Meetings Don’t Have to Suck!

The Joy of Appreciative Meetings

Remember when you weScreenshot 2015-06-05 07.24.05re a kid and your parents, after busting you for some bad behavior, said something along the lines of, “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.” That’s kind of how I feel about meetings. I’m not mad that meetings are so mind-numbing and soul-sucking, but I am disappointed that we’ve all missed an opportunity to turn meetings into something life-giving and encouraging. I’m not so concerned about the number of meetings we have, but know we can do better at using meetings to focus on what is going well, celebrate successes, and build energy to pursue our goals.

In their book Appreciate Leadership, Diana Whitney, Kae Rader and Amanda Trosten-Bloom suggest

 “Get staff meetings off to a positive start by asking staff members to share stories of their best day at work in the past month.”

And

“Do a positive project debrief by asking about the ‘root causes of success.’ Ask to hear about everything that happened that make it a successful project.”

It’s all about the questions you ask. When you start a meeting asking questions that center on what went wrong and what problems need to be fixed, the tone of the meeting degenerates instantly to a focus on the negative. It’s depressing and zaps energy. The atmosphere is one of defensiveness, blame, and finding more nails to hammer in.

Appreciative meetings focus on what is going well, what went right, and what you want to see more of. This is not a head-in-the-sand, mamby-pamby approach to meeting management, but a determined effort to turn the tide of the conversation to the positive.

In Appreciative Leadership they call this the “flip” – the practice of turning a habitual problem, like employee turnover, inter-group communication, technology breakdowns, and slumping sales, into an affirmative topic to discuss:

  • Employee turnover >> employee retention
  • Inter-group communication problems >> productive collaboration
  • Technology breakdowns >> users as designers
  • Slumping sales >> new markets

Asking positive questions and flipping the conversation to what’s possible builds energy. Meetings actually become life-giving sessions where teamwork develops and solutions are nurtured together. We dread meetings because they drain us and take something away from us. Appreciative meetings address challenges and opportunities from the vantage point of what we hope for.

Try it! The next time you call a meeting, spend the first few minutes asking questions about what is going right. Allow people to share successes, whether personal or work-related, and revamp the agenda to flip the discussion to affirmative topics. I guarantee your meetings will begin to suck less and might actually be anticipated!

Explore more benefits of appreciative inquiry:

  

The Investment-Based Leader’s Toolbox

Screenshot 2014-06-23 21.43.39Leaders in any organization give a vigorous “me too” when they hear the adage “our people are our greatest asset.” It’s the right answer! Yes, we value our employees, want to see them succeed, and hope that they’re happy in their jobs. But often the reality is not so positive. Several surveys have been done in the past couple of yeas measuring employee engagement. The sobering truth is that employees are disengaged because what leaders say and what they do is in disalignment.

The good news is that

When trust, values and a purpose-driven mission exist to a statistically significant degree and guide leadership, decision-making and behavior, these “enablers” give rise to a highly inspired group of super-engaged employees. (Forbes, September 2012)

The question, then, is how do we communicate and develop trust, values and purpose?

The answer is by investing in your greatest asset; the cornerstone of your organization. The toolbox for investment-based leadership will get you on the right track.

Trust starts with sincerity. Employees sense when a manager is just going through the motions. So before you pull any of the tools out of the toolbox, it’s important to consider you motives and attitude. Do you really want to invest in your employees not just because it may lead to higher productivity, greater sales, or other bottom-line reasons, but because it’s the right thing to do? Yes, you can invest because of what you’ll get out of it, but you’re putting a cap on potential.

A true investment in your employees means you have more altruistic motivations. You want to see them succeed because you care about them as individuals. You want them to grow, find meaning and purpose in their work, and set their own goals because that’s what every human being wants. We have to stop viewing employees as a means to an end and see them for the unique souls that they are.

Once you’ve committed to a true investment in your employees, the following tools will assist you in building a workforce that is engaged, committed, and eager to help you succeed.

Transformational Mindset:

According to an article in Psychology Today, transformational leadership

Originally focused on leaders who “transform” groups or organizations, transformational leaders focus on followers, motivating them to high levels of performance, and in the process, help followers develop their own leadership potential.

I believe this is where leaders need to start. Transformational leadership is a mindset and an attitude that puts leaders in the right frame of mind to motivate followers. In the words of Ronald E. Riggio, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College:

Transformational leaders hold positive expectations for followers, believing that they can do their best. As a result, they inspire, empower, and stimulate followers to exceed normal levels of performance. AND, transformational leaders focus on and care about followers and their personal needs and development.

Servant leadership takes transformational leadership to an even more altruistic level, emphasizing the leader’s obligation to serve followers simply because it’s the right thing to do, not for what outcomes can be generated by focusing on follower needs.

When a leader is able to focus on others and look for ways to develop and motivate them, engagement and productivity are sure to follow. It requires that a leader put their ego aside and not assume they have all the answers. Transformational leaders know that a better organization is built when individuals are empowered and have regular opportunities to engage their brains as well as their hearts.

Appreciative Inquiry:

It is said that words create worlds. The direction of our questions determines where our conversation goes, so what we ask questions about, how we phrase our questions, and what our purpose is in asking questions leads us in a certain direction.

For a leader, asking questions that lead toward positive outcomes and a thriving culture is a core responsibility. But because we are so habitually focused on problem solving and discovering what is broken, our organizational dialogue is mired in deficit-based language.

The Appreciative Inquiry 4-D cycle of Discover, Dream, Design, and Destiny provides a framework for leaders and organizations to direct the conversation toward more positive ends while tapping into the knowledge, strengths, and passions of the whole.

Start by reading Appreciative Leadership by Whitney, Rader & Trosten-Bloom. This is a practice guide to infusing your leadership with appreciative tools that draw out the best in your employees and organization to move you toward your desired future through collaboration and leveraging strengths.

Positive Deviance:

Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) grew out of the positive psychology movement started by Martin Seligman. The central idea behind POS is to identify those characteristics and behaviors that enable organizations to thrive and build cultures that reinforce these positive traits. The University of Michigan Center for Positive Organizations is a great resource, providing white papers, research, and other tools.

Positive Deviance (PD) is a concept that fits into the POS frame, building on the idea that within any organization there are individuals and groups who, with essentially the same circumstances and resources, have found a way to succeed where others are stuck.

PD has been used for years in the nonprofit and healthcare sectors, but has been slow to catch on in the marketplace, where the need for control and predictability get in the way of allowing deviants – either positive or negative – to forge new paths to solve problems.

But a surge of entrepreneurship may make the marketplace more open to experimentation and renegade solutions. PD believes that the solutions are within the context of our organizations, it simply requires that we give people the freedom to pursue unproven or counter-culture methods to fix things that have so far proven unfixable.

Strengths Focus:

Finally, in my investment-based toolbox I want to focus on the strengths of each individual on my team. We have a tradition of looking for the weaknesses in ourselves and our direct reports so that we can improve those deficiencies. But research, primarily from Gallup and former Gallup researcher Marcus Buckingham, has shown that most of us will never be able to turn our weaknesses into strengths. Instead, we should focus on those things we do uncommonly well and make them even stronger.

Leaders need to help followers identify their strengths, either through one of the strengths assessments on the market, or through an organic process of observation and dialogue. Once you know the strengths of each team member you can look for ways to organize and structure your team and the work that they do.

To really get the most out of a strengths –based approach is to develop a more flexible approach to job descriptions and work assignments. According to Gallup, when employees have an opportunity to use their strengths every day they are more than six times more engaged in their work.

Making the Investment in People

There are certainly more tools that an investment-based leader should have in their toolbox, but the ones I’ve outlined above will get you started on the right path. One thing to remember when committing to an investment-based approach is that there is no formula; the key is in using the tools in the context of your organization and the makeup of your team.

