3 3. A Successful Worker

Chapter 3

What features do top workers share? How do they perceive their work? Do they
face setbacks (at all)? Are they always excited about their work, or do they also
have boring work tasks? Work cannot be all about sunshine, can it?
These questions came to mind as we glanced at the work attitudes and personalities
of Employees of the Year. In this chapter, we reveal their thoughts, allow
them to describe their motivation, engagement and themselves as employees.
Surprisingly, the Employees of the Year participating in our studies had many
things in common – regardless of occupation.
The chapter consists of three viewpoints of top workers’ descriptions of themselves
and their work. First, their opinions on the most important features of their
work and other relevant factors that enhance success are introduced. Second, we
look at the top workers as persons following the ideas of positive psychology and
human strengths. Finally, a new perspective on success is introduced: the experience
of success. Here, we focus on experiences of success at work as described
by top workers. All these contribute to a special perspective on the phenomenon
of success when the analysis is limited to the employee as well as the workplace
and its distinctive features.
Work itself boosts motivation and provides
experiences of joy and accomplishment
Challenging work is most appreciated
Some commonalities emerged as employees listed the most important factors that
resulted in positive experiences at work. The most signifi cant factor concerned
the challenges at work and opportunities to improve skills and/or work. They
described such situations as those in which you can learn more and develop yourself
through new challenges at work. The participants emphasised that recognising
your core skills is essential as it becomes possible to concentrate on doing
what is most suitable for you. Indeed, knowing your strengths and weaknesses as
Chapter 3
A successful worker
30 A successful worker
well as your values and interests is crucial for enhancing your career (see also
Arnold et al . 1993 ).
‘I’m excited mostly in situations that enable me to develop something, to
change something for the better, in a more reasonable direction.’
‘Every day is different. It’s challenging to see every customer as an individual
and not as a group of clients!’
‘I can actually say that we have very diverse training at work. And all these
courses help with doing this work as this environment is changing constantly
and, of course, the whole society. Continuously educating yourself in this
way is essential in order to maintain your profi ciency.’
Surprisingly, participants were not mavericks at their work, but they highly
valued successful and effortless cooperation with their co-workers. Similarly, it
has been discovered that social support is an effective means of enhancing selfesteem
and feelings of mastery (Rousseau et al . 2009 ), thus promoting success at
work. Argyle ( 1987 ) points out that contentment with relationships in the workplace,
both horizontally – between employees – and vertically – between
employers and employees – is central to happiness at work.
‘I like working in teams. It’s interesting to work with different kinds of people.’
‘I think that my most powerful experiences at work are those in which we are
working together as a group.’
‘I think that [good relationships in the workplace] are an unquestionable precondition;
everybody works better when they feel good…. So, if you spend fi ve or ten
minutes chatting, it doesn’t harm because it contributes to the system in general.’
Thirdly, participants considered opportunities to work autonomously as a salient
dimension of their experience. The Job Demands–Resources (JD-R) Model
suggests that job resources (for example, autonomy, immediate feedback and
rewards) are especially salient for resource gain, for example, true wellbeing and
motivation at work, i.e., work engagement (Bakker and Demerouti 2007 ). In
addition, individuals should be encouraged to rest, to engage in positive work
refl ection, and to prevent negative work-related thoughts (Binnewies et al . 2009 ).
‘I can autonomously determine what I’m doing and when.’
‘I can determine the content of my work.’
‘Work drive, engagement, and the joy of work.’
All Employees of the Year thought that their work was rewarding. According to
them, new challenges, as well as opportunities to develop themselves at work,
were most exciting to them. It seemed certain that they experienced work
A successful worker 31
engagement and joy of work. From the sub-scales of work engagement, the
signifi cance of work refers to dedication. All participants were proud of their
work and considered their work meaningful. Furthermore, the sub-scales of fl ow,
namely, vigor and absorption, were apparent in their descriptions.
‘I am able to concentrate so deeply that I escape from reality. I can close my
ears, and my husband tells me that I’m a closed book…. I am riveted by my
work, and I see it as a blessing.’
The interviewees were asked to describe how they focused on work. This was
supposed to provide information about their fl ow experiences. In addition, they
were asked to describe setbacks and hardships and their ways of handling such
situations. Likewise, top workers described the challenges of their work and some
aspects of work that had recently made them excited. One way of expressing top
workers’ inspiration for their work was their descriptions of how pleasurable it
was for them to go to work every day. Many of them spoke of how important it
was to be able to develop their work.
The experience of fl ow was familiar to almost everyone. Their descriptions
were convincing; they kept talking about how fantastic it was to be absorbed by
their work. However, the conditions leading to fl ow varied from person to person:
some could reach this state in cooperation with colleagues, while others did so
‘I become absorbed when the [work] space is as undisturbed as possible.’
Inspiration and enthusiasm were concretely described as they said that they
became riveted by work and did not remember to check the time or count the
‘Sometimes I can come here during weekends if I am very enthusiastic about
developing something, for example an initial idea, so the time can pass
quickly and it can be that I come here to my offi ce on Saturday and Sunday.’
Above all, the most extraordinary characteristic among Employees of the Year
was their positive attitude, which was specifi c to informants. For instance, they
did not give up in the face of confl icts. Instead, they saw such situations as opportunities
to reassess their occupational skills and, if necessary, to study and
develop. Thus, confl ict situations were seen as challenges that had to be solved.
This kind of positive and optimistic attitude was at the very core of the participants’
characteristics and may explain why they did not consider demanding
situations to be stressful.
‘Firstly, you have to try again if it’s worth it. And if it’s not, it might be that
you weren’t right after all. But then again, you can think that now is the time
32 A successful worker
to look in the mirror and accept the fact that that way isn’t leading you anywhere
and fi nd another one. This I have done many times along my way. And
what else can you do…?’
‘Sometimes I think that I’m a little bit stupid…. But I’m not because it might
be that I don’t see those [confl ict situations]. I’ve always taken more responsibility
than I should have and thus got more interesting duties….’
