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.

From the Positive Past To the Positive Future

There is a CEO who was once the epitome of economic thinking. He then went through a crisis and discovered purpose, people and culture. He began to create a positive organization. Measures of employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and share price have all gone up and stayed up. When he became aware of the science at the Center for Positive Organizations, it gave him a language for what he was he was already doing, and he used the language and tools to speed the process. The last few years have been impressive.

As this man has led, his people have grown. Sometimes there were doubts about his positive aspirations and strategies. The organizational success, however, has changed doubt into belief. The thinking of the CEO has expanded. He now has a vision of doing more. In a recent meeting he shared the vision with his direct reports. He began with a surprising story.

He quietly talked of a prayer that was regularly offered in his family. The prayer suggested that we are what we think and our thoughts become reality. He indicated that when thousands of people align around the same thoughts that progress becomes unstoppable and that powerful new realities come into existence. I looked around the room and people were nodding.

He then went into a history that most of them shared. The company was once at such a low level of human and financial performance that it was difficult to see any positive alternative. He described a crucial meeting. He had asked some questions: What do we want to make of this company? Why and what do we personally believe that would lead to any given aspiration? How do we ground our given aspiration, and what would make it vivid? How can be become aligned around our aspirations?

He then sent his people away for an hour and asked them ponder and to write. When they returned he had each person share. People spoke from their hearts. Many told stories form their personal life. A pleasant surprise was that there was so much commonality and it was relatively easy to aggregate the responses and create a shared vision.

The CEO reviewed the notes from the meeting long ago and then said, “Everything we envisioned happened. Operational excellence, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, shareholder value, external reputation, and geographical footprint–all expanded and many exceeded our aspirations.”

Again, I looked around the room and the heads were nodding. He was recalling their collective, core story. It was no ordinary story. It was a sacred account of realizing potential in themselves and in others. To retell it was an experience in renewal.

The CEO moved to the present. He explained that he now believes that in addition to trying to be “best in the world,” a company can also become “best for the world.” It is natural to believe that the work of executives is to create a great organization that produces shareholder value. Focusing on anything else is illegitimate. Today it is fashionable for companies to do symbolic things for the greater good, but truly focusing on the issues of society is the work of government, not business.

He then said, “I think that this is our work–not symbolically but at scale. If the private sector does not change things, the problems will persist. I believe there is enough energy to do both the internal work and the external work and that one will feed the other. We are in a unique position to do things other organizations cannot do. Success will lead us to be seen in a new way and it will pull support for our core business.”

He then invited people to repeat what they did in that meeting long ago, to go off alone and answer the same questions they answered then. When they returned, each one shared. I hung on their every word. They shared many possible aspirations, envisioning futures that would normally be unspeakable. As they did, they were truthful about the perceived challenges, potential, and motivation. I was moved by comments like these:

  • It feels like an add-on, an additional requirement on our limited energy.
  • We would have to learn how to do what we do not know how to do.
  • We would have to think and behave in new ways.
  • We would have to be honest about the impediments and constraints.
  • Resistance will be natural. We are going to have to lean in. We are going to have to work to open the minds of our employees.
  • It is outside role expectations for the company and we will take heat. So I think it is about constancy: if we persist it will become acceptable over time.
  • There are other companies doing versions of this. We can learn from them.
  • The barrier is the conventional mindset. It is built on fear of failure and scarcity instead of abundance. I want to leave a legacy that persists long after I retire.
  • The first time around I did not understand what we were doing, yet it resulted in more success than I could have imagined. I think we can do this.
  • I believe what we are aspiring to do will have a magnetic effect. It will draw future employees and it will draw new investors. Many people are investing in sustainable companies.
  • I think we have a unique opportunity to partner with some of our long-time adversaries and do things we could not have previously imagined.
  • I think this company can become a catalyst, and I am prepared to make the journey.
  • I want to do this because of my grandkids. We have an obligation to that generation. We need to plant the seed.
  • I want my family to be proud of what we are doing. What we are aspiring too is aligned with my faith.       We can move forward by failing frequently and often.


Creating a positive organization requires culture change and successful culture change is a function of belief in a vision. Most leaders struggle because they are actually managers who cannot create belief. What this case illustrates is that once you become a leader and create a positive organization, you have a very precious resource. It is belief in possibility. Because you have it, you can tap the past to create belief in a new future. It is a lesson every leaders should remember.


  • Why did the group buy into such an unusual vision?
  • How many people “want to leave a legacy that persists long after I retire?”
  • How many people want their family “to be proud of what we are doing?”
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Envisioning and Creating the Positive Organizing

In workshops, participants often ask something like this: “In practical terms, what is a positive organization?” I no longer answer. Instead, I invite them to create their own definition. I put them through an exercise. When they finish, something important happens. They say things like this: “When I started writing it down, it became real and it seemed possible.”

The sentence is crucial. It captures a necessary change. Until managers believe that positive organizing is real, they cannot create positive organizing. The following exercise is designed to help build belief.

Exercise: Defining and Creating a Positive Organization

  1. What is your organization like when it is at its best? Write some key words.


  1. Read the following checklist. Underline any phrase you want to add to your list of key words. (Checklist is below.)


  1. Reviewing your list of words, write your own definition of a positive organization. Be sure it is practical, something your people will understand. Put it in their language.


