Reality of Possibility

I heard an account of two friends who recently had a reunion. They had both once worked in the same discouraging, governmental bureaucracy. One now had a new job. He described a very positive organization culture and said, “I never knew you could have a job that is so fulfilling!”  After some discussion a question arose, could there ever be a positive culture in a government context? The first conclusion was negative. A third person interrupted and argued that it was possible to create a positive culture in any organization.

Who is right?

Both conclusions seem sound. An examination of most government bureaucracies will provide evidence of negative culture. They appear doomed to gloom.

Yet engagement surveys in the federal government show that agencies and units within agencies vary greatly. Some have much more positive cultures than others. The same pattern holds in the private sector, units within the same company vary widely.

In the darkest organizations I have found positive units. These units are important. They are evidence that positive organizing is possible. I encourage people to search out, identify and examine the most positive units in their organization. Those units demonstrate a key principle. “If it is real it is possible.”

If you are trying to create a positive culture, you have to get your people to believe that it is possible. Talking to them does not create belief. Exposing them to a positive unit in their own agency or corporation exposes them to the reality of possibility. It challenges their skepticism and opens the door to hope.



  • What is the most positive unit in your company or agency?
  • How could this asset be put to greater use?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?





Work as a Calling

As we become more internally directed, it changes how we see our work. Many people have jobs. Fewer people have careers. Still fewer people have callings.

A person with a calling is doing what they are doing because they are intrinsically motivated. They are doing what they are doing because they love what they are doing. They love what they are doing because they have made a commitment to make a contribution that matters. They have committed to create a result that does not exist. To make this commitment is to connect oneself to a higher purpose, something larger than self. Once we commit to create a result that does not yet exist, we begin to pursue something that is precious to us. Our purpose becomes our calling. We become more fully engaged, less discouraged by resistance. As we move to fulfill our calling we become more than we are. Our conscious, analytic mind and our unconscious, intuitive mind begin to work as one. We find more ways to integrate our inner world and our outer world. As we move forward we find joy in the process of contribution.



When have I had a calling?

How do I turn my work into a calling?

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

The Necessity of Celebration in Dark of Times

We received a message from a person who has been in a senior role for ten years. Because of external circumstances the current year has turned very dark and difficult. The writer states that after so many years there is isn’t very much to learn from the technical standpoint because the emergent technical problems tend to be variations on problems that have been solved in the past and so it is easier to know what to do.

Leadership is a different issue: “However, even in my tenth year, there is a lot of opportunity for learning how to lead.  And, of course, the more challenging the situation, the more there is to learn about leadership.  This past year has been an immensely challenging one for me as a leader and for the entire team.  But, I am starting to see how we have learned our way through this and we have risen to the many challenges inherent in this final year.”

The connection between leadership and learning is important. In one huge organization, we were told that it was decided not to waste money for leadership development on the top management team, “Once a person has risen through so many levels, they already know how to lead. People of this stature do not need leadership development.”

This appears logical. Yet it reflects a conventional assumption that is fundamentally incomplete. Leadership is far less about knowing and far more about learning in real time. The above person says, “I am starting to see how we have learned our way through this and we have risen to the many challenges inherent in this final year.”

In the conventional mindset, the organization is a technical system. The objective of management is to control the technical system. Knowledge is at a premium.   In the positive mindset, the organization is also a complex, adaptive, social system that is always changing. Learning is at a premium. A leader values knowledge while constantly engaged in learning.

There is another point to be made about this learning process. The message from our friend ended as follows: “As a result, we have continued to accomplish much during a period when momentum can, and often does, stop.  Seeing our progress as a leadership team and as an organization from this vantage point has convinced me that celebration of our efforts and accomplishments is not only proper but necessary.”

In very dark times stress goes up and we hold tightly to what we already know. Failure and the awareness of new challenges breed fear and reduce the capacity to learn.

If we live in the conventional mindset we see our failures and the emerging threats with fear that we deny. Our implicit signals become inauthentic. The positive mindset changes this. It makes us bilingual. We can see the failures but we can also see the accomplishments born of collective learning and progress. Strangely, celebration is “not only proper but necessary.”

Celebration in dark times sends an unexpected message. It calls the attention to the small wins they have been created. Doing so creates hope in the midst of despair. Leadership is about learning and a leader who is learning feels gratitude and creates hope. Hope is a rare and precious commodity in a dark organization. It calls people to purpose, integrity, communication and learning.



When have I been in a very dark, collective experience?

What did the people most need?

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

Expanding Executive Consciousness

Jeevan Sivasubramaniam works at BK publishers. When BK published The Positive Organization Jeevan wrote a piece in their newsletter that included the description of five unusual organizations. Here are his descriptions.

  1. Valve: The $4 billion dollar technology and gaming company operates under what is called anarcho-syndicalism. Anarcho-syndicalism is an economic theory with roots in the early 19th century that articulates a form of government in which self-organized cliques of labor work together to directly achieve goals. The way this manifests at Valve is that there are no “bosses.” After an endogenous process in which a self-organized committee hires a new employee, he or she is free to join and freely move around any of the company’s myriad of projects. Where Google boasts 20 percent free time for its employees to pusue their interests, Valve boasts 100 percent free time.
  1. Gore:Since Bill Gore founded the company in 1958, Gore has been a team-based, flat-lattice organization that fosters personal initiative. There are no traditional organizational charts, no chains of command, and no predetermined channels of communication. Instead, people communicate directly with each other and are accountable to fellow members of multi-disciplined teams. They encourage hands-on innovation, involving those closest to a project in decision making. Teams organize around opportunities and leaders emerge organically.
  1. Cloudflare:Recognized by the World Economic Forum as a technology pioneer and ranked among the top ten most innovative companies by both Fast Company and the Wall Street Journal, Cloudflare offers services and security for various web entities. Immediately after their first board meeting, Cloudflare founder Matthew Prince and his co-founders made a radical decision: No employee at CloudFlare–a company that now processes 250 billion page views a month through its security apps–would go by a hierarchical job title. There would be no VPs, managers, or executives, only engineers, designers, etc. Prince maintains that checking egos at the door ensures that the quality of an idea–not a person’s rank–always wins.
  1. Morning Star: The world’s largest tomato processor has no managers, no directives from above, no promotions and no titles. Instead, there is the philosophy promulgated by Morning Star’s founder Chris Rufer. More than 40 years ago, Rufer launched a trucking company to haul tomatoes to canneries. The work did not lend itself to the management theories he had learned as an MBA student at UCLA. What worked then for a one-truck business works today for a company that swells to more than 2,400 employees in tomato season. Morning Star calls what it practices self-management. But it is also mutual management: Employees’ decisions about what they will do are determined largely by their commitments to others.
  1. Zappos: In 2014, the well-known retailer eliminated traditional managers, did away with the typical corporate hierarchy and get rid of job titles, at least internally. The unusual approach is called a “holacracy.”  The idea is to replace the traditional corporate chain of command with a series of overlapping, self-governing “circles.” In theory, this gives employees more of a voice in the way the company is run. According to Zappos executives, the move is an effort to keep the 1,500-person company from becoming too rigid, too unwieldy, and too bureaucratic as it grows.

These accounts are unsettling. It is natural to ask, “If such companies are successful, why do we not see more of them?”

I suggest that one of the many factors at play is how we think.   The concept of hierarchy is imprinted in the collective mind.   Noting this, Robert Pirsig once said, “If you tore down all the hierarchies on the planet, in a short time they would all reappear.”

We “know” that people are self-interested and cannot be trusted. We “know” that they must be controlled and hierarchies are the most efficient way to control self-interested people.   In contrast, the above descriptions suggest that people can be intrinsically motivated. They can be trusted to spontaneously pursue the common good. They will engage in self-organization and co-creation. In such systems, “teams organize around opportunities and leaders emerge organically.”