It’s also important to understand that it takes time to allow your investment to grow. Your staff may be suspicious as you begin to incorporate new methods of leading, especially if you’re making drastic changes in your leadership style. It may require some trust-building and patience, including patience with yourself as you try out new approaches.

Read my previous post: Investment-Based Performance Improvement. It introduces the characteristics of an investment-based approach – humility, humor, harmony, and honor. Using these four characteristics with a transformational mindset, appreciative inquiry, positive deviance, and a strengths focus will demonstrate to your staff that you are committed to their success and value their collaboration.

      

 

Designing Your Provocative Career Path

A few years ago I volunteered at a community Career Center. Many of the clients had been in their positions, or at least with the same company, for 15-20 years or more. Then something changed and they found themselves unemployed or laid off, dazed and confused in a land they hadn’t prepared for. There were office workers who didn’t keep up with automated office technologies, computer programmers who didn’t see the end of the mainframe coming, and laborers who didn’t see their skills becoming obsolete before their eyes. They were devestated, which is an understandable response to job loss, but unable to wrap their minds around the changes their new reality would require. Those who learn to proactively design their careers will have a much easier time adapting when change happens.

Another interesting thing I noticed as I counselled Career Center clients is that it is really difficult for most of us to define our vocations apart from job descriptions. Try it. When someone asks you what you do, is your immediate response to give your current job title? I’m a blah-blah-blah for so-and-so. So what!? What does that tell me about who you are and what you do? In order to have agility amid rapid change, we need to rethink the way we define who we are. That way, if our current position goes away or morphs into something else, we are prepared to adapt.

Most of us won’t land in our dream job by going with the flow. We have to take control of the rudder as we navigate the seas of the marketplace or we’ll end up on a shore we didn’t really want to be on. To have fulfillment & significance, we must create the future we desire using what we learned about ourselves in our Discovery and Dream exercises.

In Design we move from “What” to “How,” putting our career strategy together and identifying what training, formal education, network connections and vocational stepping stones will get us from here to there.  While the Dream phase allows us to have our head in the clouds, the Design phase keeps our feet planted on the ground of reality. Not that we discount our dreams, but we realize dreams don’t become reality overnight and they require a lot of work to make them real.

One activity that’s part of Cooperrider’s AI Design model is writing provocative propositions. As you identify the themes and strengths that make you who you are, write out what is most important to you. What are the key ingredients to your desired future and what process will pull everything together? Paraphrasing Cooperrider’s idea of what provocative propositions look like, they should

                …stretch, challenge and interrupt the status quo

                …be grounded in reality – have possibility

                …be stated in affirmative and bold terms

                …be confirmed by those closest to you

Provocative propositions provide a clear, shared vision for…[your] destiny. (Cooperrider)

As you work on the Design of your career plan, be positive and courageous. You’ve come this far – don’t give up. Yes, it’s hard and possibly overwhelming if you have decided to take a new direction. But embrace a long-term perspective and see the months or years of preparation as brief as you move toward greater satisfaction and purpose in your work. Have fun with it!

Dreaming Your Way To Your Professional Future

Times of transition make great opportunities for us to dream. When I was laid off in mid-2010 I took the time to think about what I wanted the next chapter of my life to look like. I resisted the temptation to apply for every job that came along and instead spent time reflecting and dreaming. As we look at taking an appreciative approach to managing our careers, this stage of dreaming is essential. It’s the place we stop to really consider what we want to see more of in our professional lives.  It’s important that we ask ourselves questions like,

  • If I could do any job, regardless of pay and experience, what would I do?
  • What do I do really well and enjoy so much that it hardly seems like work?
  • What do I want to keep doing, let go of, or do differenlty?
  • How did I define success? What will it look like if I’m successful over the next five years?
  • Review the questions from Part 1 and think beyond your immediate answer.

