Creating a PERMA Organizational Environment

By David Raphael

“Sapiens rule the world, because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue
that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively.” (Yuval Harari)

As Jewish community professionals and leaders we are, to paraphrase Harari, in the business of enabling and empowering people to cooperate effectively. We spend our days engaging and encouraging board leaders, professional staff members, prospective supporters, partner organizations, and others to support and advance our organization’s vision and mission.

But what motivates people? What compels our staff to work long hours, our board leaders to invest their valuable time and resources, our volunteers to commit to serving the interests of others?

Within the conceptual framework, of Positive Psychology we can find a valuable approach to thinking about our organizations and the people who are essential to their success. Founded by Martin Seligman, PhD of the University of Pennsylvania, close to twenty years ago, Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.

In his PERMA framework, Seligman identifies five elements of well-being and authentic happiness:

Positive Emotions: When positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, serenity, interest and hope frame our life and our work we engage in the world with appreciation of the present and confidence in the future.

Engagement: Close to thirty years ago Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi framed the concept of “Flow,” a state when people are completely absorbed in an activity that challenges them creatively and intellectually. In the state of flow, time loses meaning and we feel an immense sense of presence.

Relationships: Through strong networks of relationships with family, friends and peers, we enhance our own well-being. These networks elevate us in good times and support us in challenging ones.

Meaning: Individuals long to belong to, and to serve something bigger than themselves and, the greater the scope of our efforts the more meaning people will derive from the experience. We are at our best when we dedicate our time to something greater than ourselves.

Accomplishment: Working toward goals, succeeding and then reflecting on once accomplishments enhances individuals sense of self and self-confidence and motivates us to pursue future goals.

Framing our organizations’ culture, values and practices based on these PERMA concepts can create a more positive and productive organizational environment and greater engagement of professionals, board members, donors, and volunteers.

  • Imagine an environment where professionals experience positive emotions such as joy, pride, inspiration and awe; where they have opportunities to be fully engaged in activities that challenge their intellect and creativity.
  • Consider that, while board members appreciate plaques on the wall, they will become dedicated and inspired partners if we engage them in meaningful work and they understand the remarkable impact that their efforts are having on our clients and communities.
  • Imagine the sense of meaning and accomplishment donors will feel when we help them see the impact of their efforts and their dedication is acknowledged.

Some elements of creating a PERMA organizational environment may be simple. Providing opportunities to bring professionals together socially, for birthdays, holidays, staff outings and unscheduled celebrations promotes positive emotions and fosters essential relationships. Other PERMA elements may require that we rethink the nature of our engagement of professionals, board leaders and volunteers. Chait, Ryan and Taylors seminal book Governance as Leadership speaks of involving board members in “generative” activities that engage them in high level discussions that address essential challenges and opportunities. These generative discussions speak of the E and M of the PERMA model – engagement and meaning.

A simple exercise might be for professionals and lay leaders to rate their organization on each element of the PERMA model and to identify 2-3 changes they can make to elevate each of these elements.

Creating a PERMA aware organizational environment is more than “feel good” leadership. Employees, board members and volunteers who feel positive emotions in their efforts, will become more engaged and invested in their work. Supportive and nurturing relationships with colleagues will enhance collaboration and cooperation. Working together to identify and pursue goals will empower board and staff members by advancing engagement, relationships, meaning and a sense of accomplishment. Attending to PERMA; Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment will advance a productive, stable, creative and joyous organization that will elevate its service to its clients, its community and the Jewish people.

David Raphael is an independent Non-Profit Consultant based in Atlanta. He can be reached at: