positive psychology of synergy
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
Anything could happen when synergism occurs.
In bedrooms and boardrooms, from sport's arenas to battlefields,
on factory floors as well as on capital hills, synergy is the key
to optimal performance.
There is an ancient Chinese saying to the effect
that success depends on a combination of providential timing, natural
advantages and harmonious teamwork. In short, when heaven, earth
and people work in concert,dreams come true and miracles take place.
We have just entered the playoff season for
the NHL and NBA. The excitement of playoff games is that an eighth
seeded team could knock off the first seeded defending champion.
Synergy is a big factor in these upset victories, whenever they
In the business world, teamwork is one of the
buzzwords among today's management gurus. There is increasing evidence
that teamwork does not always work. However, when it does work,
it releases creative energies and achieves amazing results. That's
why so many executive coaches specialize in developing the synergic
potential of teamwork.
a recent issue of Psychological
Monitor, APA President Philip Zimbardo talked about the benefits
of nurturing psychological synergies. The combination of teaching,
research and life has been responsible for some of his most well
known discoveries, such as his Stanford
Psychological synergies can also benefit clinicians
when they combine practice with research and life experiences. Some
of the most influential clinical psychologists, such as Donald
Meichenbaum, have done groundbreaking research, which provides
the empirical basis for their practice of psychotherapy.
The emerging interest in the integration of
spirituality and science (e.g., Templeton
Foundation) is yet another example of the human potential of
synergy. Harold Koenig has documented the wide range of benefits
of combining spirituality and religion with medical practices.
Given the enormous practical importance of synergy
in almost every human domain, why has there has been so little psychological
research on this subject? Why is it that even positive psychologists
have not taken it seriously?
The psychology of synergy seems to be based
on the Kurt
Koffka's Gestalt principle that the whole is more than the sum
of its parts. It also is related to Kurt
Lewin's field theory. These observations shed some light on
the neglect of this important topic.
In the last fifty years, mainstream psychology
has been dominated by psychologists steeped in the tradition of
logical positivism and natural sciences. Unfortunately, most psychologists
are still stuck the mindset of Newtonian physics, when our colleagues
in physics have moved beyond relativity theory and quantum theory
towards a unified field theory.
It seems to me that nothing short of a fundamental
paradigm shift could create a scientific climate conducive to research
on psychological synergies. We need to switch from modernity's binary
reasoning to post-modernity's paradoxical thinking. We also need
to develop a human science, which resembles an open, dynamic system.
I have always maintained that a truly positive
psychology capable of enhancing optimal performance in individuals
and organizations around the globe needs to be integrative, holistic
and cross-cultural, embracing a variety of concepts and methodologies.
Perhaps, there is a need for an overarching theory, which incorporates
principles of Gestalt psychology, field theory, and humanistic-existential
psychology. Without such an open-minded approach, many topics vital
to human existence, such as synergy, will continue to be ignored.
At the core of human existence, all creative
processes probably stem from the same source: sexuality and spirituality,
arts and science, the quests for beauty, goodness and truth may
all be connected in some way. Synergy has to do with taping into
the human potential at its deepest level.
Although not much is known about the phenomenon
of synergy, I venture to suggest several relevant aspects as a possible
roadmap for research:
- One of the essential preconditions is a deep
commitment to cooperation and integration.
- There needs to be an ongoing genuine dialogue
- We need to cultivate a generosity of spirit
in which self-agenda becomes replaced by a shared vision.
- There is a gradual loss of "self" in the
engagement, similar to the experience of the Csikszentmihalyi's
flow experience. It may be called the collective flow experience
in the case of teamwork.
- There is a profound awareness of unity and
harmony, resembling Maslow's
concept of peak experiences.
- There is a heightened sensitivity and empathy
towards others to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding and maximize
- There is a well-developed double-vision
with one eye focusing on one's own task, and another eye attending
to the opportunities arising in the larger "life field". This
similar to the constant interplay between figure and ground in
- There is complete openness to new ideas and
- There is willingness and courage to take
Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky seem to have
possessed many of the above characteristics. Could that be one of
the reasons for their unusual accomplishments? In psychology, William
James and Carl Jung also seem to fit the bill. Their enduring influence
in spite of the changing fads and fashions in psychology may be
due to their personal experience of psychological synergies. I believe
that we can learn from these superstars about how synergy works.
More importantly, I hope that this article will stimulate a lot
of research interest in the positive psychology of synergy.