Positive Emotions and Positive Culture

To organize is to order. In organizations there has long been a bias against emotions. This is particularly true in firms dominated by people who are trained and rewarded for analytic expertise. In such organizations there tends to be an enormous premium on logical analysis and control. Emotions are seen as dangerous. They can lead to impulsive, illogical decisions. In such firms people tend to see the value in dealing with the “hard issues.” They see little payoff in dealing with the “soft issues.” The soft issues, they are certain, do not lend themselves to measurement, control and progress.

The problem is that in such organizations the cultures are usually unhealthy. The human system is usually rife with dysfunctional behaviors, and the problems are usually intensifying while they are being systematically denied.

The fact is that emotions are real. Feelings of sadness, fear, anger, irritation, scorn, contempt, embarrassment, guilt, and shame determine behavior. They create the culture in which everyone must live and work, and less than optimal performance is associated with such emotions. Managers do not understand this but leaders do.

Leaders pay great attention to emotions. They work to stimulate feelings of appreciation, gratitude, trust, closeness, concern, compassion, love, confidence, pride, contentment, interest, curiosity, hope, optimism, wonder, awe, joy, happiness, fun and amusement. Such emotions are associated with optimal performance.

A primary task of leaders is to create positive emotions. Analytic expertise is essential to effective organizing. Yet if people are expert only in analytics, if they cannot create positive emotions, they are greatly handicapped and the organization suffers. For them the soft issues are the very core of their challenge. The soft issues are the hard issues from which they continually flee. In great organizations people tend to both the hard and the soft.

The Vulnerability of Positive Culture

Often people speak of how hard it is to change a culture. I listened to a man suggest the opposite perspective. He directs HR and has invested heavily in building a positive culture. He shared an illustration of how fast a positive culture can be lost.

Of the many things that were done to build a positive culture, he mentioned two very small but symbolically important elements. A conscious decision was made to have people be fully present in senior leadership team meetings (no checking cell phones) and to also listen fully to each other and not interrupt. They succeeded.

Recently a new CEO arrived. In terms of personality differences, the new CEO moves at a faster pace and also constantly checks for messages on the cell phone.   By the second meeting, members of the senior leadership team were checking their phones, and also regularly interrupting each other.

A person, who holds the same position in another organization, gave a similar but more devastating account. A few years ago she began learning about positive organizing and committed to create “an environment where people could thrive.”

She began a long, intense effort, focusing on both building a cohesive and competent senior leadership team and developing new skills in the workforce. This eventually led to increased employee satisfaction, increased financial performance, organizational growth, and improved relationships with partner organizations. It was truly impressive.

She then left to take another job. A few years later she met with a former colleague and asked for an assessment. He indicated that the entire positive effort had disintegrated. When she asked why, he said, “Maintaining a positive culture requires intentional leadership, a leader has to be consciously focused on institutionalizing the positive.”

 These two stories illustrate some key notions. First, a positive culture is the outcome of conscious choice and intentional effort. It takes work to change a conventional culture to a positive culture. Second, authority figures have great unconscious influence. People look to them for signals of appropriate behavior. If the signals suggest movement away from the work of positive organizing to more natural, conventional patterns, people will tend to move towards the conventional. Third, because positive organizing requires constant attention and effort, it is vulnerable. New leaders, with or without the intention to do so, can easily destroy a positive culture.



Why is it so hard to create a positive culture?

Why is it so easy to destroy a positive culture?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?





Inviting Employees to Purpose

As an undergraduate I took a number of courses from a wise professor. He was not only concerned about his subject matter he was also concerned about the long-term welfare of his students. He placed great emphasis on transcending social pressure by living a purpose driven life. He often cited a portion of a poem called “Tis the Set of the Sail” by Eller Wheeler Wilcox. It goes like this.

One ship sails East,
And another West,
By the self-same winds that blow,
‘Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales,
That tells the way we go.

I once shared this with a class of executives. I was discussing the topic of purpose in life, and also at work.   I was suggesting that when we have a life purpose we pursue it no matter what way the wind is blowing. If conditions are positive we pursue our purpose. If conditions are negative, we pursue our purpose. In the latter case we stay engaged in the face of opposition and we learn what changes are necessary in order to progress. Having a life purpose promotes learning, progress and living a meaningful life.

I invited a group of executives to share their own perspectives. One person spoke up and said, “All my life has been about pleasing others. I have worked to meet the expectations of my parents, my partner, my children, my boss, the people who work for me. I never stopped to ask who I am.

The room went very quiet. It was a statement of vulnerability. In making the statement the person made it legitimate for others to tell their truth. Another spoke up and said; “My life is structured by the need to provide. I have also never stopped to think about who I really am. I do not know what my life purpose is.”

The next morning I was pondering the fact that most people, both rich and poor, have never searched for or found a purpose higher than self-interest. Most of us spend much time living an externally driven, reactive life.

I thought of my own professional life purpose; “Inspire positive change.” For me these three words are like music of magical effect. In any situation I can recite them and they reorient me. I immediately take a proactive stance. “How, in this given situation, can I inspire positive change?” As I contemplate the answer I am drawn to some kind of positive contribution. This means, no matter my position in the group, my influence elevates and I am leading.

In addition to my professional life purpose, I also have a larger, overall purpose that is spiritual in nature. When I recite it, I am also elevated. For me these two life statements provide purpose and meaning. I find them invaluable.

It was not easy to come to these two statements. I spent years working on them and they evolved slowly. It all begins by looking inside, considering one’s best and worst experiences, one’s greatest strengths and weaknesses and asking what life has prepared us to do.

Anyone can engage the process. You first write any sentence and you do not worry if it is inadequate. You then examine it the next day and rewrite again not worrying about the flaws. You repeat the process. Over time you get closer and closer until you have some words that resonate with your soul. Even when you think you have it right you keep revisiting it, looking for some small change that will improve it. I invite you to this simple but important task.

In terms of positive organizing, I have a radical suggestion. In every organization the clarification of personal purpose should be at the heart of the “on-boarding” process. Every new employee should be assisted in coming to a personal and professional mission statement. Everything else that is covered in the on-boarding should be examined in terms of the purpose statement. People should be asked to see the connection or lack of connection to their purpose. Such a process will not only impact the new employees, it will begin to work backwards and upwards. It will eventually bring increased purpose to the organization.


What is my life purpose?

How could I help my people find their life purpose?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization

The Dance of Positive Deviants

A member of the business school staff sent me a list of quotes she liked. Three of them particularly caught my attention.

  • It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are (E.E. Cummings).
  • Radical self-care is quantum, and radiates out into the atmosphere, like a little fresh air. It is a huge gift to the world (Ann Lamont).
  • The world is changed by your example, not your opinion (Paulo Coelho).

The first quote raises this question; Why does it take courage to grow up and become the real me? Whatever culture I operate in is biased towards self-perpetuation. The culture functions to bring about my mindless conformity. The real me is the best, most conscious me. It is the new me that emerges when I am pursuing my highest purpose. When I am realizing my highest purpose I become aware of how the culture constrains human potential and how it could better elevate human potential. If I bring an authentic voice to my increasing awareness it I become a call to growth. The first, knee jerk, collective reaction is to neutralize my voice. Negative peer pressure seeks to silence me. Since I intuitively know and anticipate this adversity, I tend to live fearfully. In fear I do not enact my best self or express the voice of authentic influence. When I live in fear I conspire in the diminishment of myself and of the culture that holds me. Everyone loses while denying that they are losing.

The second quote raises this question; What is radical self-care? Radical usually means fundamental or extreme. It can also mean return to the root, as in the case of the radical sign in mathematics. We usually return to the root of the self when driven there by adversity. In the face of our greatest challenges we make a pleasant discovery. We are not diabolical or doomed. We are inherently good and full of potential. When we courageously pursue the highest good, our own goodness is realized and spread. Every time we make this discovery we make a radical or quantum change. Self-care is often seen as egotism. When we return to the root of the self we discover that self is a relational phenomenon and that the highest form of self-care is contributing our greatest strengths to the relational whole. When we realize this, we become willing to sacrifice for the common good. When we engage in radical self-care, egotism dissolves into love and we “give a huge gift to the world,” it is the realization and expression of our best self.

The third quote raises this question; Why is example more influential than opinion? My opinion is a reflection of my mind and I may or may not believe what I say. What I do is a reflection of my commitment. What I do is a revelator of what I most feel. What we do signals what we feel. Humans not only radiate feelings they detect the feelings being radiated from others. As I act from fear or from courage others note it and tend to reflect my fear or my courage. Thus what I radiate flows back to me and reinforces my fear or my courage. People are most influenced by my example. When I enact my best self, I invite them to enact their best self. A new dance emerges. This dance of the positive deviants reverses the spin of social determinism. Instead of being constrained by the culture, a few people begin to challenge, shape and renew the culture. This is why transformational leaders are so aware of their own integrity. They know that trust is the currency of transformation and that living their highest values is the ultimate lever of leadership.

The conventional administrator will take a flawed path to organizational change. To turn a culture more positive someone must have the courage to embrace their best self and express their most authentic voice. Doing this changes the music and invites a few others to deviate and dance in more positive ways. As the dance spreads the culture begins to transform itself.


