Why Positive Organizations Matter

Creating workplaces conducive to human flourishing is one of the most important challenges facing the world today. Rising to this challenge will not be easy.

One can paint a gloomy picture of the human experience in organizations today. Just 30% of the American workforce is actively engaged in their work99% have experienced or witnessed incivility in the workplaceAround the world, there are 168 million child laborers. Of these, 85 million are involved in hazardous work that puts their health or safety in jeopardy.

Moving forward, there is reason to think that this landscape will become even more treacherous. There simply will not be enough jobs to go around. Artificial intelligence and automation, combined with population growth, have led some commentators to predict extreme dislocation of workers and accompanying social unrest. This is exacerbated by systems and policies that are accelerating economic inequality. Indeed, many credit this dynamic as being an influencing factor in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. In November, disenfranchised voters cast an angry ballot for a candidate promising to bring back the good days in industries such as coal mining that are surely on death’s door.

Yet there is reason to be hopeful as well. As Scott DeRue, Dean of the Michigan Ross Business School, often says, “business has the potential to be the greatest force for good in the world.” Indeed, business will have a central role to play in the accomplishment of every single one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Business is a powerful force for economic development. Globally, extreme poverty has been reduced by 50% (or more) in the last thirty years. Business is a powerful force for human development, too. Millions of people find their organizations to be a source of deep meaning and uplifting relationships in their lives.

We are in an era of intense disruption technologically, politically, economically, and socially. In this situation, we can choose to be victims, accepting whatever hand fate may deal us. Or we can seek to come out of this period of change invigorated by a new and better world of work. In every crisis comes opportunity.

We can make workplaces healing and generative spaces for ourselves and others. Some have argued that the deeper purpose of business is to bestow dignity on those engaged in it. We earn the respect of ourselves and others because of the values we embody and the contributions we make to the world around us. We can create good jobs, paid enough, with working conducive to human flourishing.

We have reason to believe that embracing the pursuit of positive organizations will be better for firm performance, too. At a firm level, there is a correlation between appearing on the Best Places to Work list and their stocks performance. For those of us working within organizations, there are implications. Those who have a high degree of learning and vitality – what Spreitzer and Porath call Thriving – are likely to have higher performance and experience less burnout than those who do not.

The time is now to build positive organizations. The world needs it. And each of us needs it – as leaders, students, scholars, and citizens.


This post was written for the Huffington Post’s Great Work Cultures initiative.

How Things Spread

As some of you know, I write and teach about how change happens without authority in organizations. So in listening to this TED Radio Hour podcast on my walk into work, I found a lot to get excited about.

Did you know that sliced bread did not take off as a product immediately? And yet now it is held up as the best thing ever. We even compare how compelling a new idea is to sliced bread. So why did sliced bread take ten years to get traction? And why did it finally take ten years to take hold? Seth Godin tells this story, and perspectives from Bill Gates, and Nicholas Christakis on network science were other highlights in this TED Radio Hour slot.

In particular, Christakis’ systems-level approach to identifying and mobilizing allies was fascinating and consistent with the tactics that Jerry Davis and I (and others, like Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point) advocate.

100 days of rejection

As a follow up from my last Huffington Post piece: I came across this TED talk by Jia Jiang and wanted to share it. So inspiring!

I love the vulnerability, humor, and boldness of this. All of us carry some experiences with us for decades that shape our approach to risk, rejection, and failure. And like many people, I certainly could benefit from a booster shot of resilience from time to time. Jia’s description of his relationship with failure and rejection is well worth hearing.

Please Reject My Idea

When was the last time you made a proposal at work that was rejected? Was it quickly out of hand? Or was it “death by a thousand cuts”?

This experience has happened to almost everyone at work. Depending on how it is handled, rejection of ideas can feel like incivility or even discrimination. It can lead good employees to disengage from their work, metaphorically hiding under the table rather than risk feeling like they and their ideas are being shot down again.

Recently, I had an idea rejected at work. Fortunately, my boss is possibly the most thoughtful person in the world. But that does not mean we always agree. We can disagree yet maintain mutual respect, trust, and appreciation. Nevertheless, it was frustrating, and it was disappointing. But it led to something better.

Let me explain: Over the past year, demand our programs at the Center for Positive Organizations has grown pretty much across the board. We have more students in our learning programs, more people attending our events, and more leaders in our co-learning community. This happened in a year when our budget was reduced by 30% due to the expiration of a major gift. As you can imagine, this has put a lot of strain on the team. I am ever so proud of how they have responded to the challenge.

Simultaneously, my own role has become more complex. I feel a constant tension between supporting internal operations and connecting with external partners. This is a dilemma familiar to anyone building a business (or, in our case, a social enterprise).

We needed to evolve how we work in order to match the changing demand system. I proposed that we hire or promote someone to spend more time being a servant leader to our staff, and I would focus more externally. The idea was given consideration, but the response was no. The rejection was swift and it was consistent. Yet the decision was not accompanied by any viable alternative suggestions. “Go figure it out,” was the implicit message. “Find something better.”

I felt grumpy about this rejection but was still committed to the goal of finding a way to manage what needed to be done for us to be successful. Living in that uncomfortable creative tension of having a pressing goal but no clear path, new options gradually started to emerge. By serendipity, Rice University Professor Scott Sonenshein (a member of our Research Advisory Board) recently released Stretch, a fantastic book on doing more with less. Scott gave a Positive Links talk at Michigan Ross which helped me reframe the problem. I then had a walking meeting with my colleague Brian to swap notes on team structures, which gave me new ideas. Finally, planning for three weeks of leave this summer for my wedding and honeymoon, while very exciting, also forced me to think creatively about how things will get managed without me being so hands on every day.

The resulting idea was better than the original band-aid solution of adding staff members. Drawing on some of the principles of self-organizing teams, I decided to democratize our team processes. Companies such as Cascade Engineering have skillfully experimented with enabling people to manage themselves with great results. Why couldn’t we take a step in that direction?

We are now running an experiment where each meeting has its purpose and design laid out for anyone to run it. This means that as our personnel changes over time, we can easier assimilate new people to our way of working. The person running each meeting is selected based on a principle, not a title or a name. This means that although meeting attendees may vary, there is always someone clearly responsible for running each meeting. For instance, our morning stand-up huddle is run by the newest person on the team that is present, and I happily defer to her. Our monthly lunch and learn meetings are led by whoever signed up to offer the first update. If I have to miss meetings, whether it be to give a presentation to executives or to get married, it is clear how things should run, and how to support each other.

We came to what promises to be a better way of doing things: a way that is potentially more effective at supporting people, providing leadership development opportunities, and creates stronger social fabric on the team. And we did it without increasing headcount or budget.

This process of finding opportunity in disappointment can be applied elsewhere. There were five important steps:

  1. The intention was clear. As my colleague and transformational leadership expert Bob Quinn asks so often: “What is the result we want to create?”
  2. The constraint was clear. What can’t we have or do in pursuing this goal?
  3. The mental reframe. How can this be the catalyst to coming up with something even better?
  4. The solutions emerged. Who and what can we turn to for further ideas? How can multiple ideas be combined to achieve our goals?
  5. The experiment. How will we test potential solutions?

Having our ideas rejected is not a pleasant experience. But there are a million ways to do everything. With the right perspective and approach, we can turn it into an even better outcome for everyone involved.

Chris White (@leadpositively, leadpositively.com, chriswhi@umich.edu) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

 

Originally appeared at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/please-reject-my-idea_us_59120586e4b0e3bb894d5b12

How to Avoid Being a Fake Positive Leader

There are sessions taught in some companies these days on “Executive Presence.” Such courses help high-potential employees to walk, talk, and look like a leader is meant to look. Whatever that is.

Ugh.

All too often, programs like these emphasize techniques people can employ to create a certain impression, rather than their underlying leadership principles and values. Consequently, the practices advocated are not strongly rooted in integrity. Nobody enjoys feeling like they are on the receiving end of a technique that someone is trying in order to get what they want. We call that manipulation. When people try to be someone they are not, we experience it as superficial, inauthentic and insincere.

Instead, let us pay more attention to our belief systems about leadership and organizations. Here are three mental shifts that allow the practices of being a positive leader to be enacted with integrity, and real impact.

1. From fixed to growth mindset

Do you believe that your abilities in a particular area are set in stone, or do you believe that — given proper attention — that they can improve? Do you hold the same belief about those around you? How you answer those questions may have implications for happiness and performance related outcomes, according to research by Carol Dweck. In short, cultivating a growth mindset – one that emphasizes the learning journey over the immediate results – helps drive a range of helpful outcomes.

We can help ourselves to adopt a growth mindset by being deliberate about our learning experiences in our day-to-day roles. Sue Ashford and Scott DeRue, faculty associates at the Center for Positive Organizations, call this “mindful engagement.” Rather than being dependent on standalone training sessions, the mindful engagement process can be applied to many of our ongoing tasks and responsibilities. For instance, perhaps you want to get better at leading a team meeting, or conducting a performance appraisal for the first time, the process can be broken down into three main steps:

a) Set learning goals. Before beginning any particular experience, identify your learning goals. What is it that you are seeking to develop here? What experiments are you running?

b) Get input. While undertaking the experience, the researchers recommend collecting feedback from others. What is going well? What is not? Why?

c) Debrief. Afterward, conduct an After Action Review. What should we keep for next time? What should we adjust for next time?

