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:
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.
“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.
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.
In helping leaders to create an alternative context and mindset, both chapters suggest that a shift in perspective can be achieved by:
“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)
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:
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.
The information above by no means provides the silver bullet for successful change. However it does provide change leaders with questions for productive reflection: