Faculty Research

illustration of people smiling and laughing in office space
Michael Pirson, Ph.D., Sophia Town, Ph.D., and Ayse Yemiscigil, Ph.D.
Leading People and Organizations
For decades, the state of the modern workplace has been complicated and in flux. In fact, Michael Pirson, Ph.D., the James A.F. Stoner Chair for Global Sustainability and the Leading People and Organizations area chair at the Gabelli School, has spent much of his career observing lower levels of individual happiness and increasing levels of anxiety in the workplace. His research indicates that the global workforce has become largely disengaged.

One aspect of Pirson’s work has focused on the area of human flourishing, which involves the continual development of human potential and living well as a human being by being engaged in relationships and activities that are meaningful. “Human flourishing is the ultimate purpose of life,” Pirson said. “And from all the evidence we have, there’s not much human flourishing happening in organizations. We have a systemic, an organizational, and an individual symptom assembly, and ultimately it’s deeply rooted in one thing—how we lead.”

Pirson, along with Sophia Town, Ph.D., and Ayse Yemiscigil, Ph.D., both assistant professors of organizational behavior in the Leading People and Organizations area, are leaders in a field that emphasizes the humanistic perspectives of management theory. This dignity-based approach aims to create balanced, healthy workplaces that are conducive to the desired futures of employees and other stakeholders.

“People want to believe that their whole self, their whole person—who they are as an individual—is honored, recognized, embraced, and celebrated at work,” Town said.

Driven by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing “Great Resignation,” many organizations have already started to orient themselves toward becoming places that overtly try to help employees thrive. Still, the demand for things like fair time off, maternity and paternity leave, and well-being initiatives has outpaced the organizational changes needed to offer these policies and practices.

Pirson, Town, and Yemiscigil recently partnered with Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program, which received a three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation to measure how organizational structures grounded in love can create positive outcomes for both employees and companies. They define love as a positive, fraternal mindset that lets individuals in a workplace see their colleagues, direct reports, and supervisors as full and complete human beings.

To accompany policy changes and further transform the ways employees relate to their work, they advocate for a behavioral approach to leadership built on communication between individuals.

“You don’t have to have a title, but, instead, if you say something and frame something in a way that creates opportunities and expansiveness for your employees, your subordinates, and your peers so they see something in a more tenable way, that is an act of leadership,” Town said.

Already, the group is collaborating with other institutions that are making this paradigm shift, including the U.N. and other Jesuit universities.

“There is an increasing awareness that organizations have to acknowledge the humanity of the workers and care for their fundamental need for well-being,” Yemiscigil, who has been a research fellow at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, said. “Well-being has become a necessary consideration to recruit and retain top talent, to have an engaged, high-performing workforce, and therefore, a profitable, competitive organization, but organizations can also view it simply as their ethical responsibility and an ultimate end goal.”

Pirson sees a deep hunger for this kind of framework and the knowledge, insight, and teaching it entails. “I ultimately hope that this collaboration will offer educational institutions and organizations at large a what, a how, and empirical evidence of why this works.”

-Michael Benigno