When have I engaged in radical self-care?

When have I caused others to dance in a new way?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

More Than a Meaningful Vision

Helping people to turn towards the positive is often not easy. I received a message from a friend who was working with a troubled teenager. The young woman was making decisions that were taking her to her own destruction. My friend and the young woman had a discussion about the value of choosing another path. The teenager agreed that the alternative path would take her where she really needs to go. Then she thought for a time and said, “But it is so hard.”

The statement was not an observation but a declaration. She was indicating that the alternative path was a challenge so difficult she could not see it as a real option. She was rejecting it.

Looking from the outside in, we can all see the folly in the decision of the teenager. On the downward path she is likely to never know her best gifts or rejoice in the unique expression those gifts. Indeed, on her current path, she is likely to accumulate constraints until she may have no life at all.

In teaching positive organizing I often have a similar experience with executives.

We review the plight of conventional organizations and it becomes clear that conventional organizing leads to the accumulation of constraints. We review the science of positive organizing and examine cases of excellent organizations. In them we see people discovering their best gifts and rejoicing in the expression of those gifts. The people are flourishing and exceeding expectations.

The executives in these sessions agree that they should be in the business of creating more positive cultures. Yet when I ask them to lay out a plan they freeze. Like the teenager I can see them thinking, “But it is so hard.” They are right. Turning a culture positive is hard. It requires taking a risk, it requires going against the grain. Executives, like a troubled teenager, indeed like all human beings, need effective support.   They need positive leadership.

Positive leaders must provide a meaningful vision. They must also provide the resources necessary to attract people to new experiences. They must model what they ask. They must show genuine empathy. They must provide enticing challenges. As trust and desire increase people become willing to try things they are normally afraid to try. In a classroom I have to do it for the executives as students or they will not go home and try. In an organization executives have to do it or their people will not try.


When have I tried to help someone on the downward path?

What do people need in addition to a meaningful vision?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Consciously Building a Positive Culture

Fortune Magazine lists the best 100 best places to work. For the second year in a row Google has been named number one. Travis Bradberry writes that Google has a number of progressive human practices but there is one that particularly stands out.

For a long time research has shown that people do not quit companies they quit bosses. The ability of managers to effectively lead other people is crucial, yet legions of managers are ineffective at it. Organizations act as if there is nothing that can be done. Leadership is a reflection of human nature and human nature cannot be changed. Google does not buy this conventional assumption.

Google seeks to turn every manager into an effective leader of people. They have done extensive analysis of what leadership characteristics lead to success at Google. With the criteria in mind, they train people to lead. They then measure performance on the criteria and look for continuous improvement. This means they are not only training people, they are also building a positive culture centered on the expectation that everyone can be a great leader. The result is a company full of teams in which people produce great results while personally flourishing at work.

Two things strike me about this account. First positive organizations can be created. Google is not on top of the list by accident. A positive company is seriously invested in creating a positive culture. It does things others will not do.   Second, leadership can be taught, measured and improved. While other organizations make superficial efforts, Google shows a deep commitment. The results demonstrate that a culture of positive leadership can be created.

People respect Google as an organization, and desire to imitate their success.  We see this in articles about their culture that are focused on their great cafeteria and free lunches, on free rides to work and free massages.  We see companies willing to follow their lead with foosball tables and dry cleaning on campus.  This kind of change is good but cosmetic.  Real culture change means changing the underlying assumptions on how to operate together.  It is reflected in the willingness of Google to hold leaders to the highest standards.

It is understandable that other companies copy the cosmetics.  It is understandable that they do not copy the deep change efforts.  The first is easy.  The second requires courage and commitment.

Let’s think about all this from an alternative perspective.  In medicine doctors are sued for malpractice. Given what we know from research, I would suggest that most companies are guilty of malpractice.  If managers have teams of people who are not flourishing and exceeding expectations, if people leave because they have a toxic boss, it is a sure sign that senior executives are unaware, uncommitted or both. While they are not currently sued for their failure, a price is being paid. It is time for every organization to consciously build a positive culture.



Have I ever seen a toxic boss?

What would it be like to work in an organization without toxic bosses?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

A Leader of Real Intent

Previously, I have written about working with a troubled, inner city school district.  We went back and did a workshop for 350 people who are on the leadership teams of the schools.    After my first visit to the school district, I had recorded the following story:

At the end of an extraordinary experience, a woman raised her hand and, for about five minutes, shared an emotional tirade about principals as sacrificial lambs.  She said she was going to tell it like it really is.  She described the true state of the city, the school district, and the kids.  She described what it was really like to be a principal in an impossible context.  Many of her genuinely, pained statements were met with knowing reinforcement from the rest audience.  When she was done, I simply asked, “Why?”

