Managing Positive Change

I wrote the article below earlier this month for Positive Psychology News Daily.

Leaders and managers often face the task of implementing organisational change, a complex process which is frequently experienced as difficult to get right and which requires sophisticated and flexible management styles. What insights can leaders gain from Positive Psychology and Appreciative Inquiry to help them lead successful change? This question is addressed in two chapters in the Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work edited by Alex Linley, Susan Harrington, and Nicola Garcea:

  • Chapter 6: “Change and Its Leadership: The Role of Positive Emotions” by Malcolm Higgs
  • Chapter 7: “Working Positively Toward Transformative Cooperation” by Leslie Sekerka and Barbara Fredrickson.

These chapters reinforce the idea that leaders can influence the environment in which transformation efforts can succeed. Below are some of the key points from these chapters.

Change Doesn’t Have to be Viewed as a Problem

“Managers are trained to view change as a problem which can be analysed and solved in a linear or sequential manner.” (Higgs)

“Scientific management-based programs….which tend to employ functional and structural solutions… are unlikely to improve organisational performance over time. In part this is because they are not intended to be transformational, but are reactions to dysfunction.”  (Serkerka & Fredrickson)

In these quotations, the authors refer to the complexity of change and the limitations of linear processes. However, their main focus is on how leaders influence their own and others’ orientations towards a change initiative. Are they solving a problem, or are they creating transformation? Are they creating fear or enthusiasm? The leader’s mindset is critical.

One View: Resistors are Bad People

For example, leaders might perceive that people are the problem, and resistors to change are bad people to be coerced. Another example is the use of the famous burning platform image popularised by John Kotter. Leaders can also deplete energy by engaging in conversations about change which rest too much on the organisation’s limitations, focusing on what’s wrong with its people, systems, and processes. This can lead to a collective sense of “We are not good enough.” Overall, more negativity can be created than is needed to generate the positive energy required for sustained change.

A Shift in Perspective

In helping leaders to create an alternative context and mindset, both chapters suggest that a shift in perspective can be achieved by:

  1. Understanding Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions and how a climate of positivity (a ratio of considerably more positive than negative) can be the foundation for sustainable organisational change. The benefits of positive emotions include: creativity, connectivity, resilience, cooperation, collaborative inquiry, enthusiasm, energy, meaning, appreciation, psychological health, growth, flexibility, respectfulness, empathy, motivation, willingness, openness, less fear, less narrowed thinking.
    “Positive emotions coupled with collaborative values can help an organisation thrive, in that its members are motivated to create new organisational forms.”
    (Serkerka and Fredrickson).
  2. Shifting the emphasis so there is a greater understanding of the individual and organisational strengths, in addition to an understanding of the key problems. Analyse what is being done well and how to leverage this for future change.
  3. Seeing the change as an opportunity to energise people so they feel they are a part of the change, rather than feeling they are the subjects of the change.
  4. Expecting that when people are energised and enthusiastic, the behaviours required in the post-change context will emerge and can be learned.
  5. Having a mindset that change is not bad. Change is natural, is part of organisational growth, and offers new potential.
  6. Incorporating Appreciative Inquiry as a way to “find elements in the organisational system which are well and find ways to deploy these strengths in a way which supports the goals of the change,” according to Higgs.

“If transformative cooperation is desired, the power to create deep and sustainable change resides in the emotional dimension of the workplace enterprise.” (Sekerka and Fredrickson)

Doing Change To or With People?

In his chapter, Higgs refers to research which he and colleague undertook in 2005 to 2008. In successful change programs they found that change leaders set the tone and overall direction, yet they allowed people to become responsible for the change and to adjust the plan as the implementation unfolded. That is, leaders were doing change with people, not to people. Analysis revealed that these leaders had four change leadership behaviours:

  1. Attractor behaviours: connecting, tuning in, building the story, seeing patterns, serving the higher purpose, self awareness, sense-making.
  2. Edge and tension behaviours: establishing reality, constancy, and persistence, challenging assumptions, creating discomfort, setting a high bar.
  3. Container behaviours: setting boundaries, expectations, and values, expressing confidence, affirming, encouraging, showing empathy, creating trust and ownership, making it safe to have hard conversations and to take risks, creating alignment at the top.
  4. Movement behaviours: creating systems of possibility, learning, and difference, supporting creativity, freedom to be open and vulnerable, freedom to break established patterns, and powerful inquiry.

Higgs points out that these four change leadership behaviours are supported by the use of Positive Psychology and Appreciative Inquiry, for example, by collaborative, appreciative inquiry into what is working well, by an understanding of the Broaden and Build Theory of positive emotions, by a focus on strengths together with a balancing use of rules, by creating challenging goals, and by having hard conversations.

A more integrated approach

The information above by no means provides the silver bullet for successful change. However it does provide change leaders with questions for productive reflection:

  • Are they creating climates in which there is energy and enthusiasm for the change?
  • Do they tend towards the fear and deficit mindset that can underpin some change programs?
  • How can they bring strengths-based and deficit-based theories together to create a more balance approach?
  • What are the foundations they can create and on which they to build their change and transformation programs?

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