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Positivity (Happiness) in the Workplace and Organizational Change

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Positivity as an Organizational Change Methodology – Appreciative Inquiry

Fredrickson (2009, p. 52) describes positive questioning as the “launching point” for Appreciative Inquiry (AI), an approach to organizational change that has “spread like wildfire through business consulting circles”. She references Cooperrider and Whitney (2008, p. XV), co-founders of the AI methodology, who describe AI as:

a philosophy that incorporates an approach, a process (4-D Cycle of Discovery, Dream, Design and Destiny) for engaging people at any or all levels to produce effective, positive change…Its assumption is simple:
Every organization has something that works right – things that give life when it is most alive and effective, successful and connected in healthy ways to its stakeholders and communities. AI begins by identifying what is positive and connecting to it in ways that heighten energy, vision and action for change.

AI leverages the powerful benefits of positivity – namely that of expanding people’s creative capabilities and stimulating energetic collaboration between people in the workplace. Most initiatives are fraught with pressure, anxiety and angst – not only do people going through change feel this, often (as my research in Merit’s Engage-to-Change research study shows), managers will bully and intimidate employees during these times of stress and pressure. AI turns this upside down. Cooperrider and Whitney (2008, p. 3) note that the traditional and historical approach to organizational change is based on the principle of problem solving. By its very nature, problem-solving implies there is a problem that inhibits change and once that problem has a solution, effective change can take place. This focus on problems has by implication a negative perspective – something must be broken and must be fixed, versus what is positive and meaningful and can be leveraged for future change and innovation (2008, p. 3-4):

Appreciative Inquiry is the cooperative co-evolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations and the world around them … In its most practical construction, AI is a form of organizational study that selectively seeks to locate, highlight and illuminate what are referred to as the life-giving forces of the organization’s existence, its positive core … What makes AI different from other OD methodologies at this phase is that every question is positive.

AI includes techniques of asking positive, powerful and provocative questions that uncover the positive, versus the notion of seeking “THE problem”.  This approach is similar to that popularized in the book “Leading with Questions” by Michael Marquardt (2005).

Is Too Much Positivity Negative?

I must admit to being somewhat skeptical about what I felt to be an excessive focus on happiness and positivity in the Appreciative Inquiry change model – to the point of ignoring the negative. Dealing with problems (for example in the form of managing risk) is  essential for navigating a challenging business landscape; furthermore, the need to focus on these problems is enshrined in the fiduciary responsibilities of corporate board members.  While being emphatically supportive of the need for positivity as a dominant focus in organizational change, ignoring negatives or problems seems naïve. For example, while I was impressed with the text “Strengths-Based Leadership” (Rath and Conchie, 2008, Gallup Press), I innately felt that ignoring weaknesses is a fundamental mistake – unbalanced in a sense. Zenger and Folkman (2002) in their research of over 22,000 leaders world wide, describe in detail the need to develop the core strengths that form the foundation of extraordinary leadership, and provide unique insights on the multiplying impact of powerful combinations of strengths. But they do not ignore or underemphasize weaknesses and the risks of not overcoming what they refer to as “Fatal Flaws”. Indeed, Fredrickson (2009, p. 135) describes a “tipping point” where too much positivity may be dangerous – ignoring negatives (Zenger and Folkman refer to them as “Fatal Flaws”) can be damaging. Fredrickson however describes the need for balance, and refers to this balance as “appropriate negativity”. Negativity that is appropriate is important to focus on for purposes of identifying real problems and overcoming them to avoid risk and achieve success. In my view, it is important to place some focus on negative issues for purposes of overcoming “Fatal Flaws” and major risks. A key question from my perspective is the manner in which we view these problems or challenges – do leaders become anxious, harsh and punitive and create a negative focus on problem solving, versus an energetic, innovative and collaborative environment to solve these problems?  The former approach is destructive. The latter is constructive despite the focus being on a problem or risk issue. The excessive focus on the positive to the exclusion of negatives is risky. Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, in an article entitled “The Darker Side of Happiness” (2011), comments:

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