  1. Then write a strategy that will turn your organization positive.


Checklist: Positive Organizing

Meaningful Intent:

_We have a higher purpose

_We have a shared vision

_We are driven by a strategic plan

_We are pursuing possibilities we believe in

Spontaneous Contribution:

_We surrender self-interest

_We sacrifice for the common good

_We spontaneously give of ourselves

_Ego goals become contribution goals

Full Engagement:

_We care about what we are doing

_We are engaged

_We are giving all we have

_We are fully committed

Full Inclusion:

_The outliers feel invited in

_The obstinate are beginning to believe

_Everyone feels like they belong

_No energy is lost dealing with resisters

Positive Peer Pressure:

_More positive norms emerge

_Expectations align with the purpose

_Negative peer pressure becomes positive

_Peers confront the underperformers

Collaborative Relationships:

_We take a win-win mentality

_Competition becomes collaboration

_Teamwork is natural

_We become a dynamic whole

Creative Effort:

_We try new ideas

_We take intelligent risks

_We improvise

_We make discoveries as we move forward

Positive Regard:

_Our language is affirming

_No one is being judged

_Positive appreciation is expressed

_We value each other

Shared Vulnerability:

_We share personal vulnerability

_We reveal our own mistakes

_We ask questions when we fail to understand

_We ask each other for help

Constructive Confrontation:

_Truth becomes more important than power

_Communication is authentic

_People share what they really feel

_Ideas are respectfully challenged

Spontaneous Leadership:

_Leadership emerges spontaneously

_Leadership moves from person to person

_Everyone leads as appropriate

_Everyone initiates as needed

Collective Learning:

_We co-create learning

_We “piggy back” on to each other’s contributions

_We create a shared mind

_We feel we can figure out anything

Time Discipline:

_The pace is quick

_We keep to our planned schedules

_We deliver results on a timely basis

_We persist so as to meet deadlines

Recognizable Success:

_We experience recognizable success

_We receive praise from those we serve

_We attract new business

_Outsiders want to work with us

Joyful Achievement:

_We take joy in our outcomes

_We infect each other with positive energy

_Our growth creates enthusiasm

_We love the work

_ Attraction of Resources

_Our success breeds success

_New people want to work for us

_New customers flow to us

_Our work is in high demand



(Write a definition and strategy below.)

Your Definition and Strategy


Write an Understandable Definition

Based on my own observations, I believe a positive organization has the following characteristics:






Write a Strategy

Based on my own definition of positive organizing, I believe we can turn our organization positive by doing the following:







  • What happens when we do not believe?
  • Why is it important to start by examining your organization at its best?
  • Why is it important to write in the language of your own people?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



Ohm’s Law and the Movement of Energy Through an Organization

Ron May recently retired from the senior executive ranks at DTE Energy and is now an executive in residence at the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michgian.  He spent a morning in a session that included a discussion about the role of resisters in the process of creating a positive organization.  At lunch, Ron shared a great lesson about electricity positive leadership. I asked him to join me in writing this positive passage.

Ron pointed out that resistance and potential are terms used in Ohm’s Law, which states that the electrical current in a conductor is proportional to the potential difference applied to it, provided the temperature remains the same.  The law uses the following formula: V = I x R.  “V” is voltage or potential difference, “I” is current or energy flow, and “R” is resistance.

Therefore, assuming a person’s potential has always been present but just not realized, we can hold that value constant. As a leader helps the person embrace their potential and reduce the fear of their own growth, resistance inside the person drops, the person begins to act, and energy flow increases. Potential (“V” – a constant value) divided by resistance (“R” – a smaller observed value) equals Energy Flow (“I” – increased energy).

If we move from the individual to the collective, a leader can increase the power of the impact of the collective by increasing energy flow, reducing resistance, or both.  When the leader does both, there is a big jump in the voltage or potential difference or impact.

The culture or shared expectation and belief system is the circuit or electrical line that carries energy.  When the purpose is unclear or unattractive, relationships begin to decay, silos grow, resistance increases and less energy flows.  People lose hope and reduce their efforts.  Resistance goes up, the energy flow goes down and voltage decreases. The potential is not realized.

When there is a higher purpose that is clear, and the leader is authentically and constantly committed to the purpose, people focus their attention on the leader’s unusual selflessness and they begin to sense the value in being a part of something bigger than self.  A few of the more change-ready people embrace the purpose.  They choose to invest their discretionary energy even if disparaged by the resisters. The total resistance is going down.

As this pattern continues, relationships become increasingly trusting and communication becomes more authentic. More information and more energy are flowing.  Belief and hope move like a positive infection across the system.  Outliers or resisters are enticed to become believers.  As commitment and trust go up, resistance further declines.  Silos begin to decay.  Negative peer pressure becomes positive peer pressure and resistance drops close to zero.  High voltage moves through the organization to outside recipients.

Ron sees an analogy between the flow of electrical energy, and the flow of energy within and between people:

“I experienced the huge energy rise within my organization as we created a new group to perform projects to help drive the vision of continuous improvement. Resistance was expressed in their questions of job security and purpose. As these were positively reinforced, first by me and then by others, the group worked with energy to become a world-class project management organization. How energy moves through a wire tells us something about how energy moves through an organization.”



  • How energized is your organization?
  • Is potential being realized?
  • What forms of resistance can be reduced? How?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?