Leaders Can Lean In to An Affirmative Organizational Culture

My teacher tells me that my daily practice is like adding an eyedropper of purified water to the “pool” in which I swim each day. Over time, the cumulative effect is powerful on two levels. First, my inner attunement to right action is fully activated, resulting in an easier acceptance of all that follows. Second, what I send out to the world is more often what I get back, resulting in those around me feeling their own sense of attunement.

So, could it be that much of what leaders observe and experience in their organizational cultures is, in part, a reflection of what they send out? I think it’s worth some consideration, even in the face of seemingly pervasive beliefs that organizational culture is too big to impact, too ingrained to effect, too amorphous to embrace and understand. Conventional wisdom, for all its apparent navigational assistance, is often unchallenged and unconsciously steeped in repetition of widely accepted and repeated cynicism. Consider the saying “culture eats strategy for lunch every day.” Hmm, that’s a combative view of a human system at work, isn’t it? How ‘bout the much-touted “nothing succeeds like success?” Hard to find fault with that…unless, of course, the unintended result is that widespread acceptance inside the organization produces a fear of failure that reduces imagination and experimentation. Or the leadership admonition that I encountered in many permutations in the last few decades: “don’t manage people; manage process,” as if the key objective is to completely abandon the human equation altogether.

One interpretation of these apparent “leadership aphorisms” is that they stem from a rather mechanistic view of who organizations are and how they work. In the last issue of Sadhana (March 29), I suggested a more humanistic view of the leaders’ work, beginning with how the leader intentionally listens in to their own source of alignment. I suggested that,

“Many of the best leaders believe that to be successful and fulfilled, they must truly open themselves fully (open mind, open heart, and open will) to ground their work/approach in their conscious awareness and act accordingly. This conscious awareness—which is typically not single-sourced or one dimensional—is, nonetheless, an animating force for right action and good. Because it is an expression of what is truest and best about the individual, it produces a radiating humility and greater ease in approaching the engagement of others whose innovation and energy is essential to harnessing the untapped potential of any organization.”

When a leader grows and strengthens her own conscious awareness (more a journey than a destination), more leverage for good is possible. That leverage can come in the form of more intentionally fostering of an organizational culture of transparency, trust, and reciprocity. So, an important question for any leader is what contribution are you making to the way of being you most want to observe in your organization? How is your language and behavior a reflection of what you value most? What do you imagine is possible for your organization in service of its most elevated mission?

Scholars who examine these questions closely see the direct connection of positive imagery and positive action. They have come to articulate theories of the social construction of reality, which examine the development of jointly constructed understandings of the world that form the basis for shared assumptions about reality. These jointly constructed understandings and shared assumptions about reality are the essence of the water cooler conversations—the place where the dominant organizational narrative is expressed, reinforced or challenged, reshaped or reinforced.

Leaders most consciously aware of their own deep sense of lift and possibility are more likely to see the deep sense of lift and possibility within their organization. Just as they’ve come to trust their own individual growth and alignment, they are most able to believe the same is true for their teams and entire organization. They “lean in”—starting wherever you are as if the eyedropper—in a way that appreciates principles of possibility that must be at the core of any sustained effort to foster an affirmative organizational culture.

Requisite Beliefs for Fostering an Appreciative Organizational Culture[1]

  1. Imagined and created, organizations as are products of the affirmative mind.
  2. Despite its previous history, virtually any pattern of organizational action is open to alteration and reconfiguration.
  3. Organizations are better able to transform organizational practice by replacing conventional images with widely shared imaginative images of a new and better future.
  4. Organizations will rarely rise above the dominant images of its members and stakeholders. They tend to evolve in the direction of what they value and question (study) most.
  5. The organization’s guiding affirmative projection may need to evolve.
  6. Organizations do not need to be fixed; they need constant reaffirmation.
  7. Creating the conditions for organization-wide appreciation is the single most important measure to ensure the conscious evolution of a valued and positive future.

It seems to me, therefore, that any consciously aware leader with a desire to have greater impact for good will embrace every opportunity to contribute the best of her conscious awareness—her leadership authenticity—toward fostering more of the type of organizational culture that fuels the collective path toward more beneficial, more desirable outcomes. If leaders abdicate this opportunity for leverage—whether feeling ill-equipped, inconsequential, and/or otherwise distracted toward the “deliverable du jour”—then who will intentionally work toward crafting this affirmative narrative of possibility? And if there is no widely shared affirmative narrative of possibility, then the organization (and its leaders and members) are all just pursuing projects and initiatives toward some vague sense of “there.”

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[1] These seven beliefs are adapted from much of the seminal work of David Cooperrider, especially Positive Image, Positive Action: The Affirmative Basis of Organizing, contained in Srivastva, S. and Cooperrider, D. (1999), Appreciative Management and Leadership, Rev. Euclid, OH, Lakeshore Communications, pp. 91-125.

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