Effects of Positive Leadership and Flow on Employee Well-Being through the PERMA Lens

Research Article

Austin J Psychiatry Behav Sci. 2016; 3(1): 1051.

Effects of Positive Leadership and Flow on Employee Well-Being through the PERMA Lens

Andony T, Gorjian N and Finkelman J*

Department of Public Health, Jessenius Faculty of Medicine in Martin, Comenius University Bratislava, 036 01 Martin, Slovakia

*Corresponding author: Jay Finkelman, Department of Public Health, Jessenius Faculty of Medicine in Martin, Comenius University Bratislava, Mala Hora 4B, 036 01 Martin, Slovakia

Received: August 17, 2015; Accepted: May 25, 2016; Published: June 06, 2016


This study explored the relationship between leadership and employee wellbeing through the theoretical framework of positive organizational psychology. There is a gap of literature related to the impact positive leadership has, both direct and indirect, on employee well-being. Further, few studies identify specific mechanisms by which the relationship is affected. Using novel scales of measurement, the General Inventory for Lasting Leadership [1] the PERMAProfiler, and the Work-Related Flow inventory [2], the study aimed to address this gap as well as expand the growing peer-reviewed literature base for the novel PERMA-Profiler. This quantitative, survey-based study did not find support for a moderation model of leadership’s effect on the relationship between follower well-being and flow (an enhanced state of concentration). Positive leadership did not significantly predict follower well-being, though Vision and Mission was a significant predictor after breaking down the leadership model into sub-scales. Flow significantly predicted well-being. Specifically, intrinsic motivation was the most important flow predictor of extra-role performance. Unexpectedly, post-hoc analysis found a significant, direct relationship between flow and leadership.

Keywords: Positive leadership; PERMA; Employee


It is a well-established notion that the majority of employees leave their boss, not their position [3-6]. At the same time, the current job market does not exactly lend itself to leaving a bad position to find one more suited to an individual’s skills and preferences. Ergo, the workplace is largely comprised of frustrated employees who are either bored, burned out, or ill-suited to a position. They can’t leave, and hate their bosses.

These problems and others have contributed to the rise of “big data”, essentially turning people into numbers to detect patterns, predict turnover, and enhance productivity. While practical in theory, applying big data in the workplace often leads to an ambiguous, massive pile of information that lacks a proper definition or use. Feedback surveys measuring job satisfaction, engagement, personality, team-building, and much more are compiled, analyzed, and dumped on a leader’s desk. Unfortunately without a proper method of translation, these well-meaning metrics are difficult to utilize in a practical manner.

A recent Gallup poll found that 17% of employees leave due to management or the general work environment. In addition to leaving as a direct result of poor management, the author observed that as much as “75% of the reasons for voluntary turnover can be influenced by managers.” [5]. A company must then shift focus to effective leadership development. What if the answer isn’t training management to handle every specific situation but rather to equip them with an understanding of guiding principles for the dynamic, constantly changing workforce? What if a company trains its leaders to properly balance organizational demands and individual goals? Positive leadership is rooted in enhancing the well-being of followers while surpassing organizational goals [7]. Recent research explores how authentic and transformational leadership styles affect employee well-being, conceptualized into outcome variables such as job satisfaction, engagement/burnout, turnover intentions, motivation, and more.

It is important to note the difference between “management” and “leadership” as the two concepts are often confused. Management is a function of the organization, granted to a person in a position of power (such as a supervisor or manager). Leadership, in contrast, can be exhibited by anyone in an organization through certain behaviors and when dictated by the circumstance. As cited by Rupprecht, Waldrop, and Grawitch [1]: “Yukl [asserted] that managers usually interact with or initiate stable processes, while leaders usually interact with or initiate innovative or dynamic processes.” (p. 129) This means that persons who are not in positions of formal authority can act with leadership traits such as goal-setting, innovation, inspiration, and motivation.

In addition to the abundance of leadership style literature, focus has branched into an area of industrial-organizational psychology known as positive organizational psychology, or POP. Positive organizational psychology is study of the application of positive psychology in an organizational setting [8]. Specifically, it is the study of “positive subjective experiences and traits in the workplace and positive organizations, and its application to improve the effectiveness and quality of life in organizations” [8]. Positive organizational behavior focuses on measurable individual strengths and their utilization in the workplace. Positive organizational scholarship focuses on organizational success and efficacy as a result of positive interventions.