This is also an instance of the rewards of a proactive (as opposed to reactive)
attitude (see Covey 2006 ). Proactive people can change their behaviour, see
things from a different angle, make choices, and know what they want. Reactive
people, on the other hand, concentrate on things that they cannot control or
change, such as other people’s weaknesses and poor circumstances. Accordingly,
proactive people function in more effective and positive ways.
Positive experiences at the core?
This research has shown that one’s positive work experiences (both the work
itself and the employee’s way of working) could be placed at the core of success.
Employees of the Year found their jobs pleasing. Having a holistic positive experience
is crucial to this (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000 ; see also
Mäkikangas et al . 2005 ). Moreover, fi nding a balance between an employee’s
skills and work-related expectations, as well as between opportunities and challenges,
is shown to lead to better performance at work, contentment, higher
motivation and self-effi cacy (Mäkikangas et al . 2005 ).
How then can success at work be outlined? The positive attitude that Employees
of the Year demonstrated toward work and life in general was a common factor
among them. As they outlined the phenomenon of success at work, the manner in
which the participants experienced their work appeared to lie at the core of their
success. Their positive experiences regarding their work and themselves as
employees can be seen as a salient factor whereas the other features of work –
professional profi ciency, life situation, work motivation and personality – merely
appeared to be dependent on this positive experience. Notwithstanding, all these
factors affect each other to a certain extent. Especially the above-mentioned
features of work seemed to affect both the experience of work and work motivation.
All features together form the basis and prerequisites for success at work. The
interconnectedness of these factors is illustrated in Figure 3.1 .
Placing the experience of work at the center is, in fact, a unique way of understanding
success at work because it is not usually considered the most salient factor
when compared with, for example, work motivation (cf. Ruohotie and Honka 2003).
On the other hand, the positive development that leads to becoming a top
worker cannot be considered separate from an individual’s environment
(Magnusson and Mahoney 2006 ). Factors outside working life that
infl uence success include one’s overall life situation, family, friends, hobbies,
physical and psychological health, and so on.
A successful worker 33
Although the fi ndings are not generalisable as such, some recent research
provides interesting guidelines regarding the types of attitudes that Finnish workers
have toward work. For example, the National Research and Development
Centre for Welfare and Health of Finland has studied working conditions and
contentment (see, for example, Miettinen 2006 ) and has listed factors that
employees value most about their work. Among employees who were mostly
very pleased with their jobs, the factors that were most appreciated were the
following: interesting content, autonomy, variation at work and social relationships
with co-workers. Of these factors, autonomy and social relationships were
also important to Employees of the Year. The difference between Finnish workers
in general and the participants in this research was in relation to employees’
attitudes toward opportunities for developing and educating themselves and the
need for challenges at work. These were highly appreciated among Employees of
the Year but not among workers in general.
The variation between top workers and the general pool can also be studied
from another perspective. Among Finnish workers in general, two-thirds of
managers, half of subordinate managers and one-third of workers reported
considering education and development at work as very important (Aitta 2006 ).
– Intrinsic work motivation.
The positive work experience:
– Work engagement and drive;
– Regarding adversities as challenges;
– Optimistic and enthusiastic attitude
towards work.
Life situation:
– The combination
of work and family.
– social, optimistic, selfconfident,
diligent, openminded,
persistent, reliable,
willing to learn and develop,
Professional proficiency:
– Maintaining, updating and
developing one’s
professional skills;
– Interest in developing the
The features of work:
– Challenging work;
– Development
– Good working
– Autonomy.
Figure 3.1 The interconnectedness of the factors that explain success at work among
Employee of the Year awardees (Uusiautti, 2008).
34 A successful worker
In our research, this kind of variation between different positions was not apparent.
Instead, all Employees of the Year, regardless of their position, appeared to
be extremely eager to educate themselves.
These results are in line with previous research. For example, Kinnunen et al .
( 2008 ) have found that increasing the rewarding aspects of work – instead of
decreasing effort – could be especially effi cient for increasing work engagement.
Additionally, researchers have demonstrated that wellbeing is impacted by core
concepts of positive psychology such as hope (see Snyder 1994 ), self- effi cacy
(Bandura 1997 ) and optimism (Carver and Scheier 2002 ). These characteristics
were common to participants – especially the optimistic attitude toward work and
life in general.
What can be learned from the experiences of Employees of the Year? It seems
that having positive experiences is a key factor in success and wellbeing at
work. Also, a lack of absenteeism and a willingness to stay in the same job –
engagement, so to speak – are signifi cant. Employees of the Year could be
described as true ‘try-harders’ because of their optimistic attitude both when
confronting obstacles and when striving forward in their careers and other workrelated
ambitions. According to Tugade and Fredrickson ( 2004 ), there are individuals
who seem to ‘bounce back’ from negative events quite effectively,
whereas others are seemingly unable to get out of their negative ruts. Our
participants seemed to represent the former group. In addition, participants were
passionate about working consummately. Indeed, it has been discovered that
high work engagement magnifi es emotional responses to perceived success or
failure (Britt 1999 ).
Regardless of occupation or position, Employees of the Year appreciated wellbeing
at work over hard values, such as making a good salary. In order to gain
positive experiences from one’s work, an employee has to be (intrinsically) motivated
to do this particular work, to accomplish tasks and goals set. Work itself
can motivate. However, in the present research, it was also discovered that when
the work content lacked interest but its other characteristics, such as challenges,
autonomy and work environment, appealed to employees, positive experiences
were more likely to be achieved.
Strengths and success
Employees are human beings working in a certain job or occupation. As the
previous fi ndings show, success at work can be connected to challenging and
inspiring work tasks but also to the intrinsic drive to work well. However, it is
also interesting to think about the strengths that top workers possess and illustrate
in their doings.
Indeed, recent research has paid increasing attention to studying human virtues
(Magnusson and Mahoney 2006 ). Now, the research concentrating on human
weaknesses has had to compete with a strong interest in human abilities, healthy
aptitudes and virtues. Researchers have become conscious that people’s
A successful worker 35
experiences can be studied from this perspective as well and not just in a way that
is oriented toward fl aws and conditions (Mahoney 2002 ).