Cooperrider (et al) says, “the Dream phase is the time to push the creative edges of positive possibilities and to wonder about [your] greatest potential (Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, 114). Imagine your future without limitations and create your own opportunity map. Once you have articulated a dream for the future you want, you can begin the Design phase.

Consider how your industry is changing and how you want to position yourself within your field. Have you lost your edge? Then dream of a new way to hone your skills, or find a niche where you can utilize your knowledge in a meaningful way.

As I allowed myself to dream during my period of unemployment, I took advantage of career transition assistance, completing several assessments and inventories to help me think through my professional story and the direction I wanted to head. I considered pursuing a non-profit direction to tap into my idealist nature, then swung back to “working for the man” to earn a dependable paycheck. In the end, my dream led me to start my own consulting practice where I could do what I do best in the area of performance improvement & organization development, but also spend some of my time doing pro-bono work for non-profits.

What’s your professional dream? What limits are you putting on yourself that you need to work through? Dreaming isn’t practical, but it’s important. In the next installment we’ll talk realistically about how to bring your dreams in line with your circumstances and map out a future that gets you closer to your ideal professional future.

An Appreciative Approach to Managing Your Career – Part 1

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The late Peter Drucker, renowned for his practical insight on leadership and work life, said the biggest change of our generation, the factor that impacts who we are and what we do, is not technology, the internet, or e-commerce, but self-management. People today have more choices than any previous generation. Our life expectancy, and thus our working lifespan (the number of years dedicated to working), has increased to the point that the single-career life is unrealistic. We have to consider that we will have at least two careers, which may or may not have much to do with a previous career.  What is critical to note is that no one else is looking out for your career – it’s something you have to manage yourself. Taking an appreciative approach to managing our careers gives us hope, energy and focus as we ask ourselves positive, strengths-based questions.

Many of us have landed where we are by default, an unplanned trajectory that started when we got our first “real” job. From there we’ve floated the course of the river (or climbed the proverbial career ladder) and find ourselves pretty good at something we tolerate but don’t get excited about. We feel stuck because we have good benefits, a comfortable routine, and restist changing course now because it seems overwhelming if not unneccesary. But Drucker and others predict that we will be forced to change jobs either through obsolescence or redundancy. Since changing careers does not seem to be avoidable, we should take an intentional, positive route to prepare ourselves for the next vocational chapter in our lives.

What’s your story? When you think back over your life, the jobs you’ve had, the organizations you’ve been a part of, the volunteer activities you’ve signed up for, and the hobbies & social activities you find most enjoyable, what stories stick out in your mind? Storytelling is powerful, and being able to tell our own story, especially to ourselves, is extremely valuable. That may sound like a funny statement, but it’s true. Sometimes we are editors and minimalizers when it comes to our own stories, especially as it relates to ways we have excelled, advanced, and grown. How often do we allow ourselves to tell the whole story about our successes?  

What questions should you be asking yourself? The fact is, the framing of our questions directly informs the answers we give.  David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney observe in their book Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change:

Human systems grow in the direction of what they persistently ask questions about, and this propensity is strongest and most sustainable when the means and ends of inquiry or positively correllated.

In other words, if we ask positive, strengths-based questions we’re likely to get positive, strengths-based answers.  Generate questions that get to the positive core of who you are, then build on those questions to move toward designing a positive vocational direction for yourself. Some sample questions you might ask are:

  • What is the high point of my career, when I felt most engaged, vibrant, alive?
  • What achievements am I most proud of?
  • What do I do especially well?
  • When do I feel that I’m at my best?
  • What, specifically, am I doing when I feel energized about my work?
  • Imagine yourself ten years from now. What is different? How have you accomplished your dreams?

These questions will get you started in a positive way. We’ll go deeper in the next post to identify the appreciative cycle (discovery, dream, design & destiny) and finally some practical advice on managing your career.