2. From problem solving to possibility finding

Sometimes, there are problems that do need to be fixed. So fix them! Positive leadership does not mean ignoring things that need to be improved. But many people go overboard with an obsessive focus on problem solving.

We see the obsession all around us. Organizational antibodies just love to find initiatives that do not look like the rest of the system. They kill everything that looks different by a thousand cuts. “We tried that once and it failed,” says one colleague. “We could never try that here, it wouldn’t work,” says another. Or, sometimes, you will just get ignored. These are all insidious ways of damping down the enthusiasm of those trying to create positive change.

As leaders, we can choose to place the majority of our attention and leadership energy on what is working well. Part of the key to creating sustainable change is to carefully ration the amount of change imposed from the outside. Instead, it is almost always better to find what is already working inside an organization and amplify it. “What is going well here?” positive leaders ask on a daily basis. “How could we make it even better?”

3. From hierarchical thinking to influence without authority

When you think of getting things done in your organization, do you picture an organizational chart? Or do you imagine a network of relationships? In reality, of course, most organizations are both hierarchical and based on networks of relationships.

However, the concept to which you assign primacy here says something about how you think of the workplace.

Positive leaders recognize that seldom are organizational decisions made by a single dominant player. Rather, there are influence systems around decision makers, where people are constantly jockeying for position. Within these systems, the degree to which you positively energize those around you can in turn impact the influence you have in the organization and the performance. By energizing others with character strengths such as compassion, presence, enthusiasm, purpose, generosity, humor, and care, you can both improve performance, and become more influential in the system. In turn, you may also make the culture more resilient.

Adopt a growth mindset. Encourage it in others. Find and amplify the good. Be a positive energizer. Help others to be positive energizers too. That’s the kind of executive whose presence I want to be in.

Chris White (@leadpositively, leadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business (@MichiganRoss). The Center is the convener of the Consortium of Positive Organizations, a catalytic co-learning community of leaders actively building high-performing organizations where people thrive.

Originally at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/how-to-avoid-being-a-fake-positive-leader_us_58eba536e4b0145a227cb6da

What Positive Leadership is Not

It drives me nuts.

Few things make me crazier than when people misunderstand what it means to be “positive” in the workplace, and then project that misunderstanding onto others. Many people interpret positive leaders as being “nice” or “happy” all the time. While this may be true, being nice and happy all the time is not the goal of being a positive leader. My purpose in this blog post is to dispel three of the most common misconceptions about what it means to be a positive leader or to build a positive organization. By doing so, perhaps we can become better leaders, too.

I may experience uncomfortable misunderstandings about the nature of positive leadership and positive organizations more often than most (as managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations). Here are some interactions from a typical day in my life:

  • I get into an elevator, and someone says to his neighbor “uh oh, better be happy now!” Cue awkward laughter, and then silence.
  • A student is outraged when I give her a suggestion for improvement. “I thought you were meant to be ‘positive,’” she complains angrily. Cue difficult conversation.
  • A meeting participant apologizes to me — “I’m sorry, I know this isn’t very positive, but…” — before sharing his important concerns about a project. Cue concern about how many other people are holding back their good ideas because of this inaccurate interpretation of the word “positive.”

These minor situations reflect dangerous misunderstandings of what it means to be a positive leader, or to attempt to build a positive team or organization. Here are three of the most common misconceptions about people aspiring to be positive leaders:

1. “You have an overly optimistic view of the world (or yourself)”

Wrong. Positive leaders are actually trying to have a more accurate view of the world and ourselves than occurs naturally for most of us.

We are naturally wired to dwell on negative feedback longer than positive feedback. Indeed, studies suggest that our memories weight negative feedback more than three times stronger than positive feedback. As such, most people have an unreasonably pessimistic view of themselves. Think about the last time you received a combination of negative and positive feedback points. Which kind of feedback did you dwell on more? By consciously noticing, savoring, and celebrating positive experiences, we are actually just bringing things back into more of a realistic (and healthy) equilibrium.

2. “You are okay with poor performance, effort, or behavior”

Wrong. Positive leaders are committed to applying an affirmative bias, and to achieving extraordinary outcomes.

A foundational piece of research by founders of Positive Organizational Scholarship addressed the need for both/and attributes throughout organizational culture. We need to be both competitive and collaborative. We need to be both creative and have strong controls in our processes where necessary. And of course we need to be both supportive and challenging to help people grow. Bob Quinn has used the metaphor of a positive leader having one hand on her teammate’s back to push her along faster than she thought possible; the other is under her arm to break her fall if needed. Giving someone endless free passes for sub-par performance is not being a positive leader. In fact, it is not being a leader at all.

3. “You should be happy all the time”

Wrong. Positive leaders experience the same range of emotions as everyone else.

