Designing Positive Meetings

Each morning I write in my gratitude journal. I do this because it systematically elevates me. I am a natural introvert but I recognize the need to give energy to others. When I write a meaningful entry in my journal I turn more positive and I have more energy to share.

One morning after writing, for example, I drove to the University. I was consciously committed to sharing my energy with others.   As I walked by strangers who would have ignored me, I greeted them with enthusiasm. They looked at me, and they lit up. As I walked from my office to a meeting, the phenomenon continued. I greeted each student with positive emotion, and each responded.

In the meeting, I joyfully greeted each person and they also lit up. Then something shifted. A half-hour into this typical two-hour information exchange, my positivity was gone. When I was full of positivity, I focused on my connections with others, even strangers. Now I was feeling self-interested. My joy was gone. My smile was gone. My impact was downgraded. I was moving towards my more normal introversion.

As I realized this, I began to make notes about the inability of brilliant people to create mechanisms of relational engagement. Why do meetings become boring? Is it a requirement? How might a positive leader redesign the meeting I was in? I began to jot down ideas. On the top of my list was the key, a question of higher purpose. “How could we accomplish the original goals of the meeting with maximum engagement?”

This question automatically discomforts us. It requires us to entertain a higher standard. An elevated purpose requires us to do something we normally do not do, focus on excellence and conceptualize non-conventional behaviors.

The question leads me to make a suggestion. The next time you are in charge of a meeting, go ahead and design it as you normally would. Then add an objective: Every minute, every participant must be fully engaged. This will require that you think differently. It may well frustrate you at first. But stay with it. You may create a meeting that exceeds everyone’s expectations and produces better outcomes than you could have imagined. If you have some success with this, imagine how else you could apply the same principle.


What was the best meeting you ever attended?

How could you design a better meeting?

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

The Power of Intelligent Optimism

Despite a demanding professional schedule, a friend of mine volunteers to work with prisoners. He has a surprisingly high rate of success in helping them turn their lives around.  How does he achieve this? His strategy is straightforward. He sees the potential in everyone. He listens deeply and responds authentically. He has no agenda other than to help. Recently he sent me a story that included a penetrating question.

Your deep commitment to seeing the good in all things prompted me to engage one of my inmates to talk about the spirit of positive organizational scholarship. Given where he had come from and where he had spent most of his teen and adult life, I was surprised to see the 24-year-old deeply engaged and curious about a life outlook that was very alien to him. His upbringing was pockmarked with a series of abuses by his family and “friends,” who saw him as someone to be manipulated and marginalized. After sharing the concept of POS and its effects, he startled me with a simple, yet penetrating question: “How can I trust you when all you see is the good?”

“How would you have responded to him?” my friend asked me. This question is a much more efficient and elegant version of a criticism often leveled at the positive perspective. It suggests that to take a positive view is to ignore or distort reality. It is common to denigrate the positive perspective by saying, “Oh, that’s Pollyanna.”

This expression refers to the iconic 1913 novel of the same name in which a girl embraces the silver lining no matter what challenges she encounters. This bestseller inspired movie versions in 1920 and 1960.

After hearing that critical expression so many times I decided to watch the 1960 Disney version. I wanted to examine Pollyanna’s lack of realism so I could use it to distinguish between her unrealistic perspective and the practical positive perspective about which I teach and research. I had a surprise.

It turns out there was nothing unrealistic about Pollyanna. Like the above prisoner she had one disappointing experience after another.  She felt the reality and the pain of each disappointment. In the midst of her disappointment she made the choice to orient to hope. This did not make the negative realities go away but it changed her life trajectory.

When confronted with a difficulty, most of us choose either a self-defeating action (impulsive behavior, or an inappropriate fight response) or inaction (avoidance, or an inappropriate flight response). Pollyanna had the ability to self-regulate, to manage her own emotional reactions. Instead of becoming disabled by her life injuries, she acquired resilience–the ability to move forward in the face of constraint.

Now back to the inmate’s question. “How can I trust you when all you see is the good?”

If all I see is the good you are right, you should not trust me. I am a naive optimist who distorts reality. I am simply the flip side of the negative skeptic who also distorts reality.

On the other hand, if we see and experience the negative but discipline ourselves to live in positivity we grow into an unusual and mature life stance. We become intelligent optimists. This is a characteristic of master change agents.

In the Pollyanna movie, there is a confirmed cynic. We might assume she grew up being treated as the above prisoner was treated. In this character’s normal, skeptical independence, she is repulsed by Pollyanna’s positive orientation. Then circumstances change and she needs to lean on someone. When she has to choose, it is Pollyanna she selects.

A critic might say, “Yes, but that was just a movie.” Think about my friend. Why does he, working for free, succeed in turning around prisoners when so many professionals fail? He sees the potential in everyone. He listens deeply and responds authentically. He has no agenda other than to help.   He is an intelligent optimist who sees and nurtures the potential in everyone.


Who do I know who is a naive optimist, how do I feel about the person?

Who do I know who is an intelligent optimist, how do I feel about the person?

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

Become a Positive Deviant

Recently we had a long road trip so we listened to an audio book.  The title is American Story: A Lifetime Search for Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things. The author is Bob Dotson who spent 40 years working for the Today Show on NBC and searching America for stories of people doing good things.  In the book he shares one inspiring story after another.  The characters are very normal people, grandmothers, truck drivers, policemen and so on.  Most find a higher purpose and then they become positive deviants, people who deviate from the norm so as to contribute in positive ways.

A grandmother is left with a crack baby and ends up taking in hundreds of crack babies.  She learns how to help both the babies and the mothers change their lives.  A truck driver gets a job cleaning a lab and begins inventing better surgical tools.  He ends up teaching doctors how to do surgery.  A policeman works in a hospital in a ward with children who are going to die.  He hold conversations, learns their dreams, and ends up raising money for one child after another to visit the ocean, to go to Disney World, or to have some other desired experience before passing away.

The stories go on and on.  As I listened, an old proverb returned to me, “Bloom where you are planted.”  That is what these people seemed to do.  Often they took a challenging or even negative situation, that someone else might seek to avoid, and they transformed it so that positive things began to emerge.  As a listener I was particularly taken by the fact that everyone has the potential to make a positive difference in the world.  I was struck by the importance of playing a role that might help more people to become positive deviants.  Such a role is worth pursuing and I am grateful for the reminder to not only become a positive deviant, but to also nurture positive deviance.

Change Your Assumptions

My wife and I were watching a movie.  The script was poorly written and the acting was not very good.  I complained about it.  My wife replied, “Perhaps we could stop complaining and, instead, look for the positive.”

I was reminded of a story. My son told me about a man who attended a workshop on positive leadership. He had already determined to leave his organization. He knew he no longer wanted to be a manager so he would devote himself to the small company he was building in his free time.   During the workshop the man was exposed to new assumptions about leadership. He was intrigued by the notion that he could engage people in a more positive way. He indicated that he would go back and genuinely try the new ideas.

A few months later my son made a scheduled coaching call. The man was excited to tell of the changes he had made and the extraordinary impacts that followed. He said that his own business has grown but he has no desire to leave the larger company. He was finding too much meaning in his work.

The morning after I watched the movie I was looking outside.  The blind in the window was down leaving only a few inches of viewing space.  I could see some grass and a portion of the pond behind our house.  Suddenly the pond exploded with light.  On the ripples there seemed to be a million sparkling diamonds.  The image was so sudden and so extreme I raised the blind.  The explanation was simple.  Thick clouds had broken open just a bit, allowing the sun to shine down like an immense flashlight on the portion of the pond I was observing.

Conventional assumptions are like the blinds in my window. They limit vision. Most organizations and most people are governed by conventional assumptions. When they are exposed to the assumptions from the science of the positive, they see new opportunities. If they act on them, they create a new reality. In the new reality the organizational pond sparkles. The meaning of life increases.

Leaders See Possibility

I am often asked, “How do you create a positive organization?”  A friend sent me a book called Timeless Wisdom: Passages for Meditation from the World’s Saints and Sages.  In the introduction the author begins with a parable.  It is a story about an ancient sculptor in India who carves elephants from stone.  One day a king visits and asks the man for the secret of his great artistry.

The sculptor explains that once a large stone is secured, he spends a very long time studying the stone.  He does this with complete concentration and will not allow himself to be distracted.  At first he sees nothing, but the huge rock.  Then, over a long period, he begins to notice something in the substance of the great stone.  It begins with a feeling and turns into a vague impression, a scarcely discernible outline.  As he continues to ponder, with an open eye and an eager heart, the outline intensifies, until the joyful moment when the sculptor sees the elephant inside the rock.  At this moment he sees what no other human can see.  Only when he sees the outline does he begin the months of chiseling.  In doing so, he is always obedient to the revealed outline.  In the process, the sculptor connects with the elephant inside the stone.   He feels the elephant’s desire to come out of the rock and live.  With this emotional awareness the sculptor gains an even more intense singleness of purpose.  He chips away every bit of rock that is not the elephant.  What remains is the elephant (Eswaran, 2008:20).

I love this parable.  It represents the part of leadership that is least understood.  Purpose leads to a search for the possible.  At the beginning there is little hope.  Yet the person of purpose knows to continue in the deep concentration and a vague impression emerges.  Masterful leaders know to attend to impressions.  Openness and attention turn the impression into a vision available to none other.  The visionary becomes the particular future’s only representative in the world.  Disciplined pursuit of the vision stimulates action learning and eventually transformation.   The vision is no longer a concept but a living thing waiting for mortal manifestation.  Love of the emerging future leads to still more disciplined effort until that which could not be seen lives in the present.  The parable explains how to create a positive organization.


A very wise director of HR recently spoke of the great pain that people carry at work.  It is common.  In positive organizations leaders learn sincere compassion.  When we suffer with someone, the person is no longer an object that we reject because he or she is different; the person becomes a fully human being for whom we have compassion because we see the goodness in the person.  This compassion causes us to act differently and as a result the larger group or organization becomes more positive.  A more positive organization that is filled with sincere compassion sees better bottom line results.

Here are a couple of articles on the effect of compassion in the workplace that you might enjoy:

What Everyone Wants

Yesterday I met with a man who is in charge of turning around a failing business.  He was headed into 14 meetings with first level people.  He had a prepared message.  As he entered the first meeting he noted how absolutely miserable the people felt and he knew that delivering the message was the wrong thing to do.  Instead he opened the meeting and made it possible for the people to say what they felt.  There was a great outpouring of messages that were hard to hear.  At the end he had an intuition.  He said, “I am going to count to three.  When I do I want you all to yell out the one word that describes how you feel.”

About 80% of the people yelled the same word, “frustrated.”  The collective expression was like a deep religions moment.  The feeling in the room changed.  The conversation changed.

After 14 meetings, a woman who had accompanied the man called him.  She told him she had been deeply reflecting on all she heard in those 14 authentic conversations.  Then she said, “I have come to the conclusion that all the people want the exact same thing.  They want to know that they matter.”

The conventional assumption in organizations is that the leader “knows.”  In the positive organization, the leader holds authentic conversations and everyone is learning together.

The Importance of Community

The word community often suggests a sense of unity or kinship manifest in a group, neighborhood, town, or society. Yet the connections are not always visible.

Yesterday my colleague and I were making a presentation to business and civic leaders in the local community.  In the introduction a man recalled something I did 20 years ago that helped him launch a new effort that since has grown into much more.  It seemed like a small thing that I could hardly remember but for him it was a big thing that was unforgettable.  The effort has since touched many people.  In sharing the story he was expressing genuine gratitude and I felt loved.  The audience seemed to feel something as well.  Later my colleague shared a story about something I did 25 years ago that lifted her in a discouraging time and helped her launch her career.  She since has touched many people.  Again it was something I could hardly remember but for her it was unforgettable.  Again, she was expressing genuine gratitude and I felt loved.  Again the audience seemed moved.  During the session there were several times when the man who did the introductions called out things that people in the audience had or were doing for someone or something else.  By the end of the session, even though many people were strangers to each other, there seemed to be a sense of unity and goodness in the room.

Later in the day, a person who had been in the audience sent me a message.  Part of his message was an expression of his love for living in this community.  Reflecting on this event reminds me of both the the ripple effect of each action we take, and the importance of making (positive) investments in my communities.