We all want to live happier, more engaging and more meaningful lives. We currently recruit from a generation of workers who are looking to change the world in a positive way, who seek connection to something bigger than themselves and who want to make a positive impact on their environment. This gives employers a timely opportunity to think about policy in a new way.

Should we use deficit-based language to outline what we expect from people when they start employment, to indicate what might happen on the very slight chance they do something wrong? Or could we use positive language, connected to meaning and the values of the business, to drive engagement in our employees through a shared vision, values and purpose?

Viewing the HR policy set as a pathway to enhancing meaning for employees can have a positive (rather than deficit) effect. This can be done through language, an introduction to the importance of relationships in the workplace, or through highlighting the positive excellence the company expects from team members.

Studies of how individuals craft positive work identities through seeing their work as a calling (Wrzesneiwski & Dutton, 2001), or through emphasising positive distinctiveness of one’s social group memberships (Roberts, 2005), illustrates how cultivating positive meaning about oneself in an organisation can lead people toward more optimal states of functioning.[i]

There is a strong collection of research and theory linked to achieving a meaningful life and many people search for life’s meaning, wanting to have a purpose in what they do.

Kim Cameron (2012) – a leading researcher in positive leadership and organisational scholarship – suggests that enabling positive meaning at work consists of four components;

  1. the work has important positive impacts on the wellbeing of people
  2. the work is associated with personal values or important virtue
  3. the work has an impact that extends beyond or creates a ripple effect
  4. the work builds supportive relationships or sense of community[ii]

Amy Wrzesniewski (2003) posited, after looking at vast research in the field of meaning, that it does not depend on the kind of work, it depends on the association and relationship to the work for each individual.[iii]

Finding meaning in our activities enhances intrinsic motivation as people feel their actions are for the greater good. Connecting to the purpose of the organisation and exploring values and the concept of meaningful work at the recruitment stage, (and reinforcing this through policy), builds a strong platform for engagement.

Language and communication can be vehicles for both positive and negative emotion. Cameron (2012) describes positive communication as that which is affirmative and supportive.

Research also clearly highlights communication and language as a defining indicator of team success and performance.

“The single most important factor when predicting organisational performance – which was more than twice as powerful as any other factor – was the ratio of positive statements to negative statements. Positive statements are those that express appreciation, support, helpfulness, approval or compliments. Negative statements express criticism, disapproval, dissatisfaction, cynicism, or disagreement.” In fact, the research showed the ratio of highest performing teams was 5.6:1 (positive to negative).[iv]

Linda Robson completed research in 2015 on the effects of positive and negative language states, investigating aspects such as tone, the language of fear and negativity, and positive and negative ratios.

“These findings, associating higher incidence of positive language with high performing programs, joins other scholarship, which connects higher levels of positive language with higher functioning individuals, higher team performance, high relational satisfaction, and increased longevity of teams and dyads.” Robson 2015.[v]

Rules and policy will be some of the first significant forms of communication we have with employees, post the recruitment and offer stage. Ask yourself – does your company policy reinforce the positive tone you set through the recruitment phase? Does it share the importance of meaning, vision and values of the business? Does your policy lead by example in the language and tone spoken with employees?

With Positive HR, we have the chance to look at rules differently while still remaining compliant and to use plain, positive language to build on the employee experience and reinforce meaning at work.


To learn more about the Langley Group’s Positive HR Toolkit, click here. The Positive HR Toolkit gives leaders and HR professionals the solutions to implementing positive people practices in the workplace.  Built on research from Positive Psychology and neuroscience, the solutions provide simple and easy to use tools for every stage of the employee lifecycle.



[i] JE Dutton & Cameron.K.(2003). Positive Organisational Scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline.San Fransisco CA: Barrett-Koehler Publishers.

[ii] Cameron, K.S. (2008). Positive Leadership: Strategies for extraordinary performance. San Francisco. CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

[iii] Wrzesniewski, A. et al. Job Crafting and cultivating positive meaning and identity at work. Advances in positive organisational scholarship, V1 281-302. Emerald Publishing Limited.

[iv]Cameron, K.S. (2008). Positive Leadership: Strategies for extraordinary performance. San Francisco. CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

[v] Robson. L. (2015) Language of life-giving connection. OhioLINK. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=case1428008477.