The Teaching and Practice of POS, Part III: Recognizing How Threatening the Message Really Is

December 20, 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 POS’s central message is that an organization can have a more positive culture. In yesterday’s entry, Part II, I explained how “Normal Blindness” caused people to ignore such opportunities. I went on to state that POS’s message is actually threatening to those with the normal mindset.What responsibility does this fact put on POS teachers and practitioners?

An MBA student who is also my teaching assistant had an experience that demonstrates the nature of the resistance we often see to POS. He is in his last semester of the MBA program and has taken a number of classes in POS. Moreover, he is deeply committed to the ideas and applications of the field.

He was taking his final POS class from one of my colleagues.  There were several group assignments.  He met with his learning team, and, after the group mapped out a strategy for the paper, suggested there was more material in the readings that they could integrate into the paper.  His team members resisted.  One student said, “It is just a 1.5 credit Management and Organization class.”

My TA decided his colleagues were lazy, plain and simple.  Then he had another experience that greatly altered his assessment.

The team met again to strategize for the final.  The professor gave them five issues to cover and advised them not to break the issues out and have one team member write about each issue.  Instead they should discuss all five and write from an integrated perspective.

The team decided to do the opposite.  Each one would take one issue and write.  My TA again concludedthey were lazy.  He hoped that he could improve the quality of the product by volunteering to be the one who integrated the five statements into a final paper.  The team accepted his offer.

Each person sent my TA his or her individual write-up.  As he read them, he came to two surprising conclusions.  “It became very clear to me that they did not understand the basic assumptions of POS,” he said. My TA realized the students were using their dismissal to mask a deeper emotion: fear.  “Their earlier statement, ‘It is just a 1.5 credit Management and Organization class,’ was actually a cover-up,” he explained. “They denigrated the field and the number of credit hours to justify their fear.  In fact, they recognized that POS was inviting them to make a life change that they did not have the confidence necessary to accept.  They were living in denial.”

I was quite taken by this observation.  I have spent a career listening to executives say things like, “That touchy feely stuff is a bunch of crap.”  Such statements are almost always presented in a posture of strength.  Over the years, however, it has become clear that they are actually statements of fear and weakness.  The people who make these statements know intuitively that that they are not fully effective—that they are walking through life, leaving behind a trail of human debris.  They intuitively know that they should change, but they are full of fear.  They lack the self-efficacy to make a shift.

The teacher or practitioner of POS takes on an unusual responsibility: serving as a catalyst for transformational influence.  It is not enough to present scientific facts derived from POS research.  More is required.  One must see the frightened person of the normal mindset with appreciative eyes.  The fearful person must be honored and nurtured so he or she finds the courage to learn.

We cannot change people by resenting them for resenting us and our message.  To do so is to live by their normal mindset.  In the next blog entry, I will consider the process of transcending the normal and narrow mindset.