It was not what she was expecting and she said, “Why what?”

“Why do you do it?”

“Because this is what I signed up for.”


“No, what?”

“No, that is not the answer.”

This statement was shocking and the room went deadly quiet.  It was a potentially explosive moment.  After a time, a man on the other side of the room said, “The kids, you do it for the kids.”

As I walked out I happened to be next to the woman who spoke for five minutes.  She was still emotional but very open.  She returned to the notion of being a sacrificial lamb.  I said something about positive leadership. At that moment she had an epiphany.  Her face lit up and she said, “That’s it, maybe I am supposed to be a sacrificial lamb.  Maybe that is my job in this huge transformation that has to happen.”

This woman of purpose had just further clarified her purpose and it immediately gave her increased meaning.  I watched a transformation.  The pained emotions disappeared.  She looked different.  She was standing in her purpose and she was renewed.  We just looked at each other with a sense of awe.  We hugged and went on our separate ways.  I never got her name.

During my recent return, I learned that her name is Melisa Scott Coleman.  She was present and during a break we had a reunion.  She told me that in the last year and a half she has lost three of her closest and healthiest family members.  It led to a lot of deep exploration. After our encounter she said she accepted her role as scapegoat. She then clarified her purpose.  She went back and resolved with her people that the school would be a happy place.  “When a kid comes in, he or she is going to get a hug.  The place is going to be colorful and clean even if the janitor does not show up.  If there is bad stuff going on, it stops with us.  It is not going to flow to the kids.”

I asked her to share her story with the group.  She agreed and shared the account of accepting her role and resolving to create a positive school.  The audience was more moved by her account than anything I said.  Having her share was my best teaching.  When a person of real intent speaks, people listen.


What is my purpose at work?

When have I created a positive organization?

How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Creating a Positive Culture

I was having breakfast with a young CEO. His successful organization is characterized by many unconventional, positive practices. He told me that in recent weeks he and his people have made a new discovery. Previously they believed that their company was about the product they make. What they have now discovered is that people come to them because they want to understand and acquire their positive culture. He said this was a stunning discovery and they are trying to make sense of it.

I was fascinated. I thought of a story I heard long ago. It was about a fast food chain. One store went bankrupt several times. It was then purchased by a retired fireman. At the end of the first year the store was extraordinarily profitable. A team was sent to investigate.

The explanation turned out to be simple. The owner spent most of his time at the front door. He greeted and made jokes with everyone that came in. He had running dialogs with the repeat customers. The people kept returning. They were not there to buy the fast food. They were there because they desired something far more precious, something rare that they now were getting for free. They wanted to be part of a culture in which they were valued. Creating such a culture turned a highly disadvantaged business into a very profitable business.

Here is an interesting question. Did the fast food chain learn from success? After discovering what the retired fireman was doing, did the fast food chain invest in training a person to do the same in every store? They did not.

I have a friend who says this is logical because excellence is not scalable. The enthusiasm of the retired fireman could not be imitated and replicated by some minimum-wage employee apathetically “welcoming” people.

While I agree with the example given by my friend, I disagree with his general conclusion. I believe the chain left millions of dollars on the table because they did not know how to create positive culture. Positive culture is not created through imitation, it is created through reinvention. You find a manifestation of positive deviance. You identify the underlying principle. Then you have people reinvent the practice until it is customized to their situation and their strengths. Consider an example.

In a large retail chain there was a store manager who was a former drill sergeant. Every time a customer needed help, the employees would blow a whistle and help would come running.  It was all done in fun and the store received extraordinary scores on customer service.  Another store in the chain tried to imitate the practice. It totally failed. At that point most executives would conclude that the excellent practice was not scalable and they would drop the idea. These people did not drop the idea. Instead they encouraged other managers to identify their own strengths and then experiment with similar concepts until they had something that worked. Some experienced success. One key to creating a positive culture is first learning from success and then reinventing that success in other contexts.


When have I seen imitation fail?

When have I reinvented a successful practice?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Why Flourishing at Work Feels so Miraculous

Some organizations are more positive than others. I flew to Atlanta to work with six people from a company that was trying to execute change and move into the future. I often have sessions like this one where I try to introduce the basic concepts and tools from our work in positive organizational scholarship.  Positive organizational scholarship is the study of how to create positive organizations.

Often I find the going tough. Executives are suspicious of ideas that violate their conventional expectations. In Atlanta I had the opposite experience. The people immediately soaked in my ideas and extended the ideas in creative ways. It was joyful.

