What is “The Positive Lens”

December 18, 2012

By: Chris White

Originally posted on Lead Positively

If you have moved in Positive Organizational Scholarship circles for a while, you may have come across the term “The Positive Lens”. Those who use the term seem to know what it is, and feel it is important – profound even. Those who do not know what is means seem confused and sometimes even a little skeptical.

So what is “The Positive Lens”? To me, it is the orientation that looks for opportunity and possibility in situations and people, where most others only see adversity, crisis and failure. I view this as different from being irrationally optimistic. You can both acknowledge the reality of the situation, and look for the opportunity inherent in it. When life throws you lemons, the positive lens would say, make lemonade. But that doesn’t mean you have to  deny the fact that you would rather have had oranges, or even a candy bar.

I was reminded of the presence of the Positive Lens in my life in a recent experience. Our finance department is (wisely) taking steps to improve financial controls throughout the school. The other day, I received an email saying “Congratulations! Your Unit has been selected for the RSB United Business Practice Review Pilot”.

In other words… we are about to have our financial processes audited.

I must make a confession here: the first word out of my mouth began with “F”, and it wasn’t followed by “un!” Even when your financial processes – personal or professional – are in top shape, nobody looks forward to being audited.

But that is where the shift happened: we are ramping up for a rapid growth phase. Our financial controls probably could use a little help.  I would rather get the help now to get best practice financial processes that allow us to manage finances well, and in a scalable way, than need to put the processes in place retroactively with a much larger turnover. I can reframe this from being a quasi-audit to being a project on creating best practice financial processes in our Center. While I am not going to deny there are many other ways I would rather spend my time, this actually needs to be done, and couldn’t have come at a better time.

“That’s great! We will look forward to working with you to create some great processes and practices in the Center”, went back my response… to the shock of my colleagues (and the finance folks) on the thread.

Now, this reframing happened in my mind pretty quickly and intuitively. It isn’t always the case, especially when the topic is something more emotional or personal than this. The most important thing is the gap between stimulus and response that allows your mind the chance to reframe. Sometimes it is quick, sometimes it is takes some time. As studies in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (and Post-Traumatic Growth, its alternative) have shown: it is not the event itself that causes the trauma, but the meaning that the mind assigns to it. You can’t always control events – but you can do your best to be deliberate about the meaning that your mind assigns to them.

This is the Positive Lens, and it is even more important when you are working in teams or leading organizations. Your colleagues look to your cues, verbal and non-verbal. Was I honest? Yes- I admitted my initial reaction, and I explained the reframing that took place in my mind. Is it more helpful for us to view this as a chance to take a step toward building the organization we envision, or as us being unlucky to be singled out? You bet it is the former.