How Can You Create a Positive Organization?

Discover how leaders can make their workplaces more positive.

Posted Dec 08, 2015

Are the people in your workplace generally overextended and underutilized or are they fully engaged and constantly renewed? Despite the best intentions of many leaders, you only have to look at the research on how few people describe themselves as “flourishing” to realize that most of us are exhausted from trying to better manage an ever-shrinking supply of time, whilst our strengths go untapped. But is enabling people to be “fully engaged and constantly renewed” a realistic goal for any organization? 

Professor Robert Quinn, of the Ross Business School at the University of Michigan, notes that for many workplaces the reality that their people are overextended and underutilized is a cycle of depletion that is not easily broken. Unfortunately, the alternative of their people being fully engaged and constantly renewed is also a cycle that is not easily believed.

Source: Canva

So exactly how are leaders meant to make their organization more positive?

“A positive organization is a place where people are flourishing as they work and as a result they are able to exceed performance expectations,” explains Professor Quinn.

The good news for those of us stuck in the cycle of depletion is that our organizations are not static.  No organization is entirely positive or negative. Instead they are the ratio of positive to negative behaviors that are observed.

Take the example of two hospitals Professor Quinn describes in his new book “The Positive Organization: Breaking Free From Conventional Cultures, Constraints and Beliefs”:

  • Hospital 1 was run like a five star hotel: there was a doorman to greet you, community spaces for cooking classes, a CEO who had a relationship with every staff member, and people who were fully committed to the hospital’s success. The people were clearly flourishing and exceeding expectations on both profit and growth. But this doesn’t mean they may not still have Units that were underperforming.
  • Hospital 2 was run more like a high-security institution: people had to produce identification to gain entry, inflexible policies guided every action, administrators were punitive, hierarchy shaped relationships and people just wanted to do their job and go home. The people were clearly struggling and failing to meet expectations of both profit and growth. Please be clear this didn’t make it a “bad organization”. There were still plenty of people who benefitted from the services of this hospital every day, but hospital’s potential wasn’t yet being achieved.

Hospital 1 had cultivated more of a positive culture of excellence. Hospital 2 had cultivated more of a negative culture of constraint, which wasn’t serving them well.

But how can you make a negative culture of constraint more positive?

Throughout his new book Professor Quinn, described the steps he helped Hospital 2 take to create a more positive culture. Here are three of the steps that every leader should be able to use:

  • Challenge Your Mental Maps – We all have mental maps – sets of assumptions or beliefs that are based on our experiences – that help us to navigate the world. When it comes to our workplaces many of us have a “conventional mental map” that believes people are self-interested, resources are scare and conflict is natural so stability, hierarchy, and control are the keys to running an efficient and profitable business.

In contrast some of us, whilst accepting the conventional mental map is real, have also acquired a more “positive mental map” that recognizes people are capable of pursuing the common good, resources can be abundant and conflict can be transcended which allows them to simultaneously spot the constraints and possibilities. This “bi-lingual” view of our organizations – the conventional and the possible – allows us to do things others cannot.

Which mental maps do you hold? Among all the constraints of your organization, can you find teams who challenge the conventional map and open up new possibilities for how people can flourish and exceed expectations?  Can this be replicated for other teams?

  • Embrace Contrasting Tensions – Organizations are living systems of tension. They are dynamic and as a result full of polarities like: growth focused and cost control, innovation and compliance, full engagement and life balance.

In our desire for simplicity Professor Quinn explains, we often focus too heavily on one polarity creating unintentional challenges for our organizations. For example, if we go too hard at being task focused we’re likely to end up with an oppressive sweatshop where people feel alienated and angry and we fuel unnecessary conflict. But if we go to far towards caring for people, we can wind up with a country club where people aren’t confronting conflict, they’re not working hard and they’re underutilizing their potential.

Instead of seeking “either/or” solutions, leaders need the confidence and flexibility to embrace contrasting tensions of “and” based on the situations their workplaces are in and the outcomes they are trying to achieve. After all it’s a leader’s job to be able to drive change whilst maintaining stability, to be focused on growth whilst maintaining costs and to take decisive actions whilst being able to seek consensus.

What’s the ratio of positive to negative approaches in your organization? What are the contrasting tensions that work well in your workplace? What impact does this have on people’s ability to flourish and exceed expectations?

  • Trust The Emergent Process – It’s impossible to get anything done purely through the force of leadership, our people have to be engaged and committed as well. Professor Quinn explains that organizations are not stable hierarchies but constantly changing social networks where everyone has information and influence. As a result when people in the network embrace the common good, they start making spontaneous contributions, overcoming constraints, expanding their roles, seeing and seizing new opportunities, broadening and deepening the network of relationships, embracing feedback and exceeding expectations. 

This is how lasting change really unfolds. It’s rarely planned on a page in a linear fashion, but instead trusts the process of self-organization. It requires leaders to let go of expecting people to solve problems as technical experts, and to start trusting people’s ability for collective learning and giving them the space to move forward, to learn, to adapt and to eventually produce a new level of understanding and order. This can feel a little chaotic at the outset, so it requires trust, patience and confidence.

How does lasting change really unfold in your organization? Is it a linear plan on the page or is it more organic and self-organizing? What can you do to trust the emergent process and empower your people to embrace the common good and help shape the change process?

To help leaders navigate their way towards creating more positive organizations, Professor Quinn and his team have created the free Positive Organization Generator.  Containing more than 100 practices from real organizations, you can select and rate those that are most interesting to you and then reinvent them to suit you and your organization. You can access the tool for free here:

If you were to lead one small change to help your organization become more positive, where would you start?

For more on positive organizations be sure to grab Professor Quinn’s new book here, or watch him talk further on this topic here.