For years I have taught these same unusual notions to executives. Doing so has little impact. They hear my words but my words bounce off what they “know.” So I put them in a simulation in which they can only succeed by embracing the concept of self-organization. As they move forward they experience organically emerging leadership and they find it exhilarating.

When we debrief, they are excited about their unusual experience. Nevertheless, they explain their success using the tools available to them. They use hierarchical notions to tell their story. So I review the gap between their explanations and what really happened. It is at that point that the light bulbs finally go on. The combination of having the new experience and having their old assumptions questioned increases their consciousness and allows them to finally “see.”

People tend not to understand or accept the possibility of self-organization through reading or hearing. They need to experience the unusual reality and then carefully reflect on their experience. Usually it is then that their minds expand so as they can embrace the essence of positive organizing.



How would a “holacracy” vary from the hierarchies I have known?

How would I turn my hierarchy into a “holacracy?”

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



Seeing New Possibilities

I have a close associate who took over a troubled company. There was one unit that had a “particularly horrible culture.” The people were “actively disengaged.” The phrase suggests that they were using their talents to proactively undermine the collective good of the company. It is what happens when people lose all faith in their leaders. It a sign of advanced organizational decay and often managers have no idea what to do about it.

My associate read the earlier positive passage titled Change the Music – Change the Dance. He took it to his management group and they discussed it. The ideas in the passages did not reflect their conventional logic. They began to talk about their work in a new way.

Within a few days my associate began receiving unsolicited emails from employees who interact with the particularly troublesome unit. They raved about the changes they were seeing. The emails indicated that the people in the troubled unit were more collaborative, energetic, productive, open, happy, and easier to deal with. One person indicated that improvement inside the unit reduced his own stress outside the unit.

We do not know what was actually done to initiate this positive change. What we do know is that the process started when the management team discussed a positive passage. Doing so challenged the existing mindset, and invited people to the reality of possibility. Some manager began to see in a new way, and that led to new behavior.

The idea behind positive passages is that we can change the culture by changing the conversation. Positive passages are meant to challenge the conventional way of thinking, to jolt people into seeing new possibilities.

When a group of people in an organization reads a positive passage their minds are being seeded with new images and this may lead to new conversations. One strategy, therefore, is to use email to expose them to a steady stream of positive passages and trust that new conversations emerge.

A more assertive strategy is seen here. Positive passages can be used to start conversations in meetings. You can supply a positive passage and ask the group to analyze the passage and explore how to apply the resulting insights. This guarantees a change in the conventional patterns of discussion and opens the possibility that people will see and act in new ways.

By providing you with positive passages I inviting you to the realm of transformative influence. I am hoping to turn you into a person with the capacity to lift conversations and turn cultures positive.


When in your life did seeing in a new way, lead to new behavior?

How does a positive passage invite people to the reality of possibility?

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

Connect People to Possibility

Once a finance officer told me, “My job is supposed to be negative. I have to look for what is wrong. My job is to say ‘no.’ I expect people to hate me. I do not expect to be friends with the people who work for me, either. I find my friendships outside of work.”

The image is dismal but prevalent. I have talked to hundreds of professionals—just like the woman I’ve quoted—who make similar assumptions. They accept their fate because they believe that what they experience is a reflection of the reality of business and of organizational life. They live in the reality of constraint; an invitation to a better future is met with great suspicion.

Beneath that suspicion, though, there is often is a hidden orientation to possibility, a hope that things might be better. I was impressed by the authenticity of this seemingly “negative” woman. She made her statement after asking me what my keynote address was on. I indicated that the topic was creating positive organizations. It was then that she expressed her negative assumptions. The interesting thing, however, is what happened after the keynote. She cared enough to attend the follow-up workshop. This meant, despite what she had said, that there was a small germ of belief in possibility and a small spark of hope—enough to motivate her to be present.

During the next hour, we reviewed some concepts, and then I exposed her and the other workshop attendees to the Positive Organization Generator. The tool contains 100 unusual, positive practices used by real companies. These concrete practices tend to capture the interest of even skeptical people. I ask participants to examine the practices with an eye toward customizing them to their own needs.

