Are You Stuck In Conventional Thinking?

What are the assumptions and beliefs that guide your responses at work? Is your course set by a conventional mental map that believes people are self-interested, that resources are scarce, that conflict is natural, people are fearful of organizations and learning is limited? Or do you navigate with a positive mental map with the view that there are resources all around you that are not being utilized, that people are willing to sacrifice for the common good and that emerging systems of cooperation are around us all the time?

Chances are if you’re really honest with yourself, that although you might aspire towards the more positive mental map, that conventional thinking has you stuck firmly in it’s grasp. Why? The reality is your brain is wired for survival and that means when negative fears about your workplace grab your attention they tend to dominate the ways you think, feel and act.

So how can you free yourself to embrace a more positive mental map at work?

“We make these conventional assumptions because they’re often accurate and it’s how we see people behaving at work,” explained Professor Robert Quinn from the University of Michigan, when I interviewed him recently. “So unless we do work to the contrary, which I call leadership, then organizations naturally drift towards the negative. But when we take fear away and we build confidence and hope and vision and orient people towards purpose and the future, the brain functions in a different way, and performance is different.”

For example, most organizations approach downsizing with a conventional problem-solving map that results in security quickly escorting the suddenly unwanted staff out the door, with no thought to the long-term fear, mistrust and self-interest this breeds for remaining employees. Despite these potential costs, in an effort to minimize the risk of a difficult decision, conventional thinking has us believe that this is simply the way these business matters need to be handled.

But what if a positive mental map guided this process?

“Several years ago I interviewed a successful, life-long entrepreneur who believed in rigorous business discipline and also strived to live at a higher level of consciousness,” shared Bob. “During the interview, he shared the story of the hardest thing he ever had to do. He had an organization of eighty people. A recession hit and it was necessary to let twenty per cent of his people go. He eventually gathered them and shared the dreadful news. When he finished, all eighty gave him a standing ovation.”

Ask yourself for a moment how such an outcome might be possible? Why would people give a standing ovation to someone who had just fired them?

When Bob poses this question to his MBA classes in just three minutes they consistently suggest the following causes:

  • The people knew the man was authentic and he would never deceive them.
  • They people knew he was acting for the common good.
  • The people knew he had tried every other avenue.
  • The people knew he genuinely valued them and was suffering with them.
  • The people knew he would do anything to help them get new work.
  • The people were witnessing excellence in leadership.

All of which were true.  You see we each understand the possibilities of a positive mental map even if we don’t use it.  While our behavior tends to be driven by the assumptions of convention, deep within each of us, is an understanding of the path to organizational excellence or positive organizing.

So what can you do to tap into your positive mental map more consistently at work?

Here are three approaches Bob recommends:

  • Practice being bilingual – the conventional mind map never goes away; it’s always functioning. When we discover, capture, and internalize the positive mental map, it’s an addition, not a replacement. In other words, we never lose the problem-solving model that we’re in most of the time. When we find the purpose-finding model, it gives us great power, but we don’t lose anything.
  • Become purpose driven – no matter how much we say we’re results oriented in business, we’re not. Instead we are purpose driven. This means the primary task of any leader is to constantly rediscover and communicate the collective purpose and inspire people to willingly engage it. When people pursue a challenging purpose together, the sense of ego driven isolation begins to dissolve and they recognize their interdependence. As they begin to authentically communicate and collaborate they discover that they not only are more fully human but so are others. Others are no longer transactional objects to be used for our own purposes. Instead they become inherently valuable people. When this happens people see immense potential in others, and they begin to sacrifice not only for the goal, but for the needs of the other people.
  • Create your own positive practices – don’t become stuck in the conventional belief that change only happens top down. Instead recognize that organizations are also a network of relationships, so that change can also be an emergent process that flows from the bottom up by the enactment of new practices. Use Bob’s Positive Organizational Generator tool to explore more than 100 different positive practices that organizations have used to change their culture for the better.  Select the few that are most interesting to you and then reinvent them to your context. This will help you create positive practices that you really believe in and will be willing to take action on.

Rather than maintaining a convention culture of self-interested people, what might be possible in your workplace if you truly started moving toward an ever more positive culture where people sacrifice for the common good?

This interview was produced in partnership with the Positive Business Conference held each year at the University of Michigan. For more on the conference please visit http://www.positivebusinesconference.com