There was a reason for this willing reception. The people had previously lived through and benefited from a positive transformation. Their experience helped them to understand what other executives resist, that organizations, and people in organizations, can flourish and exceed expectations. People who have experienced flourishing know things that other people do not.

Interface is a company that makes flexible floor coverings including carpet tiles. In 1994 the CEO, Ray Anderson, had an unusual experience. Here is his account.

Frankly, I didn’t have a vision, except “comply, comply, comply.” I sweated for three weeks over what to say to that group. Then, through what seemed like pure serendipity, somebody sent me a book – Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. I read it, and it changed my life. It was an epiphany. I wasn’t halfway through it before the vision I sought became clear, along with a powerful sense of urgency to do something. … I agreed with his central thesis. … Business is the largest, wealthiest, most pervasive institution on Earth, and responsible for most of the damage. It must take the lead in directing the Earth away from collapse, and toward sustainability.

As result of this experience Anderson determined to maintain his business goals while also leading the world in industrial ecology (being friendly to the planet). This was a paradigm shift. Everyone in the company believed that Anderson had lost his mind. When he gave his first public speech about his intention, the people outside the company agreed that he had lost his mind and the stock price fell 40% in one day. The company entered a dark valley and began to move forward, “building the bridge as they walked on it.”

Since that time the company has grown into a billion dollar operation in 110 countries. It has been named one of the “Most Admired Companies in America” and it has been named one of the “100 Best Companies to Work.”

During my visit one executive told the above story in much greater detail. He kept saying, with emphasis, “It was a miracle, I lived through it and it was a miracle.”

His passion was evident. One of the women present responded, “I am not sure it was a miracle; we changed, we made connections, and when you make connections new things grow, you flourish.”

I think they were both right. When the relationships between people are enriched the whole system begins to flourish. In relationships of increased trust, the people collectively learn to do what was not previously possible. The people go into accelerated, collective and individual learning.   In the process of flourishing, the cause and effect relationships are so dynamic and complex that they cannot easily be explained. The process of experiencing the unfolding of potential does feel miraculous.

When people experience collective flourishing, they do things that are not done in normal, fear-based organizations. Sometimes, afterwards, they do not even have the language to conceptualize what they did, but their memories are very salient artifacts of the experience. When they hear the concepts from positive organizational scholarship, they make immediate associations. They understand and they are able to extend and apply the concepts. This is why the above session was so generative.


Why is positive organizing hard to explain?

When have I experienced the unfolding of collective potential?

How could we use this passage to become a more positive organization?

Drowning in Your Own Routines

Years ago on Halloween I took my son Garrett visit our neighbors.  He went up to every door and said, “Trick or treat!”  This is what every kid was saying at every door.  It was the ordinary thing to do.  I tried to give the routine a different slant.

“Why don’t you try something different?” I said.  “Go up to a door and say, ‘Hello, I hope you are having a wonderful evening.’  I’ll bet that before the night is over you’ll get twice as much candy as anyone else.”

Garrett told me what he thought of my idea, and the comments were not exactly enthusiastic.  A few minutes later, I mentioned it again, and he said, “OK, fine, I’ll do it.”  What that meant was “I’ll do it and show you how good your dumb idea is!”  He walked to the next door totally disgusted.  He came back disgusted.  He held up a single candy bar and said, “See, one candy bar, just like every other house!”  That was the end of that.

Garrett was going through the first and only routine he had ever learned for getting candy on Halloween.   The routine was working and it never crossed his mind to ask himself if he could be more effective.   This reminded me of an executive experience.

Running an organization, I noticed a problem.   My people were drowning in their own routines.  They mindlessly repeated the routines regardless of the level of effectiveness.  It became clear that I needed to create a culture of continuous improvement.

I began by questioning the effectiveness of some of their most basic patterns.  They found this shocking.  I then showed them a picture of a smiling young man running in a huge hamster wheel.   I asked, “Why is this person smiling when he is going nowhere at all?”  We had a lively discussion.  Soon a new phrase popped up in the organization, they referred to the hamster wheel as the “rat cage.”  They would say, “Last week was a rat cage week, I have to rethink what I am doing.”

I next asked each one of them to send me their best new practice for each week.  I then collected the practices and sent them back out.  Then I began to ask people what practices they adapted from the list.  After a couple of months they began to really attend to the list.  They began carefully reading and experimenting.  At the end of six months we had a culture of continuous improvement.


Do I personally hunger for continuous improvement?

Do I question the effectiveness of my routines?

How could we use this passage to become a more positive organization?