The concept of human strengths can be considered as contextually dynamic
because the function of a specifi c behaviour depends on its context and its
outcome. In addition, contexts are dynamic and change during an individual’s life
span. The concept of human strengths is also norm-dependent because the fundamental
features of a society involve common knowledge about appropriate and
appreciated behaviour (Baltes and Freund 2006 ).
According to Baltes and Freund ( 2006 ), the concept of human strengths is (1)
dynamic and unbound to context from the point of view of adaptation or
general mechanism, (2) represents the state of life-long learning and fl exible lifemanagement,
(3) regulates the direction of the goals in individual development as
well as the ways in which the goals will be achieved, and (4) not only supports
individuals’ development but also makes them more effi cient participants in
creating the common good.
Virtues can be dissected from a variety of viewpoints. The synchronic perspective
tries to explain an individual’s behaviour on the basis of psychological and
biological orientations at a certain moment, whereas the diachronic point of view
is interested in those developmental processes that have led to the prevailing
behaviour. This perspective focuses on the behaviour at a certain moment as part
of an individual’s developmental history. Diachronic models consider individual
development and the timing and emergence of important happenings in one’s
environment, as well as the ways in which these factors interact in the course of
time (Magnusson and Mahoney 2006 ).
We leaned on a universal idea of human strengths and asked about the strengths
that top workers recognised in themselves. The list of strengths was originally
developed by Professors Seligman and Peterson and their research group. After
having read all kinds of categorisations about human virtues – starting from
Aristotle and Plato, to the Old Testament, Talmud, Buddha, Bushido and the Boy
Scouts – they managed to defi ne six virtues that appeared common to all.
Their criteria for the strengths and virtues selected among the list were the
following: fi rst, a strength needs to be manifest in an individual’s behaviour,
including thoughts, feelings or actions consistently across time and situations.
Second, a strength contributes to various fulfi llments that comprise the good life.
Third, although strengths can and do produce desirable outcomes, each strength
is morally valued in its own right. Fourth, the display of a strength by one person
inspires and encourages others rather than diminishes them. Strengths and virtuousness
in this sense are not based on or evoke jealousy. Fifth, the wider society
provides institutions and associated rituals for cultivating strengths and virtues.
Sixth, it is possible to recognise people who are paragons of virtue. Seventh,
strength is arguably one-dimensional and cannot be decomposed into other
strengths (Peterson and Park 2004 : 436-436).
The virtues listed were wisdom and knowledge, courage, justice, temperance,
spirituality and transcendence, and love and humanity (Seligman 2002 ). Each
36 A successful worker
virtue was complemented with strengths that illustrate the particular virtue. In
other words, the idea is that one can reach a virtue and manifest it through special
strengths, for example, the virtue of love and humanity can be shown through
social intelligence.
The list of virtues and strengths is as follows (Seligman et al. 2005 : 412):
1 Wisdom and knowledge (cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and
use of knowledge):
Creativity (thinking of novel and productive ways of doing things);
Curiosity (taking an interest in all of ongoing experience);
Open-mindedness (thinking things through and examining them from all
Love of learning (mastering new skills, topics and bodies of knowledge);
Perspective (being able to provide wise counsel to others).
2 Courage (emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish
goals in the face of opposition, external or internal):
Authenticity (speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a genuine way);
Bravery (not shrinking from threat, challenge, diffi culty or pain);
Persistence (fi nishing what one starts);
Zest (approaching life with excitement and energy).
3 Humanity (interpersonal strengths that involve ‘tending and befriending’
Kindness (doing favours and good deeds for others);
Love (valuing close relations with others);
Social intelligence (being aware of the motives and feelings of self and
4 Justice (civic strengths that underlie healthy community life):
Fairness (treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and
Leadership (organising group activities and seeing that they happen);
Teamwork (working well as a member of a group or team).
5 Temperance (strengths that protect against excess):
Forgiveness (forgiving those who have done wrong);
Modesty (letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves);
Prudence (being careful about one’s choices; not saying or doing things
that might later be regretted);
Self-regulation (regulating what one feels and does).
6 Transcendence (strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and
provide meaning):
A successful worker 37
Appreciation of beauty and excellence (noticing and appreciating beauty,
excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life);
Gratitude (being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen);
Hope (expecting the best and working to achieve it);
Humour (liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people);
Religiousness (having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and
meaning of life).
Top workers’ strengths and virtues
We asked the top workers to rank their strengths by giving three points to their
best strength, two to their second best, one to their third best and half points to any
other strengths they considered typical of them. When all the data were combined,
the results were interesting. Three strengths stood out: open-mindedness came
in fi rst, social intelligence was ranked second and perseverance came in as the
third important strength. We will now introduce the strength-based analysis in
greater detail.
Wisdom and knowledge
The virtue of wisdom and knowledge consists of cognitive strengths (creativity,
curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning and perspective) that relate to the
ability to acquire and use information. This virtue was the most important among
the top workers. Based on their own perceptions, wisdom and knowledge as a
virtue included those strengths that best described their passionate attitude toward
learning new things, developing themselves and their occupation, as well as gathering
versatile knowledge and skills. Therefore, their estimation also illustrated
their attitude towards working.
The top workers were not always able to recognise their strengths, for example,
when they spoke about creativity:
‘I thought that I was not creative at all because I have always been really bad
at drawing. But still, I compose music and write lyrics… and make up all
kinds of gadgetries and apparatuses.’
Creativity was appreciated, but not all the top workers recognised themselves as
creative. In fact, the concept of creativity is not as self-evident as one might think.
Seligman et al. ( 2005 : 412) state that creativity simply means ‘thinking of novel
and productive ways to do things’ whereas Sternberg and Lubart ( 1999 ) have
defi ned creativity as the ability to produce work that is novel and appropriate.
Simonton’s ( 2009 : 262) defi nition follows that of Sternberg and Lubart.
Creativity can be defi ned on the basis of two conditions: fi rst, it must be original.
This means that creative ideas are novel, surprising and unexpected; however,
originality is not a suffi cient criterion. Creativity must also be adaptive, which
38 A successful worker
means that others should fi nd the created thing adjustable or the creation should
be adaptable. Sometimes, creativity is defi ned only as a feature that produces
concrete results (for example, Carson et al . 2005 ). Furthermore, creativity can be
defi ned only in terms of the so-called divergent creative reasoning. In divergent
working, several options for solutions are kept open and fl exible whereas the
convergent way of working concentrates on one solution in order to achieve the
right convincing result (Basadur and Hausdorf 1996 ; Runco 1993 ). From a
psychological point of view, creativity is a very important human strength; it is
most productive for those whose personality consists of features such as independence,
strength, optimism, inner-direction, fl exibility, tolerance of confl icts,
energy, as well as perseverance and goal-orientation (Csikszentmihalyi 1990,
2000; Eysenck 1993 ; Maslow 1988 ).
Furthermore, creativity must not only be understood as a feature of an individual
(a lone genius) but more often as a result of group work (see Nijstad and
Levine 2007 ; Simonton 2009 ). Indeed, Anderson et al . ( 2004 ) have suggested
that creativity and innovations should be studied more comprehensively and in a
more routinised manner as the modern, constantly changing working life requires
it – not to mention other areas of life.
Open-mindedness is associated with tolerance and courage to take part in
new things. From the point of view of success at work, this is interesting
because it can explain top workers’ willingness to tolerate changes and seize
opportunities. Usually, people tend to resist information that confl icts with their
personal views – even if new information is shown to improve understanding
(Correll et al . 2004 ). Interestingly, people seem to be motivated toward
discounting both the source and the content of a challenging message in an
effort to protect their existing beliefs and by striving for positive self-regard by
drawing on successes in important domains in their lives (see also Cohen et al .
2000 ). For successful working, it is worth mentioning that research has shown
that open-minded interaction leads to curiosity and information-seeking and the
increasing likelihood of creative new knowledge emerging in work groups and
teams (Mitchell and Nicholas 2006 ).
In particular, the Police Offi cer of the Year, the Psychologist of the Year and
the Farmer of the Year considered open-mindedness as an important characteristic.
According to the interviews, open-mindedness aptly described all the participants,
as did love of learning (for example, Nurse of the Year considered this to
be his greatest strength), whereas creativity and curiosity were not. Curiosity was
considered rather negatively: as nosiness. This might be a culture-specifi c fi nding
since the concept seemed to have a negative connotation among interviewees.
Notwithstanding, according to an American-Japanese comparative research, curiosity
was connected with subjective happiness (Shimai et al . 2006 ), thus representing
a very important human strength.
Perspective was, to some extent, every top worker’s strength. It was understood
as a sort of wisdom gained through experience, i.e., the ability to look at
things from different perspectives:
A successful worker 39
‘First, I thought of some tactics… The more experience you have the easier
you notice that you have plenty of other options and tacks that you have to
Thus, the virtue of wisdom and knowledge described the top workers well, a
point also supported by the fact that none of these workers thought that these
strengths should be improved or that they lacked one or some of these strengths.
The virtue of courage was defi ned as an emotional strength consisting of the will
to achieve goals regardless of inner or outer resistance. Putnam ( 1997 ) distinguishes
three dimensions of courage: physical courage is characterised by overcoming
a fear of death or physical harm. The goals to be achieved by the exercise
of physical courage are traditionally defi ned by society or by the requirements of
survival. Moral courage deals with loss of ethical integrity or authenticity and
social disapproval. For example, it refers to situations in which a person adheres
to his or her moral principles regardless of the group pressure of the people
surrounding him or her. The third form of courage is psychological courage,
which refers to fear centering on a loss of psychological stability. In the classifi –
cation of virtues and strengths (Seligman et al . 2005 ) courage is analysed through
the strength of authenticity, bravery, persistence and zest, which can all contain
elements of the aforementioned three dimensions as well.
This virtue was evaluated as having secondary importance by the top workers,
and they did not see any shortcomings in the strengths listed within this virtue.
Nurse of the Year and Priest of the Year thought that authenticity was their most
important strength, which is, indeed, especially crucial among professions that
entail working closely with other people.
‘So you certainly have to be genuine when dealing with people and at work
in general and I think that I try to express that I am what I am and what I
Persistence is an interesting strength when it comes to success at work. The previous
chapters have shown that, to some extent, success requires persistent and
diligent work. Therefore, it could be assumed that persistence would score high
among top workers. Furthermore, the strength itself is not as straightforward as it
might appear. For example, Lent et al . ( 1984 ) have shown that high self-effi cacy
positively affects persistence. Likewise, motivation and outer surroundings can
infl uence how persistently people keep on doing something. But when regarded
as a personal strength, persistence appears more stable, a constant feature that one
manifests in many areas of life. It is also a question of a certain kind of attitude,
a mental map (Achor 2010 ), that leads people to strive and try over and over
again or to approach any long-term goal step by step.
40 A successful worker
Persistence as a strength was emphasised by Police of the Year, Psychologist
of the Year and Priest of the Year and, according to the top workers, persistence
was the third most important strength among them.
‘I can say that if I agree to take care of something, I’ll have a great need to do
it; I rarely leave tasks unfi nished.’
Every top worker also considered himself or herself to be typically zesty;
however, bravery as a concept was diffi cult to grasp as many of them associated
it with romantic images of brave heroes. Nonetheless, defi ned as everyday bravery,
it seemed more familiar, and they described it as staying strong and sticking
to one’s principles when accomplishing daily chores and making daily choices.
The third most important virtue among the top workers according to their assessments
was humanity. Within this virtue, they also recognised their second most
important strength, namely, social intelligence. The concept of social intelligence
can be perceived from various viewpoints. Salovey et al . ( 2004 ) sums up four of
them: (1) perceiving emotions, (2) using emotions to facilitate thought, (3) understanding
emotions, and (4) managing emotions in a way that enhances personal
growth and social relations. If success at work was previously associated with
opportunist, cold-hearted mavericks, top workers in our studies proved the opposite.
