Seeing the Full Picture

Four wonderful people are trying to move a huge system in a positive direction. In the process, they have encountered problems they did not expect. They asked to meet with me and a colleague.

We spent the entire time asking them questions designed to help them see their challenge from alternative perspectives. As we did, the feeling in the room changed. The shared sense of constraint and discouragement became a shared sense of vision and hope. They were suddenly free to move forward again.

A friend wrote to me of her experience in working with students in a high school. She tells a very simple yet brilliant story. It is an account of helping people see the full picture so they can make better choices:

When I was working with at-risk high school students, I heard on more than one occasion that graduating from high school was too hard and they were going to quit. I agreed that it was very hard to go to school and do everything necessary to graduate. I said that it was also very hard to drop out and “be stupid”. Dropping out severely limits job options, income, what kind of car they can afford to buy, where they can live, what type of person will be attracted to them, etc. Both paths are hard, so which “hard” would be their choice, and why?


  • How does this school story have application everywhere?
  • Who in your organization needs to see the full picture?
  • How could you help someone today?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

The Source of Silo Behavior

People often speak to me about the problem of silos. Their organization lacks collaboration. To imbue an organization with purpose is to create a climate of shared intention. Each person understands the collective purpose and sees how their individual tasks contribute to that purpose. The people create a positive organization and silos disappear. Unfortunately this seldom happens. Culture prevents it.

In order to survive, animals are constantly scanning for threat. By detecting danger early, they can react in a way that allows them to survive. The same is true with us. If we are standing on a corner reading a book and suddenly we hear screeching brakes, we look up and assess the possible danger. In capturing human attention, negative cues are more powerful than positive cues.

If we are in a meeting and the boss loses his or her temper with a colleague, we glance at each other with knowing looks. While the boss did not intend it, his or her expression of negativity just set an expectation that is likely to become a boundary. Our fear is going to keep us from going anywhere near the line just crossed by our colleague.

The existing culture is the collective comfort zone. In most organizations we tend to stay on the path of least resistance: we do that which is safe. While we claim to value the creation of new outcomes or contributions, our behavior often demonstrates self-interested risk avoidance.

Living in this organized hypocrisy gives rise to a serious problem. The external context keeps changing and the organization does not adapt. The organization becomes dis-integrated or unaligned with the external world. Silos arise. This increasing dis-integration requires that we practice further self-deception and tends to lead to a loss of energy. Centered on our comfort, we languish and stagnate. We do not reach our individual or collective potential.



  • What is the cost of silo behavior?
  • Why do silos arise?
  • How is silo behavior transformed into collaboration?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Doing the Impossible

A young professional sent me a story of his recent day. It is an account of being asked to do an impossible task. He shares how the task was accomplished. In the narrative are lessons for all of us.

Yesterday when I got to work, my boss called me to tell me that she needed me to draft three papers as soon as possible.  Each paper was a challenge, but the last one in particular seemed impossible.  Six of us had a meeting about the final paper, and we closed the door and spoke frankly with each other about the difficulty of the assignment.  Near the end of the meeting, we realized there was a way forward that we could all agree on.

A friend who was in the meeting invited me to talk with him afterwards.  He had an idea to use a new framework for the paper he had learned in a recent training.  The framework is known as the “ABCDE” method for communications plans: A = audience; B = the behavior you want the audience to change; C = the content you’ll use; D = delivery methods you’ll employ to get your content to your audience; and E = the way you’ll conduct evaluation to see whether or not your strategy is working.  The conversation sparked something in me, and I felt excited to take up the impossible challenge and use the framework.

I went back to my office and did the other two papers because their deadlines were sooner.  Just as I turned to work on the impossible paper, I saw an email from my friend.  On his own, he had applied the framework and sent me a draft.  I looked it over and felt another spark; and I revised what he sent and expanded on it.  More than anything, I just felt honest.  I felt like I was honestly approaching this impossible problem and giving it my best.

About 30 minutes later, my colleague called and said that our boss wanted to see us to talk about the impossible paper.  I printed out the draft I had and walked it upstairs.  Our meeting lasted another 30 minutes, and we got feedback that will improve the paper yet again.

What made the impossible task possible? The organization is a large government hierarchy but that is not what is described here. In this story there are the following elements; an impossible challenge, a meeting of colleagues, frank conversation, conceptualization of possibility, a framework for action, excitement, work, mutual support, creativity, sharing, honesty, self-respect, and resilience. Together, these elements are a description of a positive culture. In the midst of conventional hierarchy, these people were living in a positive organization. The impossible became possible.



  • What usually happens when people face an impossible task?
  • Explain the key to the success described above.
  • How can a positive organization exist in a government hierarchy?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

A Positive Organization

Often I am asked to define a positive organization in terms of “real world” practices. It is a fair question. Last year one company decided to hold “Positivity Month.” The CEO kicked things off with a letter accounting the practices that were already in place.  His list provides one answer to the question:

  • Values that are clearly communicated, deeply meaningful and genuine
  • A clear & compelling higher purpose: protecting people & environment
  • Work-life balance, flexibility on working hours/locations, respect for family time
  • Open book finance, transparency, teaching our people the great game of business
  • Profit sharing that is transparent, forward looking & seeks to deliver extra paycheck(s)
  • We give part of profit sharing to fund industry scholarships & donor matching
  • Employee representatives on our 401k committee drive decisions & financial learning
  • Community Service Officer fosters & facilitates giving, volunteers & social/enviro responsibility
  • Culture Council: a multi-function, employee advisory group that shapes policy
  • Net Promoter Score is the voice of the customer, customer connections, devotion to service
  • Company pays 80% of premiums for family health insurance
  • Subsidized healthy snacks, employee contributions match donations
  • Subsidized fitness, biometrics, on-site employee led classes, stand up desks
  • 5 Year visioning process, Company Alignment (1 page roadmap)
  • Meaningful education reimbursement, service awards & referral bonuses
  • Unique performance feedback, alignment, goal setting & self-appraisal/reflection
  • 121 position alignment provides clarity of expectations, facilitates job crafting
  • Leadership calendars, responsibilities & self-appraisals are available to all colleagues
  • Published colleague ‘user manuals’ to foster understanding & work relationships
  • Transparent compensation process, management standard increase is lower % than lowest paid
  • Talent reviews = more fair performance assessment & talent development
  • Open training for all colleagues on leadership skills, visioning, change, finance
  • Leadership forum to teach our management how to lead & foster better relationships



  • Would you work for this company?
  • Which practices impress you the most?
  • What could be done differently in your organization?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Why Positive Energizers Succeed in Leading Change

When we set out to create a positive culture, we often ask a company to create a network of positive energizers. We ask them to select the most positive people from across the organization and use them to conceptualize and lead the change process. This tends to work well. Why?

We met with such a group. At the outset, the senior-most person greeted them, and then they did personal introductions. The senior person reviewed history; explained they were being asked to guide culture change and they were in uncharted waters; and they were being asked to envision, dream, and create. In the introductions, they had three tasks. They were to introduce themselves, explain how they access positive energy, and share their favorite vacation spot.

When I later began to work with the group, I asked them to reflect on the introductions and identify the unusual commonalities. They said that the people in the group were authentic and comfortably vulnerable. The individuals, for example, openly spoke of the challenges overcome by parents or children. The examples led to a sense that life obstacles are opportunities. One said his father grew up in a tent, came to the United States with nothing and is now a professor. Another spoke of the commitment to a handicapped child and the blessings to the family.

They said the individuals were optimistic. Many people shared personal life challenges but expressed genuine gratitude for the benefits associated with the challenges. They said the group found meaning in their work. A union member said, “I have been a lineman for over twenty years but I have never worked a day in my life: I love what I do and I love the people I work with.”

They said the group was relational. Individuals had much to say about helping others and learning from others. The group was curious. Many spoke of vacations as learning experiences. Finally, there was a great focus on the learning of others. One man, for example, joyfully described his daughter and her constant progress in soccer. Another spoke of seeing herself as a teacher at work and rejoiced in the development of her people.

Why are networks of positive energizers so helpful in bringing change? They tend to be authentic, vulnerable, optimistic, grateful, relational, contributive, curious, and hungry for the development of others. In other words, they are genuine leaders.



  • Who are the positive energizers in your organization?
  • What are their common characteristics?
  • How could you put them to work?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Learning From Experience

There are many executives who are exposed to positive organizational scholarship (POS).  They get excited for several reasons.  One is the field provides language for things they already learned to do.  Recently a senior executive reflected on some of the elements of Positive Leadership, including entering a higher state of personal performance and learning from experience.

First he speaks about a condition similar to what we call the fundamental state of leadership.  He observes it is not a permanent state.  We have to lift ourselves into it over and over: “I have entered the highest level optimized state several times in my life.  Each time, the result was extraordinary.  Each time, it took a team flowing in the same direction.  It is hard to stay in this optimized state.  Even while in it, it is hard not to experience a bit of a paradox–achieving extraordinary results in one aspect of life, but sliding backward on presence or other factors in other aspects of life.  The depth that comes from experiencing it is remarkable.”

The word experience is important to him.  He has always been a believer in learning from experience: “I often invited other decision makers into meetings so that they could experience the impact of a conversation directly.  This led to action and congruence.  When I heard the old saying, ‘Hear and forget. See and remember. Experience and understand,’ it made perfect sense to me.  When I was young, I heard the statement, ‘Listen to the person on the shop floor.  They know more than you think.’  I always embraced this thought. It served me well and, by intuition, turned into practical principles such as the ones we find in POS.  We now have a vocabulary in POS to describe the extraordinary things that come from this kind of learning.”



  • What have you learned from your most extraordinary experiences?
  • Why is high performance a dynamic state rather that a permanent state?
  • What are the implications of the words, “experience and understand?”
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Reducing Life Noise

In the last positive passage, I told the story of a young man who decided to reduce the pain in his life by taking charge of himself. He wrote me again telling of a conversation with his friend.

I keep thinking about a conversation I had with my friend Rob on Friday evening.  I decided to tell him a bit about the experiences I had on Thursday and Friday.  I mentioned I felt inspired to rearrange the icons on my phone and try to reduce my intake of “noise.”

Rob lit up and said he had made a similar decision recently.  He had grown more and more stressed because of a combination of factors, including uncertainty and increased workload at his job.  He was consuming social media and sports and news in the mornings and evenings and throughout the day.  His wife suggested he cut out some of the noise and see if that helped him connect more with God and reduce his stress level.  For a few weeks now, Rob has been more careful about what he listens to and reads–especially in the mornings.  He has built a quieter morning hour, and he has felt a real difference.



  • Is there a relationship between social media and stress?
  • What is the value of a quieter morning?
  • What could you do to reduce the noise in your life?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Healing Pain by Sharpening the Saw

The last positive passage spoke of pain at work. A young friend sent me a remarkable email in response. He had been struggling at work. He wrote of Steven R. Covey’s concept of breaking the logic of task pursuit and doing self-maintenance. It is called “sharpening the saw.” My friend tells what he did and then describes the impact at work. His account holds many notions for reducing our own pain at work.

I felt that I had been telling myself a little lie lately.  I have been telling myself something along the lines of, “I’m doing everything I can.  My priorities are in order and I’m working as hard as I can.”

But the more I thought and prayed about it, I realized my priorities had gotten out of whack.  Sometimes I had been reading work email and checking the news when I should have been engaged in spiritual disciplines or focused on family members’ needs or renewing myself through playing the guitar or writing poetry.  In this way, I had been
trying to “use my saw more” instead of taking a break to sharpen the blade.

I made a couple of decisions.  First, I rearranged the icons on my smartphone screen.  I buried the news icons a little deeper so I will stop opening them out of habit.  Instead, I will turn to them when I am thoughtfully seeking news–and not just filling time.  Second, I recommitted to putting first things first.  During a run in the late afternoon, I thought about when I can do the daily planning and sharpening activities that are so important.

I woke up this morning feeling good.  For the first time in a long time, I don’t feel anxious about going back to work.

He followed up this account by sharing what happened next. It is quite impressive. Here is what he had to say.

Yesterday I had a great day at work.  Here are some of the things I did that helped make it such a great day:

–I spent time planning Thursday evening.  I looked at my calendar and my next action list.  I brainstormed what I would put in my gratitude email.

–When I woke up Friday morning, I put first things first: I prayed and read the scriptures and wrote a gratitude email and ate breakfast.

–On the train, instead of reading the news or diving into work email, I chose to read, edit, and write poetry–an important goal of mine that helps renew me mentally and emotionally.
–When I got to work, I followed the counsel of an article I read on Thursday.  Before doing any work, I took a blank sheet of paper and wrote a “short list” of the things I needed to do to call the workday a success.  The list included a few important, time-sensitive assignments that I knew my bosses were expecting from me.  The list also included writing a first draft of something very important that’s due in mid-April.  It also included thanking my coworkers who covered for me Thursday and going to the gym.

–As I changed my clothes, I made the conscious decision to listen to the news update from NPR, but I didn’t open any news sites on my computer screen.  This is a big change for me.  I had gotten into the habit of opening two or three news sites in the morning and often I got lost in the stories there.  I also decided I wouldn’t listen to the news in the late afternoon.  I was consciously reducing my voluntary intake of news items.  (I still ended up reading a LOT of news during the course of my workday because it’s part of my job.)

–Although I prioritized the items on my “short list,” I also triaged my email inbox.  I followed the patterns from Getting Things Done by David Allen.  First, I would read the email.  Then I would determine what the next step was.  If that next step took less than two minutes, I did it immediately.  If it took more, I put it on my next actions list and tried to gauge its importance (should it go on my “short list?”).

–After triaging my email this way, I again focused on the “short list.”  As I pushed things forward, I moved items from my next action list to a follow-up section so I could track what I was waiting for from other people.

–I tried really hard to focus on just one thing at a time and finish each thought before moving on to another.  This is a key for me because often what I’ve done in the past is look at an email and if I don’t know what to do with it, I’ll just move on to the next email
with the plan to go back to it when I have time.  That means I often waste time and concentration (one of my rarest commodities) as I looked at one email multiple times without making a decision on it.

–A coworker and friend named Bev stopped at my office door to see me.  I took my hands away from my computer and stepped toward Bev and gave her my full attention.  It dawned on me that interactions like this with my coworkers help renew and strengthen me when I focus on them.  That might seem obvious, but lately I had sometimes seen such interactions as annoying or wasting my time because I thought they took me away from accomplishing my workload.  I realized they actually help me
accomplish my workload by 1) giving me a short break that helps my energy return and 2) connect me more deeply to the people I work with so our synergy on shared projects is greater.

–I finished most of my “short list” before noon which gave me a boost of confidence.  I felt like I was in the bonus for the rest of the day.


  • How often do you feel depressed at work?
  • Which of his actions is most impressive?
  • What could you do differently this week?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Healing Pain

A group of executives came to us from a challenging context. I was with them for a few minutes when I stated, “There is great pain in this room.” The statement shocked the participants but no one argued.

During the next hour, there was a woman who spoke up several times. Each statement was extremely negative. I felt the temptation to judge her as hopeless and to write her off. Something told me not to do that.

I spent the next hours reviewing the basics of positive leadership. We explored the concept of best self and did a few exercises. The “negative” woman said little else.

The next day I was debriefing the group when the woman spoke up. She began to cry. She spoke of the concept of best self, and she told of interactions with her peers. She said that in those conversations, she felt loved. The first day transformed her. To her surprise, she felt she could go back to her workplace and be “a net contributor.” Her comments were breathtaking.

As the rest of the second day unfolded, she continually influenced the class for good. By Wednesday, I felt no more pain in the room. The entire class seemed to transform. On Friday, the participants wrote much on their evaluations about the changes they experienced.

I believe the class was in extreme pain. I believe that individual transformed and the rest of the class also transformed. They went home ready to face their world in a new way. I am grateful for the power of the concepts in positive leadership. I am grateful for the changes I witness when I teach them.



  • How often do professionals live in organizational pain?
  • What is the cost?
  • What can be done to heal that pain?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Help with New Book Title

I ask for your help in selecting the best title and subtitle for the new book that I am writing with Anjan Thakor.  The subject is the Economics of Purpose.
Please take a few minutes to complete a quick 6-question survey.  Please respond by 5:00 pm Pacific time this Thursday, March 22.
To take the survey, click on this link:
Thank you for your help.