The Teaching and Practice of POS, Part II: On Being “Normally Blind”

December 18, 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.

In Part I of this series, I suggested that one of the most basic messages of POS is that embracing its principles allows an organization to engender a more positive culture. You would think this is a safe and widely acceptable message.  It is not.

Why?  Because it is outside the normal mindset—to such an extent that leaders are incapable of seeing what is possible when, for example, a negative circumstance arises. As humans, we rely on our experiences to give context to our beliefs and prompt our actions, to define what’s “normal” and appropriate. So change—even positive change—can be threatening.

This topic came up during lunch with a young surgeon friend whose academic specialties include evaluating hospital performance.  He had much to say about how successful hospitals function.  In the middle of our compelling conversation, he paused and then surprised me with a question: “Why do people in finance so often end up as the heads of organizations?”

This caught me off guard, and I improvised some answers.  Economics is a potent discipline, I said, and people who master it have analytic minds.  As they move up, they learn to rigorously evaluate the allocation of resources in the system.  By the time they reach the highest levels of the finance function, they have great tools for managing and controlling an enterprise.  So it makes sense that many such people would be promoted to top positions.

My friend nodded, seeing the logic in my suggestion. He then expressed some reservations about people who operate from the orientation of financial analysis and control.  To illustrate his concerns, he told me two stories of two senior leaders in two different hospitals.

Two Mindsets

The first leader was a CEO with a background in hotel management.  When my friend went with a team of colleagues to visit the hospital, they were warmly greeted at the front door by a man in a top hat.  Inside, they saw the usual information desk and waiting area, but also spaces available to the community for such things as weddings and cooking classes.  As they toured the hospital, they got the impression it was like a five-star hotel.

On their way in, they happened to bump into the CEO, who welcomed them and asked if he could help them in any way. He chatted for a half-hour and shared his vision and philosophy.

During their self-guided tour, they asked the employees about the CEO.  People at the lowest levels talked as if they had a personal relationship with the man.  They also spoke with pride of about the vision and values of the hospital.  Clearly people were unified and felt good about what they were doing.  Their every word and action seemed to convey that they were fully committed to the hospital’s success.  My friend and his associates left deeply impressed.

Shortly thereafter, my friend was dropped off at the front door of his own hospital.  He was met by a gruff woman who wanted to know if he was a student.  No, he explained, he was a surgeon and was scheduled to operate.  She forbade him to enter, citing hospital policy: He would have to go back out and use the employee entrance.  He tried to handle the situation artfully, but the woman threatened to call security.  He went back out.

A few days later, he related what happened in a meeting with a senior officer of his own hospital.  This person responded to the story by asking for the name of the woman. He wanted to fire her.

Both leaders were good men, said my friend. Both were very bright.  The difference was outlook. The first was a leader with sensitivity for purpose and people.  He had the ability to nurture unity and build commitment.  He was a builder of positive culture, a creator of excellence.

The second man had a more analytic orientation to action.  He focused on being in control of his organization and fixing the problems that occurred.  His first inclination, for example, was to terminate.  He did not stop to wonder what cultural conditions within the organization had caused the woman to behave as she had. It did not occur to him that those conditions would not disappear if she were let go.

Without asking that important question, he would be unlikely to ask this equally critical one: How might the culture be reshaped so it gives rise to the spontaneous pursuit of excellence?  Since he probably couldn’t imagine people spontaneously pursuing excellence, this question would be the furthest thing from his mind.

“Normal Blindness”

As my friend returned to his original query about finance, he wondered about the assumptions financially oriented executives bring to the job.  Then he noted an irony.  In his hospital, there was a prime emphasis on profit and growth.   Yet that other hospital was outpacing his hospital in both areas.

He acknowledged that his observations about the two hospitals could be attributed to many other factors besides leadership style. Even so, he said, leaders’ mindsets matter.  If people in authority have a narrow analytic-assumption mindset, the reality they seek to create is also narrow.  Interestingly, he did not condemn this perspective.  He recognized a genuine need for analysis, control, efficiency, and profit.

Yet he wondered about the blindness of the narrow perspective—something I call “normal blindness.”

People like the hotel manager have a deep understanding of culture.  They know they are not separate from the culture.  They are an extension of it.  This knowledge brings power.  If they change themselves, they can change the culture.

People who have the narrow mindset see the organization as a thing—an object from which they are separate.  With this mindset, people become objects to be acted upon as hierarchy allows.  The problem is that the culture does not change.  It can change only when the actor first changes him- or herself.  For people with this narrow paradigm, this notion is almost impossible to process.  It is simply too threatening.  In the next blog entry I will elucidate why.