Teaching the Practice of POS, Part I: Understanding the Basic Message

December 17, 2012

By: Robert E. Quinn

Originally posted on the LIFT Blog

In this five-part series, I explore the ways in which positive organizational scholarship’s teachers and practitioners can use empirical examples to make the subject both clear and engaging.

To  help individuals and organzations implement the principles of positive organizational scholarship, its teachers and practitioners must understand and effectively communicate its potential. This may sound simple, but it is more difficult than it might seem.

I was once asked to explain POS’s tenets in a short video clip.  In preparing for it, I really struggled. Then I remembered a story—not a story about organizations, but nonetheless a powerful analog.

This story helps clarify one of the most important messages of POS: Positivity makes it possible to reprogram ourselves and our organizations so that they are more adaptable.  This story comes from my journal, and I once used it as a blog entry.

I was at a meeting with some professional colleagues, one of whom was a highly accomplished woman.  She told us that she had kept a gratitude journal for 18 months. We were impressed. Then she told us that she stopped. We were surprised, and we implicitly communicated a feeling of disappointment.  She picked up the message and told us she quit because she no longer needed to keep it.  She did not need to write because she was living in a continuous state of gratitude.

I was so impressed that I later asked her to tell me more.  She indicated that her father was a very critical man, and she grew up acquiring this same trait.  If she heard a wonderful concert, but the soloist missed a note, she would remember the mistake, not the beautiful music that surrounded it. She related to people in a similar fashion. Rather than celebrating their gifts and the things they did right, she looked for their flaws (and with loved ones, constantly tried to help them correct them!).  The quality of her life reflected her focus.  Because she focused on the negative, what she saw inside herself and all around her were the flaws and the problems.

Keeping the gratitude journal was very difficult at first, and she struggled to find three things every day that were positive.  But as she continued, she experienced intrinsic rewards.  The more she lived in the state of gratitude, the more desire she had to live in gratitude, and the easier it became to do so.  She extended her efforts and, in addition to continuing to write in her gratitude journal, she involved her family in sharing three expressions of gratitude with each other at dinner every night.  Her life became increasingly happy, and her whole family became more focused on the gifts of the day and each other than their flaws.

In my original reflection on this story, I pointed out that this woman’s brain was naturally programmed to attend to the negative.  In keeping the journal, she engaged in a discipline that had some short-term rewards like increased happiness.  But after 18 months there was a deeper change—a new way of being.  When something happened, good or bad, her new framework led her to see and appreciate the good, even in the bad experiences.

An extraordinary transformation had occurred.  Because of her orientation, her bad experiences were instructive.  They increased her adaptive capacity.  All her experiences were accumulating for her good.  By committing to self-change, she reprogrammed her old self into a better self, and she was living a more positive life for within herself and interacting with others.

The POS Message

Just as this woman reprogrammed her brain and changed how her life evolved, we can reprogram our organizational cultures and our stakeholders’ quality of life. Consider these parallels:

  • -Most organizations are programmed to attend to the negative.
  • -In attending to the negative, people reconstruct the negative.  The negativity is justified as normal and even necessary.
  • -The negative becomes self-perpetuating.
  • -The change process starts when one person exercises the confidence to behave differently and invites others to join.
  • -There are some short-term rewards.
  • -The process requires prolonged discipline.
  • -Eventually there is a deep change, and a new culture emerges.
  • -As the culture becomes more positive, people see their experiences differently.
  • -Negative experiences continue to happen but now have new value.
  • -In a positive culture, mistakes are less threatening, so people can discuss them, and these discussions become platforms of learning and change.
  • -organization is thus better able to learn and becomes more adaptive.
  • -All experiences accumulate for the good of the organization.
  • -Through the reprogramming of the culture, every constituency benefits because there is an increase in win-win experiences.

The overall lesson? An organization can change its culture to a positive one–and in doing so, create more value.

Such positive change is not something imposed from the top down.  It is an organic process that begins with a single person at any level of the hierarchy.

Our challenge as teachers and practitioners of POS is to provide the scientific facts and the inspiring support that will help people find the faith and courage to make their cultures more positive—to lead positive change from where they are.

This week, I’ll share a number of blog entries to help you think about this challenge.