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Chris Peterson, a noted University of Michigan psychology professor, died Oct. 9.
The field of psychology over which he loomed is called “positive” psychology.” It was informed of his passing with a short LISTSERV message from the founder of the field, Martin Seligman: “My close friend and my closest colleague, Christopher Peterson, died today.”
Stunned is too pedestrian a word to describe how I – and hundreds of colleagues – feel. The online outpouring of grief from the positive psychology community, which includes many of Chris’ former graduate students, is overwhelming and ongoing. Mind you, academic message boards are not always the gentlest and mutually supportive of places, even ones with the word positive in their descriptor. But this time it is different, and there is a remarkable consistency in the posted reminisces. Warmth, humor, kindness and humility are words used almost without fail in each post. Others could come to mind – rigorous researcher, critical thinker, influential writer, famed lecturer – but those take a back seat to the simple, humanistic character traits that Chris possessed in abundance.
When you first met Chris, warm and humanistic wouldn’t be the first words that came to mind. A bear of a man, shaggy haired and bearded, relatively shy and quiet, he could be intimidating if you didn’t know him. Although he won Michigan’s top teaching award last year, he was not a particularly eloquent speaker, certainly not charismatic in a Tony Robbins sort of way. He liked his cigarettes and he would drink a beer with you. His favorite post-class meal in Philadelphia was a cheesesteak at Oscar’s Bar, a place that looks exactly like it sounds. He loved his parents and those close to him. He hated to travel. He could get away with the type of humor that would get most of us written up. In private, he was bemused by the fact he had become a celebrity in the scientific world after turning 50 and could actually get PAID to speak if he so chose.
What was so special about Chris that prompted the emotional response from legions of fans and admirers? It was because, in his favorite saying, “other people matter,” and that is how he lived his life. When you were around Chris, you knew you mattered.
It got me to thinking (Chris, a mentor and adviser, would have a wisecrack about the danger of me thinking). The collective response to Chris’ death came from his extended workplace. What would be said about you or me at our workplace if, God forbid, we suddenly died? Would there be a similar, sustained outpouring of grief focused on things like our humor and warmth? Or would it be focused on our job skills – polite, respectful, but limited and short in duration?
I think it would depend on what traits we cultivate and show to others in the office. Unfortunately, most of our measurement processes in human resources ignore the things Chris stood for. You don’t get rewarded for kindness in most companies, and aren’t encouraged to show it.
Look for clues in your performance reviews. “Excellent tactical thinker, strong change management skills, great process guy, needs work on time management. Three percent raise, keep up the good work.” Sound familiar?
Is that how you want to be remembered? As a basket of job skills? I doubt it. There is more to life than living off someone else’s idea of what is and isn’t proper workplace behavior. Show that you are human. Let other people know they matter. I had a coaching client, the VP of a major company, wistfully tell me he had been passed over for the C-suite because he was “too nice,” in the words of the HR chief. He wasn’t delighted about it, but wise in his perspective, saying “there are worse things to have on your headstone than ‘He Was Too Nice to be Promoted.’”
In addition to our existential concerns, there are solid business reasons for humanism in the workplace. Organizations that cultivate and reward strengths of character tend to outperform others over time, and have lower turnover and higher engagement. Tools to measure and develop character strengths – include ones developed by Chris – are readily available to your organization, no matter how small. There is no reason why they are not incorporated in the mainstream of modern talent management practice.
Chris, along with Seligman and hundreds of others, was on a mission to create “positive institutions” in the world, ones in which character strengths are recognized, developed and rewarded. His greatest legacy will be when more and more workplaces become the positive institutions he envisioned.
Goodbye, Chris. We miss you.
Daniel S. Bowling III is an expert on the science of well-being and work and conducts empirical research on this topic through the University of Pennsylvania. Formerly, he was a partner in a major law firm and later, the global head of human resources at Coca-Cola Enterprises, where he directed all HR activities for more than 80,000 employees worldwide. He currently holds faculty positions at both Duke Law School and UPenn. He also leads a consulting firm, Positive Workplace Solutions, that works with some of the largest institutions in the country showing that well-being enhances not just life satisfaction but productivity and performance, and writes and speaks extensively on these topics. He can be reached at editor@TalentMGT.com.