Mappsterview No. 4: Dan Bowling on Turning the Tide at Coca-Cola and Lawyer (Un-)Happiness

I was in the ninth cohort of the Master of Applied Positive Program at Penn. Consequently, there are tons of brilliant MAPP Alumni out there that have very fascinating stories to tell: about their experience with the program, about Positive Psychology in general – and about themselves of course. I really want to hear those stories. That´s why I started to do Mappsterviews* with my predecessors.

Today, you are going to meet Dan Bowling, very successful lawyer turned very successful manager turned very successful Law and Positive Psychology teacher and researcher. Actually, I´m supposed to be writing MAPP finals instead of blogging right in this moment. Such is life. Our final papers are a lot about going through our former papers and teaching notes, about integrating and “hunting the good stuff”. Yesterday, I wrote a passage about my “heureka moments” in MAPP. And since I like to link my insights to the people that are “responsible” for those insights, here´s what I wrote about Dan Bowling:

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing it with style.

Please introduce yourself briefly:

Dan BowlingMy name is Dan Bowling. I am Senior Lecturing Fellow at Duke Law School, where I teach courses on labor law, employment law, and positive psychology and the practice of law. These classes seem to be popular among the students, maybe because I bring pizza and wine for the class every now and then. I also run a small consultancy, Positive Workplace Solutions LLC, which provides executive coaching and legal consulting for C-Level executives and professionals (I am a licensed attorney). I work with Martin Seligman’s team at UPenn’s Positive Psychology Center doing empirical research on strengths and lawyers, and have helped teach in MAPP for the past 5 years. I speak regularly at legal and/or positive psychology conferences, and write a featured blog for Talent Management Magazine called Psychology at Work. I tweet silly and irrelevant stuff @BowlingDan if you would like to follow me.

What got you interested in Positive Psychology in the first place?

I have always been fascinated by different personality traits. I started my career after graduating from Duke Law in 1980 as a labor and employment litigator and it struck me how important a role personality played in why one employee sues you and another doesn’t, even if their job circumstances are the same. I made partner in a large Atlanta law firm in 1986 but was shortly thereafter recruited by Coca-Cola to help form the new law department of its bottling operations, which it spun off as Coca-Cola Enterprises in the largest IPO in history. My interests in the psychological components of work continued during my career with Coca-Cola Enterprises, where I held a variety of jobs including President of a nine-state, 2 billion dollar operating region, as I developed a firm belief in the link between optimism and positive emotions in employee and corporate performance.

I had the opportunity to put my theories into practice in the latter stages of my career, when I was named head of human resources for the entire company. Frankly, the organization was down. We were under legal assault by small groups of hostile employees. Rather than aggressively defending the claims – which I found spurious – our programs and energies were focused on an agonized self-examination of what we did to prompt such claims. The halls were full of consultants and lawyers and days were consumed by meetings, all focused on what was “wrong” with us and how we could treat it. Not surprisingly, our “disease” was metastasizing, and corporate maladies previously unknown (or non-existent) were being discovered and stern remedies subscribed. Managers and employees forgot about selling Coke and spent their time instead in a variety of “workshops,” the corporate equivalent of Mao’s re-education camps.

Our new HR team decided to flip the paradigm, and look at what was right about the company – a focus on the life above zero, as Marty Seligman says. It didn’t take long to learn that the vast majority of the employee grievances were brought by a handful of perpetually complaining employees, often sponsored by outside interest groups, and were generally unfounded. We also found that most of our employees were quite happy with us as an employer. We starting asking a very basic question of ourselves: “Why is it 95% of our HR programs and initiatives are focused on the 5% of employees who hate us? Why spend our precious resources and energies on the perpetually dissatisfied few? Why not focus on efforts on those who want to build a better company and believe we can?” Eventually, we resolved our issues quite successfully, the grumblers moved on, and we spent the rest of our time in HR doing things to hire and engage people who were a positive contribution to our company. When I turned 50, it was time to move on, so I joined the Duke Law faculty teaching labor and employment law, while continuing my research into optimism and positive personality traits by receiving a masters in applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Your are a lawyer, you teach law, and via MAPP (at the lastest…) you know that lawyers are among the unhappiest professions. Why do you think that is the case?

That question is at the core of my current research and writing interests. First, I must challenge the premise – I think the data is not conclusive that lawyers are among the unhappiest professions, although the majority of the literature seems to suggest so. Regardless, law school and law practice seem to exacerbate depressive tendencies in persons with those tendencies, which isn’t surprising given the number of hours lawyers work in pressurized environments on things they are not intrinsically motivated to do. But as to whether lawyers as a population are significantly unhappier than other large groups of highly educated professionals, more research is needed.

Do you have plans to do anything about that?

To effect real change in the profession, it is of critical importance to establish a link between well-being and legal professionalism for the happiness of lawyers to be taken seriously, and my goal is to help provide that framework for the legal profession.

According to what you´ve learned about Positive Psychology, if I were the CEO of a company: what are three things that I should start doing right away?

1) Identify and develop leaders who are optimistic and enthusiastic about the success of others; 2) incorporate strengths-based employee assessment and development programs; and 3) use better psychometrics to support the hiring and talent acquisition process.


Thank you, Dan, for this Mappsterview! If you are a MAPP alumnus and would like to have your story featured here – please go ahead and shoot me an e-mail!