At the end, I challenged several of the participants to convince me that they had at least three positive practices they were ready to go home and try. I made it a point to include the “negative” woman, and she shared the three practices she wanted to try. She was going to go home to make a first attempt at creating a more positive organization.

Even in the greatest skeptic, there is a spark of hope, a desire for a more positive experience. The job of a leader is to light that spark in the people, by helping their teams to see the possibilities they cannot see.


What do I believe about the nature of work?

What do I believe about the skeptics?

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?

Zingerman’s: Spreading the Vision

If someone aspires to create a positive organization they almost immediately confront a problem – their colleagues.  The people they work with cannot imagine a positive organization or how to create it. The image violates the assumptions they have acquired through conventional experience. Telling people about positive organizing seldom meets with success.   Changing people’s beliefs is often easier done by showing than telling.  A wise leader might create experiences that allow people to learn their way into a new mindset. Consider an example.

A CEO attended The Positive Business Conference at the Ross School of Business. He went home determined to create a positive culture. His direct reports wanted to be supportive but had great difficulty grasping the message. After much talking and little success, the CEO took another path. He flew some of his people to Ann Arbor, Michigan and spent two days visiting a company called Zingerman’s. Zingerman’s is a nationally recognized business considered by many to be the epitome of a positive organization.

The company was founded in 1982 by Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw. They started with a deli and a passion for producing great food. They organized around a genuine commitment to the community, to customers, and to employees, and intensely pursued the commitment at all three levels. In a relatively short time, Zingerman’s became recognized as one of the best small businesses in the United States.

Based on their success, outsiders encouraged Weinzweig and Saginaw to franchise the deli. Instead, they invented in a new business model. Seeking to preserve their purpose, vision, and values, they began new but related businesses in the Ann Arbor area. Today, they have the deli, a bake house, a creamery, a training company, a mail-order business, and other kinds of restaurants.

In terms of leadership, they go to extraordinary lengths to make a difference. Their stories of employee, customer, and community engagement are legendary. The people at Zingerman’s love what they are doing.

After the visit to Zingerman’s, the CEO and his people were scheduled to visit me. I assumed that I would need to overcome resistance. I was wrong. I did not need to explain anything about positive organizing because the people were “on fire” with their own ideas.

Telling is less persuasive than seeing and doing. The CEO was unable to “talk” his executives into understanding and pursuing the creation of a positive organization.  Given their assumptions of reality, what he was calling for did not make sense. It was a foolhardy dream.  His people were locked into the constraints of the conventional mental map. Seeing an example of a positive organization allowed them to open up to new possibilities.


Where do conventional assumptions come from?

Where do assumptions of excellence come from?

How could we use this positive passage to get better?

Transcend the Conventional Logic of Business

We took our friends to visit art galleries in a coastal town.  We ended up in what I believe was the best of the many galleries. My wife was impressed with many of the displayed works. The curator, George, told her the stories behind the pictures.   In listening to the stories I could tell that George was an unusual man. I made it a point to hang around.  When he was alone I asked George, “Why is this the best gallery in town?”

He studied me for a moment then he opened up.  For the next twenty minutes he talked with passion. He told of his professional life mission.  He only displays the work of artists who labor for the love of art and who are not hungry for fame or fortune.  He said that when people enter his gallery they feel something special.  When he greets people he explains the art, but he does not do it to sell the art.  He does it to bring the power of the art into the lives of his customers.  He told many stories of people who were transformed by some experience in the gallery.

Then George made an extraordinary claim.  Since he opened his gallery many years ago, he has seen 15 other galleries open and then go out of business.  He says he flourishes because he never varies from his professional life purpose.

Experts in selling art give him advice.  They tell him that a gallery cannot sell fine art, glass art, and prints.   Successful galleries specialize in one of the three.  He said, “I violate that logic and yet I still prosper.”

George is a deeply fulfilled man who is spending his life doing what he loves.  In his gallery there is a positive culture. People feel it and are moved. Positive cultures transcend the conventional assumptions of business. In them people flourish and exceed expectations.

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.