, especially in Chapter 5 when we discuss external
factors that infl uence the process. We include Professor Kaarina Määttä’s
research on Finnish married couples (N = 342) who had been married for more
than ten years. In her study, couples, inspired by a writing competition arranged
by a Finnish magazine, wrote about the secret of their own long-lasting marriage,
as well as the variety of solutions they had tried in terms of combining work and
22 The theory: everyone can succeed at work
family. The theoretical basis of the study was grounded in many theories and
previous research on marital quality and marital stability, especially Sternberg’s
Triangular theory of Love ( 1986 ), the Love is a Story theory (Sternberg, 1999 ),
Gottman’s publications (1994; 1999), and A Vulnerability-Stress-Adaption Model
of Marriage by Karney and Bradbury ( 1995 ). The participants were a good representation
of the gamut of Finnish married couples; they represented different age
groups, most of them had been married for 10-15 years, and they had one or two
children. For many of the writers, this was their fi rst marriage; for others, this was
at least their second marriage. The stories did not only describe the bright sides of
marriage; there were also some rough experiences and survival stories. What they
had in common was that the relationships endured more than ten years. The data
analysis was based on inductive content analysis and the qualitative categorising
of the written stories. In addition, the question about the kinds of solutions couples
employed in order to combine work and family produced interesting results.
In Chapters 4 and 5 we also lean on a research project called ‘Love-based
Leadership – An Interdisciplinary Approach,’ which focuses on enhancing
employees’ happiness at work by supporting their individual strengths and creating
productive work communities that are ready for change – thus, the starting
point and emphasis is on an individual. This study approach can be identifi ed
within the area of positive psychology called positive organisational behaviour
(POB) (see Youssef and Luthans 2007 ). Luthans ( 2002 : 59) defi nes POB as ‘the
study and application of positively oriented human resource strengths and
psychological capacities that can be measured, developed, and effectively
managed for performance improvement in today’s workplace’. The viewpoint is
interested in positivity and psychological resources that illustrate capacity that
must be theory- and research-based and validly measurable as well as ‘state-like’
(i.e., open to change and development) and have a demonstrated performance
impact. This viewpoint offers a great addition to the analysis of the process of
becoming a successful worker.
In this study, 13 leaders were interviewed. The interviews consisted of four
themes, from leaders’ strengths to their understanding of caring leadership, and
from positive and love-based work communities to interrelationships between
positive, appreciative and happy experiences and leadership. The interviewees
included deans and associate deans (n = 5) and department chairs or department
managers (n = 8). Seven participants (three women and four men) came from a
general university and a university of applied sciences in Finland, while six (all
men) came from one university in the USA. The purpose of including participants
from two countries was to gather experiences that were as diverse as possible.
And indeed, leaders revealed a rich store of personal perceptions and experiences.
In this book, we will especially employ the fi ndings to analyse how leadership
can enhance employees’ success (see also Peterson and Luthans 2003 ).
Having introduced the theoretical assumptions and empirical solutions, it is
time to move on to practical examples and viewpoints concerning success at
work. Let us have the top workers reveal their secrets!
The theory: everyone can succeed at work 23
1 Employees of the year represented the following awards: in the fi rst phase, Coach of
the Year, Artisan of the Year, Cleaner of the Year, Nurse of the Year, Doctor (of
Medicine) of the Year, Industrial Designer of the Year, Farmer of the Year, Textile
Artist of the Year, Psychologist of the Year, Police Offi cer of the Year and Graphic of
the Year and, in the second phase, Nurse of the Year, Farmer of the Year, Police Offi cer
of the Year, Artisan of the Year, Priest of the Year, and Psychologist of the Year.
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