Unless you have truly achieved enlightenment, most of us experience a range of emotions. We are happy, sad, angry, curious, perplexed, excited, and much more over the course of any given day or week. Trying to force ourselves to be happy all the time, or pretend we are happy when we are not, is inauthentic. This lays the seeds for unsatisfying relationships with others, and sets people on a slippery slope toward depression.

We can choose to cultivate gratitude in our lives though. We can appreciate our good qualities and experiences. We can appreciate the contributions of others. We can deliberately try to notice and celebrate these things with sincerity and enthusiasm. Like a muscle, our ability to experience and express gratitude gets stronger with use. The more grateful we are, the more genuinely happy we are – and the better we will be as leaders.

Positive leaders are committed to finding and amplifying what works well in their organizations. They help to create elevated purpose for the whole, and help individuals find meaning in their work. They foster energizing relationships. They act with integrity and compassion. If they happen to be nice or happy from time to time as well; hopefully, the rest of the world will welcome that, too!

Chris White (@leadpositively, leadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

Everyday Courage in Organizations

When you think about courage at work, what comes to mind? Maybe it is fire fighters going into a crumbling, burning building to rescue people. Or our armed services deployed overseas, facing the threat of injury or death every day. Or even a pilot safely landing a plane on the Hudson River in critical conditions.

For me, the first image that comes to mind is taking one of the first flights back from New York to home in San Francisco after 9/11/2001. For a few days, no flights had taken off from New York as experts raced to understand and adapt to a new threat of items in our day to day experiences being weaponized. Throughout the flight, all passengers were told to stay in their seats. This wasn’t a recommendation, as it sometimes feels today. We were being closely watched by the multiple air marshals on the flight. After the plane safely landed, the flight crew hugged each other, the tension and relief evident on their faces.

These are examples of physical courage. Although most of us do not have working conditions that place us in harm’s way on a daily basis, we can recognize and appreciate the courage of those who do.

A simple working definition of courage is “the ability to do something that frightens one”. If we are being honest (or self-aware), what scares us goes well beyond the threat of physical harm. Indeed, psychological fear is probably much more prevalent for most of us than fear for our physical safety. Let’s call managing this fear and moving ahead anyway “Everyday Courage”.

One of the ways that we have the opportunity to experience and enact Everyday Courage is in standing up for our values. Bullying is all too prevalent in our organizations, as it is too in other parts of our society. In fact, 20 years of studies by Christine Porath and others suggest that 99% of people have either experienced or witnessed incivility in the workplace. Taking a stand against toxic behaviors – whether toward ourselves or others  – is an important and inspiring form of Everyday Courage.

We also express Everyday Courage in what we stand for, not just what we stand against. When we take action to create change without authority, we can often be entering into psychologically threatening territory. It is likely that all of us have experienced being excited about an idea we have had, that we think will really help a colleague, our team or organization, or other stakeholders. It is equally likely that we have experienced our idea being rejected. In some cases, we may also have had our wrists slapped for making the effort. Stepping on invisible landmines in organizational politics can be treacherous!

It is not pleasant to experience these mini (and sometimes not-so-mini) electric shocks from the organizational system. It is tempting to internalize them as a message to stop trying to make a difference. After all, as any parent or leader knows, we humans respond to pleasure and pain as we learn behaviors. We learn to do what earns us pleasure (or praise, or a bonus, or intrinsic satisfaction), and we learn to avoid what brings us pain (or criticism, or rejection).  I believe that this cycle is a significant contributor to so many people checking out at work. Sure, they show up, but they stop trying to make a difference. Or, worse still, they ally with those knocking down the folks who are still trying. Because it is so much easier (i.e. Requires much less psychological courage) to be a Monday morning quarterback than the guy (or girl) on the field trying make plays.

So what can you do to bolster Everyday Courage in your organization?

  1. Give yourself – and others who try to make a positive difference – credit for your efforts. This is an act of Everyday Courage. By giving this behavior this label you are narrating a positive identity for yourself and others. In doing so you are bolstering the resilience needed to keep going even when you run into resistance.
  2. Prepare yourself psychologically for the interaction. The father-son team of Robert and Ryan Quinn suggest asking yourself four questions to help enter the “fundamental state of leadership”. What is the result you want to create? What do other people think about this? Who would I be in this situation if I lived up to the standards I expect of others? What are 3-5 strategies I could employ here?
  3. Build your skills at creating change without authority. When plotting how to advance your idea, my co-author Jerry Davis and I recommend you consider four factors: When to move ahead? Who are the allies I need on board? Why is this a good idea for the people (and organization) affected? How should we organize around this?

Thank you for everyday courage in making a positive difference in your organization and the world. You inspire me!

Chris White (@leadpositivelyleadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.
Post originally appeared here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/58767913e4b0f8a72544843d?timestamp=1484162172876