Artisan of the Year, Priest of the Year, Police of the Year, and Nurse of the
Year all thought that social intelligence described them extremely well. Of
course, the later three are occupations for which social intelligence can be seen
as one of the basic requirements to perform well. One of the top workers paralleled
social intelligence with social skills, and he was of the opinion that his
social skills were not perfect but should be improved. One interesting remark
concerning social intelligence was made by Artisan of the Year who pointed out
that social relationships are important for success at work:
‘You don’t create your success all by yourself; it’s the others who create your
However, those employees who lacked social skills can also be rewarded, but
whether it is more likely that social personalities are rewarded is a different question
Among the strengths (fairness, leadership, teamwork) that describe the virtue of
justice, the top workers named fairness as their most important feature, especially
Farmer of the Year, as he considered it as a component of good leadership. Treating
A successful worker 41
his employees fairly was important for creating and sustaining a good working
atmosphere and trust in the workplace. Leadership can be defi ned as a leader’s
personal characteristics or behaviour, style and decisions (Arnold et al . 1993). The
top workers regarded leadership merely as a skill, instead of a strength, that one
should have. Indeed, leadership can be seen as an innate characteristic – or
strength – that can be cultivated and that can fl ourish along with one’s development
(see, for example, Murphy and Johnson 2011 ). On the other hand, leadership
can also be considered as a profession that can be taught and learned for the benefi t
of oneself and others (see, for example, Uusiautti 2013 ; Uusiautti et al. 2012).
One of the top workers recognised the shortcomings in her leadership skills
whereas another considered it as one of his most important strengths.
‘I want to be in the lead and take the group forward… Yet, I am not a dictator…
but I consider myself as a leader and a trend-setter in order to make
good for other people as well.’
Teamwork skills varied among top workers according to their assessments. Those
who evaluated their social intelligence as good assessed their teamwork skills
similarly, whereas two of the top workers who held managerial positions saw some
defi ciencies in their teamwork skills; one of them wanted to improve his skills.
This virtue was not deemed very important, but downright distant, because of its
connection with modesty and prudence. The top workers found it somewhat diffi –
cult to assess how this virtue and its associated strengths (forgiveness, modesty,
prudence and self-regulation) would characterise them. However, after persistently
defi ning them together during the interviews, the workers began to have an
idea of which strength typifi ed them and which did not.
Not surprisingly, the ability to forgive did depict all top workers to some
extent. They also emphasised that one has to be able to apologise as well.
According to the top workers, their forgiveness was tested by the social confl icts
in the workplace.
‘I am able to forgive and apologize… but it is hard if you are accused of
something that you have not done.’
Modesty as a strength was considered paradoxical; on one hand, modesty is a
desirable trait, but one has to be able to be genuinely proud of one’s achievements
without unnecessary or excessive modesty. Indeed, a study by Shimai et al .
( 2006 ) also showed that modesty had a strong negative correlation with happiness
among both Americans and Japanese, which means that having modesty as a
signature strength was associated with less happiness. The contradictory nature
of this concept was also discussed in our studies. Although, traditionally, modesty
42 A successful worker
in people has been appreciated, the top workers were critical. For example, some
old proverbs were questioned:
‘“Modesty makes you prettier” is not necessarily good for success at work
but “you would foster your own achievements” would be.’
However, feeling proud assumes that one cannot be proud of something to which
one has not contributed oneself (see also Varila and Ikonen-Varila 2002 ). Two of
the top workers associated modesty with humbleness.
‘I would like to be humble but do I want to be… “the one who reaches high
ends up low” – this proverb has stumped us.’
In work life, unwritten emotional rules determine what emotions are approved
and how, to whom, and in which situation one is allowed to express them, and
how emotions are interpreted.
Half of the participants saw prudence as one of their strengths, and they
explained it as their special skill in deliberating their actions and making justifi ed
decisions at work. Therefore, prudence merely resembled a professional skill or
a work-related strength rather than a personal attribute, unlike self-regulation,
which was seen as a strictly personal characteristic and as an aspect of temperament.
Half of the top workers assessed that their self-regulation could be better.
‘Still, there are many dimensions that could be smoothened… my nature can
be stretched to many directions.’
Transcendence as a virtue was also considered paradoxical because they did not
agree with all the strengths (appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude,
hope, humour, religiousness) included in this virtue. For example, it was diffi cult
to imagine religiousness as a strength – except for the Priest of the Year.
However, the top workers did spend a signifi cant amount of time contemplating
how appreciation of beauty and excellence was manifested in working life. They
explained this virtue as the ability to recognise good performances and achievements
instead of using one’s energy on envying. This had to do with their positive
attitude and ability to understand achievements earned (Pajares 2001 ).
Gratitude is an important human strength that contributes to subjective happiness
(McCullough et al . 2002 ; see also Otake et al . 2006 ). Gratitude was considered
as gratefulness for being able to have rewarding and pleasing work.
‘This lies deep in our culture; you cannot say when another does something
good. We haven’t had such a working culture either. I want to give feedback
if I see that someone is seriously doing something really great.’
A successful worker 43
One of the top workers saw hope as one of her most important strengths. Hope
was seen as the foundation of an optimistic attitude.
‘So that you believe that you’ll cope with this although there are diffi culties;
that you’ll just try again or some other route.’
Indeed, hope and optimism are neighbouring concepts, but Finnish people
(Ojanen 2002 ), for example, are traditionally seen as optimistic rather than hopeful.
Ojanen ( 2002 ) defi nes hope as realistic optimism which has trust at the
The top workers appreciated humour although some of them did not consider
themselves very humorous. The ability to look at things from a distance and see
humour in them was, however, considered important as humour helped to process
problematic issues and handle tough situations. For example, the Police of the
Year emphasised the meaning of humour in police work as a connective factor
among police offi cers and when there is a need to confront the most diffi cult situations
at work. The Priest of the Year saw similarities in humour and religion:
‘They are at least cousins, if not downright siblings; both create hope in
In addition, humorous people understand things widely and do not remain stuck
on details; in his opinion, religion has the same dimension.