Consistent with POP, Martin Seligman’s [9] theory of well-being, PERMA, re-conceptualizes well-being as a higher-order construct comprised of five “pillars”: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. While all five pillars are present, each individual is motivated by stronger forces in one or a few areas. The theory supports a dynamic environment that constantly adjusts an employee’s underlying motivation to behave or think in a certain way.

Another primary concept in POP is flow, introduced by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi [10]. Flow is a state of immersion in a given activity that presents an illusion of time standing still. It is an optimal state of functioning where every potential conflict is anticipated and swiftly conquered, all thought is devoted to the task, and motivation is internally rooted. Csikszentmihalyi [11] used rock climbers gripping the side of a mountain as an example, where one momentary lapse of concentration can lead to the climber slipping off the ledge. In contrast, a heightened state of focus will help a climber achieve his or her difficult and strenuous goal.


There is a gap of research regarding the interaction of specific components of positive leadership styles (transformational, authentic) with well-being. Furthermore, while an abundance of literature identifies various mediating and moderating models of the leaderfollower well-being relationship, few identify specific mechanisms by which this relationship is affected.

This study aims to address the research gap regarding the relationship between positive leadership, flow, and employee wellbeing. In addition, it will support the growing peer-reviewed literature base for the PERMA model by linking it to existing literature in the leadership and positive psychology domains.

Research questions

Definition of terms

Flow: A momentary experience that is characterized by a period of intense focus, high enjoyment (either during or after), and a sense of time standing still [11].

Authentic Leadership (AL): A leadership style that emphasizes moral and ethical behavior, identified by internalized moral perspective, balanced processing, relational transparency, and selfawareness [12].

Transformational Leadership (TFL): A leadership style that connects leader goals and employee motivation. Components include idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration [13].

Positive leadership: Leadership style that seeks to enhance positive emotions, empowerment, and engagement felt by employees [14,15].

PERMA: Theory of well-being consisting of five “pillars”: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment [16].

PWB: Theory of well-being consisting of six domains: selfacceptance, environmental mastery, positive relations, purpose in life, personal growth, and autonomy [17].

Experience Sampling Method (ESM): A measurement technique developed to measure flow by asking participants to wear a pager and answer questions when prompted at specified intervals [11].

Literature review

This section begins with a brief summary of the historical background of leadership literature, placing particular emphasis on transformational and authentic leadership styles. It then examines the breadth of historical well-being research as it applies to Seligman’s [16] PERMA framework and concludes with a summary of flow research, paying particular attention to work-related flow.


In a recent meta-analysis [18], examined the body of leadership literature from the past quarter century. The study found transformational, LMX, and strategic leadership styles were among the most-researched styles during the time period examined. They grouped authentic, implicit, and shared leadership into a category labeled “other”, noting research in these areas collectively represented less than 20% of all literature studied.

Combining leadership and well-being research with business outcomes, Keyes, Hysom, and Lupo [19] emphasized the cyclical impact of leadership on employee well-being and ultimately an organization’s bottom line. The researchers introduced a theory through which leadership positively promotes employee well-being, which in turn affects positive business outcomes that loop back and create a more sustainable enhanced state of employee well-being (p. 150).

Positive leadership: In an introduction to a special issue of The Psychologist-Manager Journal, Clifton [20] stated the issue’s material was “to our knowledge, the first ever to address positive psychology from a managerial perspective.” (p. 125). Positive leadership encompasses a variety of perspectives, all of which stem from the notion that leadership contributes to meeting goals and expectations and improving the overall health of organizations, teams, and individuals [21,22]. Donaldson and Ko [23] grouped transformational, authentic, charismatic, and altruistic leadership styles under the positive leadership umbrella. Consistent with this definition, Smith et al. [22] combined transformational and authentic styles to examine positive leadership’s impact on various employee outcomes (Figure 1).

Citation: Andony T, Gorjian N and Finkelman J. Effects of Positive Leadership and Flow on Employee Well-Being through the PERMA Lens. Austin J Psychiatry Behav Sci. 2016; 3(1): 1051. ISSN : 2381-9006