Other virtues and strengths
The top workers also named some other strengths that were not included in the
CVS Model. Five of them highlighted the signifi cance of their own personality;
they allowed their strong personalities to surface in their work. Many of them
associated this with authenticity or being themselves. This was important for
Nurse of the Year, Priest of the Year and Police of the Year. But those who
worked as supervisors also emphasised the signifi cance of acting in a genuine
way and bringing out one’s personality. In this way, followers’ trust can be
Another important characteristic that most of the top workers mentioned was
diligence and dedication. They thought that success at work could be achieved
through industriousness. This was also a trait that was mentioned when they were
asked to identify one trait that they would like other workers in their work
community to possess.
Half of the top workers emphasised their positivity and joviality. Positivity
appeared as an optimistic attitude towards working. In addition, it was seen as
providing resources to the entire work community. Indeed, optimism is one of the
most salient concepts in positive psychology. It can be defi ned as a steady attitude
and view of life and the future (Pajares 2001 ).
44 A successful worker
On the connection between virtues and strengths
and success and wellbeing at work
Arnold et al . ( 1993 ) state that awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses as
well as values and interests is of primary importance for enhancing one’s career.
Optimism has a clear connection with success because, among other things, it
involves the ability to set reasonable goals, to achieve these goals, and to use
effi cient learning strategies. According to Carver and Scheier ( 2002 ), optimistic
people achieve their goals because they organise their actions in an intellectual
way in order to achieve these goals. Furthermore, the top workers appeared to
have proactive (Covey 2006 ), as opposed to reactive, attitudes. A proactive attitude
embodies a way of thinking according to which people are able to change
their behaviour, look at things from various perspectives, make choices by themselves,
and know what they want. Proactive people concentrate on things that
they can affect and thus, their action is positive and more effi cient by nature.
This kind of attitude can also be dissected with the use of the concept of resilience.
Being able to move on, despite hardships, demonstrates the resilience of
those successful individuals. Therefore, psychological resilience refers to effective
coping and adaptation when faced with loss, hardship or adversity – a
common feature among the top workers.
The strengths that the top workers recognised most in themselves – openmindedness,
social intelligence, persistence, optimism and authenticity – all
relate to positive behaviour. If these features explain success at work, at
least partly, wellbeing and happiness are most certainly not irrelevant to the
Experiencing success alone and together
Thus far, we have talked about the process of success or the phenomenon of
success. We have referred to the idea of success as a (developing) state. However,
the phenomenon of success at work also includes various experiences of success.
Success is related to work and life in general and can be seen as a positive
outcome of working.
What is an experience of success and what kinds of successes do top workers
recognise in their work? This question was also posed to the top workers. They
were eventually able to describe their experiences of successful situations or
events at work in numerous ways. However, some categorisations could be made.
The most fundamental categorisation concerned whether the experience of success
was achieved alone or in a group. These are thus divided into personal experiences
and communal, teamwork-based experiences. These two categories include various
elements that illustrate the origin or nature of the experience of success.
Here again, the model of human strengths and virtues was applied for analytical
purposes as it appeared that the two main categories could also be illustrated
on the basis of personal strengths that are connected to the experience of success.
A successful worker 45
In addition to individual strengths that can partly explain the origin of experiences
of success, and that also appear on Seligman’s list, teamwork-based experiences
of success also seemed to necessitate human strengths that are social by
nature. The categories somewhat overlap, but their purpose is to highlight the
connection between individual strengths and experiences of success both at the
individual and communal levels.
Personal experiences of success
Persistence, bravery and hope: experiencing
(concrete) accomplishments
The list provided by Seligman et al . ( 2005 ) includes strengths that can be seen as
relevant to accomplishing work-related tasks. Specifi cally, persistence as the ability
to fi nish what one starts; bravery as not shrinking from threat, challenge, diffi –
culty or pain; and hope as expecting the best and working to achieve it, appeared
in the participants’ descriptions. Firstly, the experience of success results from
quite concrete accomplishments at work. On one hand, the top workers described
their experiences of success as hands-on experiences such as, for example,
performing well in some concrete task (for example, compiling a manual for guidance
at work). On the other hand, these experiences could result from achieving a
more high-level goal, sometimes through practical action. Furthermore, concrete
successes may be born when some larger entity at work is directed in the right
way. These kinds of experiences were described in the interviews as follows:
‘So it is an orientation fi le. We began to compile this kind of bible…. The
operation of our workplace is described in a very comprehensive manner, and
all the practices are printed in it. Our boss always remembers to mention it.
I think that our employees appreciate it as well. I think it is something that has
been very useful.’
‘I have thrown myself in new tasks. Supervisors have asked about my willingness,
and I guess that they have seen in all their wisdom that I am able and
capable of taking on new tasks. There [in the participant’s work unit], it went
like that, and I think it was something like one year since I had started as the
section leader when my boss asked whether I was willing to change over to
the duty offi cer’s task. My boss thought that I would be good at that, so I took
the duty offi cer’s post… And I can tell that I had an excellent group at that
time; it was this so-called car offence group. Many really good fellows worked
in it and we really produced great results; the best of Finland at that time.’
‘We created a new training program for occupational health psychologists…so
that’s my thing, you know… This task came to me at the end of the 1990s, and the
head of department assigned me for it. And I have managed to create a team of it.’
46 A successful worker
Moreover, the experience of success could result from such occasions in which
employees were able to control or solve a situation at work. Therefore, accomplishment
could be concrete but not always material in nature:
‘There are phases when everyone fl ounder. So, I might have given a speech
or address that solved that situation… When you hurl yourself into the situation
and manage to reach the goal.’
‘I have had the experience of “oh how good was it that I intervened the situation
and was able to handle it”.’
One way of achieving the experience of success is to work systematically and
persistently. Therefore, daily practices and actions are not always that peculiar
but the result may be:
‘Then there are sort of exceptional crimes that I was allowed to help [solve]…
I headed it here in the district. We quizzed people; and every time we had a
small hint, we would start off, even at nights. And that is something immemorial
and so exceptional that we could solve things like that.’
Zest and love of learning: experiencing success through
the joy of work and flow
Seligman et al . ( 2005 ) defi ne zest as the ability to approach life with excitement
and energy, and love of learning as a desire to master new skills, topics and
bodies of knowledge. These strengths surfaced in the top workers’ interviews in
the form of various positive emotional states toward their work. In this research,
the top workers showed high levels of joy of work (Varila and Lehtosaari 2001 )
and fl ow (Csikszentmihalyi 2008 ) that resulted from putting their soul into work
or learning new skills. When viewed from this perspective, the experience of
success can also entail these positive feelings. The top workers described their
moments of joy and fl ow in the following way:
‘I am riveted by it and it is a blessing that you can be so wrapped up in your
work so much.’
‘Maybe the best feedback is those numbers and successes; in other words, we
have good results to show the things that I want.’
Curiosity and open-mindedness: experiencing success and
expertise through challenges and new opportunities at work
Top workers also emphasised the signifi cance of challenges and new development
opportunities in their work. Of the strengths categorised in the list by
Seligman et al . ( 2005 ), this attitude especially resembled curiosity as workers
A successful worker 47
were open-minded, were actively interested in ongoing experience, thought
things through, and examined them from all angles. The experience of success
could often result from a situation in which the outcome was not always clearly
known beforehand or if worker had to learn or study something new. These
events were described as follows:
‘I always take up the gauntlet although a bit clueless… Huge challenges
[I have accepted]. And then if you can contribute in a developing manner…’
‘Then I considered criminal investigation challenging since I had worked [as
a patrol offi cer] for two and half years, and I didn’t know anything about
criminal investigation. And I had so many questions on how I should handle
this… So I thought I should put myself in criminal investigation for a couple
of years so that I could learn it. And then I went, and I did not regret it. Of
course, after a few months, I found working there quite awkward, but then it
started to run smoothly.’
The experience of success is certainly closely connected to the experience of expertise.
Top workers were extremely willing to educate themselves and gather knowledge
either from various areas of their occupation or gain increasingly profound
knowledge in their special fi eld. The experience of success may thus consist of the
self-effi cacy and perceived feelings of capability and competence (see also
Bandura 1997 ; Carver and Scheier 2005 ; Judge et al . 1997; Paloste et al . 2011):
‘But then… as I qualifi ed as a leader and had that training, it gave me such
sources in a positive way, that I thought that someday I could go after that
kind of position.’
‘Oh yeah, I have taken all sorts of them [training sessions]. Of course, quite
quickly, I reached the level that no one could teach me anymore.’
‘And then, I have been developing quality work and pursued an auditing
qualifi cation, and then I was able to evaluate other units with my co-worker.’
At its best, work provides employees with opportunities to develop, fi nd meaning
in life and achieve social, emotional and mental wellbeing. Therefore, more attention
should be paid on increasing employees’ possibilities in workplaces (Snyder
and Lopez 2002 ) since the opportunities to achieve experiences of success could
also increase.
Communal, teamwork-based experiences of success
Seligman et al . ( 2005 ) allude to strengths that appeared especially important
among top workers when they discussed teamwork-based experiences. They
defi ned teamwork as working well as a member of a group or team; social intelligence
as being aware of the motives and feelings of self and others; fairness as
48 A successful worker
treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice; and
kindness as doing favours and good deeds for others. Although the experience of
success is a personal positive emotion, it may spring up after or while of working
together with co-workers, clients or other people who are closely connected to the
task at hand. When everyone in a team is excited and inspired by the task, developing
successful outcomes may produce the most delightful experience of success
(see also Losada and Heaphy 2004 ), as described in the following utterances:
‘It is most fruitful when we all are excited about developing things.’
‘What is most important is that you see together that something works, that
the orchestra works and plays, and that everyone even plays the same melody.’
Furthermore, it is easier to carry out diffi cult work tasks when you are supported
by colleagues and share ideas with them. According to the participants, when you
have a good network or work community, you can succeed better than before.
Naturally, however, one has to be willing to share and work for the team:
‘It is a problem when you have to do it [make decisions] alone. When you
think of whether you are blind to something or whether you have forgotten
something crucial; it is a little bit harassing, but on the other hand, you’ll fi nd
help from your network. I mean you can ask your colleagues.’
‘Quite a few people come to talk to me about things and have the courage to
say if there is something wrong or what they cannot take up in the negotiations
by themselves. Many times I have been the channel through which the
issues are discussed and thought over and their anxieties are released… It’s
one of those experiences.’
‘But then I was called for this locum post, and it was something that I felt
that I could work with real professionals, and somehow I worked well and
felt supported and was in a really good team. The work was a regular nineto-
fi ve job, and it was a success even though I was a mother of a small child.’
The notion of the communal nature of the experience of success also highlights
the fact that supportive and positive atmosphere at the workplace may be an
important contributor to the experiences of success. Boreham ( 2004 ) uses the
concept of collective competence to refer to making collective sense of events in
the workplace, developing and using a collective knowledge base, and developing
a sense of interdependency. Indeed, a common feature of the new ways of
organising work is their emphasis on teamwork. Thus, the top workers’ perceptions
of teamwork and the support received from co-workers are essential from
this point of view. It is important to notice that the experience of success can also
be communal by nature. However, it requires strengths of a social character (see
Seligman et al . 2005 ).
A successful worker 49
Experiencing work
The experience of success is only one way of dissecting positive experiences at
work. However, the top workers’ experiences are also interesting because of their
connection to overall success at work. In this research, the experiences of success
were categorised in a data-driven manner, being aware that there are other ways
of categorising these experiences. For example, Lutgen-Sandvik et al . ( 2011 )
used a more detailed categorisation structure when they studied American workers’
experiences of success. However, some similar categories could be found in
these two studies; for example, appreciation, challenge, success, opportunity,
relationships, social support and teamwork, climate, supervisor/mentor, resources
and triumphs were apparent in the participants’ descriptions in both studies.
Based on the results, we constructed a model to illustrate the connection
between individual and communal factors to the possibility of experiencing
success at work (see Figure 3.2 ). Figure 3.2 includes the dimensions of both individual/
communal and positive/negative. Next, we will introduce the four starting
points for the experience of success at work in greater detail:
1 Firstly, there is the state in which both negative individual and communal
factors are present. The employee is belittled not only by himself or herself
but also by the work community. This situation is not likely to further the
development of positive emotions at work – neither at the individual nor at
the communal level. Instead, it can be considered as hindering the emergence
of successes or other positive feelings.
2 Secondly, there is the possibility that the work community acts as a positive
factor but the individual employee may still have low-esteem. Success as
well as feelings of joy are diffi cult to achieve on the personal level as people
usually tend to feel genuinely happy about achievement if they feel entitled
to it (see, for example, Deci and Moller 2005 ).
3 The third part of the illustration describes a situation whereby the work community
acts as a negative factor, but the individual has a positive perception.
Therefore, the individual employee may have strong self-esteem, regardless
of the work community’s disregard – although the employee’s self-regard in
this situation may be low (Baumeister 1993 ; see also Baumeister et al . 1996).
4 The fourth section presents the so-called ideal situation whereby both the
individual and communal factors are positive. This kind of starting point
might be the core factor for the emergence of positively-toned experiences
such as fl ow (see Csikszentmihalyi 2008 ) and joy of work (Varila and
Lehtosaari 2001 ). Likewise, experiences of success, both alone and as a
team, become more likely than in the other above-mentioned situations as it
can, for its part, lead to maximal performances (see Avey et al . 2010 ; Kanfer
and Ackerman 2005 ). Furthermore, for example, intelligent thought and
social inclusion have also been seen to have a positive, direct relationship
(Baumeister et al . 2002 ). Our idea is that this kind of combination of positive
individual and communal factors will also lead to wellbeing at work.
50 A successful worker
Employees of the Year found their jobs pleasing. Furthermore, fi nding a balance
between an employee’s skills and work-related expectations as well as opportunities
and challenges leads to better performance at work, contentment, higher motivation
and self-effi cacy (Mäkikangas et al . 2005 ). As Myers and Diener ( 1995 : 11)
point out, ‘Positive wellbeing is not just the absence of negative emotions’. Thus,
no one has only positive experiences or experiences of success – one would not
even know what these experiences are if one had not experienced the opposite.
Employees of the year considered diffi culties as challenges and moments for
stocktaking. This behaviour resembles realistic optimism (see also Chapter 2).
Schneider ( 2001 ) illustrates this way of thinking felicitously. According to her
defi nition of realistic optimism and its benefi cial consequences, the term ‘problem’
(with synonyms such as predicament, obstacle and diffi culty) implies that the
current state is negative and that actions must be successful to establish a satisfactory
state. When this problem is seen as a challenge, the current state is considered
acceptable, offering a potential opportunity for bringing about a benefi cial change.
Indeed, this framing can be quite powerful and explain the fundamental attitudes
enhancing the process of success. Thus, they were able to eventually turn these
situations into experiences of success – although it did not necessarily happen in
an instant (see also Mitchell et al . 2004).
Bravery was not the only strength among the participants. Employees of the
Year could tackle obstacles and strive forward in their careers and other workrelated
ambitions. In addition, participants were passionate about working
Strong self-esteem
regardless of the
work community’s
Flow, joy of
Belittled by the work
community and
Low self-esteem
regardless of the
work community’s
Figure 3.2 The connection of individual and communal factors with the perceived success
at work (Uusiautti and Määttä, 2013).
A successful worker 51
consummately. Indeed, it has been discovered that high work engagement magnifi
es emotional responses concerning perceived success or failure (Britt 1999 ).
The positive attitude that Employees of the Year had toward work and life in
general was the common factor among them. Their experiences of success can be
seen as a salient factor in the perceived happiness at work. Of course, other
features of work – professional profi ciency, life situation, work motivation and
personality – are also important for the positive experience. However, all factors
affect each other to a certain extent. All special features together form the basis
and prerequisites for success and wellbeing at work. In order to gain positive
experiences from one’s work, an employee has to be (intrinsically) motivated to
do this particular work and to accomplish the tasks and goals that are set. Brown
and Ryan (2003) suggest that mindfulness may also directly contribute to wellbeing
and happiness. They defi ne mindfulness as a pre-refl ective state, which
includes both self-focused attention and, for instance, experience. Furthermore,
happy people are seen to possess adequate resources for making progress toward
valued goals (Diener et al . 1999 ). This is interesting especially from the point of
view of performing well and experiencing success at work because people who
have a high perception of their self-effi cacy tend to devote more to their work and
are more persistent workers than those who make lower assessments of their
abilities (cf. the second part of the model in Figure 3.2) (see Bandura 1997 ;
Mitchell 1997 ).
The above-mentioned matters are important but, on their own, they are not
enough. The results encouraged us to also consider success from the perspective
of a work community. Therefore, the results of our study suggest that success is
not only matter of a single employee; participants also highlighted the importance
of a good working atmosphere and a supportive and healthy work community.
Quick ( 1999 : 123) maintains that ‘healthy work exists where people feel good,
achieve high performance, and have high levels of wellbeing’ – in other words,
where people are happy. Could it be, then, that success could be enhanced by
creating happy and functional work communities? It seems that feeling positive
emotions toward work produces not only a quantitative improvement by increasing
effi ciency but also a qualitative one by making a better product or outcome
that results from the virtue of pride, belief and commitment to one’s job (Wright,
2004 ). Indeed, Arnold et al . ( 2007 : 201) point out that ‘it is possible that humanistic
work values (the normative beliefs individuals hold about whether work
should be meaningful) are an important infl uence on the likelihood of fi nding
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