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Is a Positive Attitude the Cure for Global Problems?

Today’s Oppressive Negativity

Watching the news, reading the newspaper, or tracking social-media trends, it becomes evident that there is an air of negativity in today’s world.  Specific examples of this supposition include the economic crises in nearly all markets, riots and wars in the Middle East, political smear campaigns, religious contentions inside of and between many faiths.  This negativity feels burdensome and oppresses progress and growth.  Is there a cure for this malaise and depressing state of affairs?

Contagious Emotions

Lewis, Amini, and Lannon (2000) posit that emotions are contagious due to limbic resonance.  The basis of this theory is that individuals and groups (as well as societies and cultures) transmit emotions through subtle cues and expressions.  This in turn impacts our behavior as individuals and as a collective.  In a case study, McKee and Johnston (2006) describe how top leadership of a global sporting goods organization faced poor performance, organizational restructuring, and market downturns.  The leadership team’s attitude was full of negativity and a general lack of confidence.  A loss of hope and organizational depression emerged as the negativity fed on itself and spread to other leaders.

Once the organization’s leaders addressed the negativity and began to focus on positive energy, they began to turn the situation around by deepening their commitment to pull through the tough times.  Bushe and Coetzer (1995) attribute this result with the theory that “the more positive [the energy] used to guide the group process or organization change effort, the more long-lasting and effective the change effort (in Watkins & Mohr, 2001, p. 39).  It is important to note that those who approach challenges with a positive attitude have a faster recovery rate after handling the stressful situation (Watkins & Mohr, 2001).

Action for Healing

While hope and a positive attitude alone likely will not bring monumental changes or a cure for global problems immediately, they are the cornerstone of making this shift.  Our attitudes of framing the situation (how we perceive the situation, collect and analyze data, and make judgments about our next steps) “start a snowball of inquiries, dialogues, and …images of the future” (Watkins & Mohr, 2001, p. 33).  Since human beings are social creatures, and our emotions–as noted above–are contagious, one could suppose that injecting positive attitudes into a chaotic world of negativity would unleash creativity to approaching, and ultimately solving, the toughest global problems.

Instead of viewing, for example, the credit crisis as a slippery slope into international financial collapse, a positive reframing of the issue could unveil plausible solutions.  Rather than view this as a credit crisis without end in sight, I propose a new question: How have societies/governments/cultures resolved financial challenges in a way that benefited the greater good?  What did they do that was so successful and from which we can learn and apply to today?  What ideas have people proposed that could solve the issue, which we should consider?

The key to making lasting change, therefore, is to begin by shifting our understanding/perception of the situation into a positive (albeit realistic) one.  Then, by analyzing the situation from this new perspective, we can unleash creative solutions and take action towards a positive future.  Standing our ground to maintain the positive perspective will begin to make small shifts in others, which in turn will cause an increasingly larger positive, contagious effect throughout global society over the long run.


Bushe, G. & Coetzer, G. (1995).  Appreciative inquiry as a team development intervention: A controlled experiment.  Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 31:1, 19-31.  Washington, DC: NTL Institute of Applied Behavioral Science.

Lewis, T., Amini, F. & Lannon, R. (2000).  A general theory of love.  New York: Random House.

McKee, A. & Johnston, F. (2006).  The impact and opportunity of emotion in organizations.  In B. Jones & M. Brazzel (Eds.) The NTL Handbook of Organization Development and Change: Principles, Practices, and Perspectives.  San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Watkins, J. & Mohr, B. (2001).  Appreciative inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

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Courage to Raise Conflict Outweighs Remaining Silent out of Fear

Video Overview

When was the last time you disagreed with something or someone?  Did you talk about your concern directly with them?  Likely, the fear of raising the conflict won and the issue remained hidden.  Margaret Heffernan (2012) discusses why having the courage to disagree and openly discuss conflict far outweighs the risks of remaining silent in this TED Talk.  Watch the video here:

One of Heffernan’s (2012) recommendations is to seek someone whose personality, point of view, or thinking style is drastically different.  By so doing, this partner can offer a different perspective or challenge your assumptions, allowing you to refine the project, research paper, argument, design, or other work.  This takes energy and patience, because dealing with conflict goes against the natural human tendency.  But, Heffernan argues that the end result is worth the investment, because diverse perspectives build a better outcome than like-mindedness.

One example Heffernan (2012) offers comes from Alice, who researched why a certain segment of children had higher rates of cancer.  She found that the reason was because the mother had an X-ray during pregnancy, and so Alice published her findings.  Yet, X-ray exams remained common for women during certain stages of pregnancy, and the cancer rate for children remained steady.  While Alice’s findings were available, it took considerable time and her challenging the thinking of the day to convince the medical community to change its practices in order to save lives.  She took courage to disagree with the status quo in order to have a positive impact.

Take Action

After watching the video, what problems will you solve or risks will you mitigate by voicing your opinions, worries, or ideas?


Heffernan, M. (2012).  Margaret Heffernan: Dare to disagree.  TED.  Retrieved August 24, 2012, from

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Boosting Your Processing Power: Using Technology as a Business Tool

Inboxes are clogging with unread emails.  Voice-mailboxes and text are messaging tones causing tinnitus.  Thumbs are cramping from pecking emails on mobile phones.  No wonder it is so easy to become frustrated when the person on the other end sets off our fuses with a confusing message!  By the way, are you reading this on your mobile phone at 2 a.m.?

When technology came along, business leaders saw the time-saving potential of number-crunching computers and near-human intelligence of supercomputers.  What took months to calculate now takes milliseconds for a computer to analyze.  So why do our lives seem to be busier, faster, and more stressful than before?  How do we take control back from technology and enjoy the time between work?  The answer is to reframe how we look at and use technology.

Rather than seeing technology as a 24/7 must-have part of our lives, it can be healthier and more beneficial to view it as a means to helping improve quality of life.  In other words, instead of tying ourselves to the computer monitor or smart-phone screen all day long, it is necessary to draw boundaries around technology use.  There are many tools available, and I have outlined the most common ones that I use to keep organized and connected.

Email and Phone Calls 

As a business leader, it is easy to become tethered to smart-phones and be accessible all day and all night.  But, is it worth it to wake up to read emails immediately, regardless of the urgency?  Aside from the health concerns of not getting enough sleep and the effects on performance from fatigue, it also builds an organizational culture that inhibits proper use of delegation of authority.  Staff become overly reliant on the leader who is always accessible, when it is possible to come up with a solution for medium- or low-priority issues in your absence.

With email inbox rules and smart-phone alert settings (some phones now come with “VIP Alerts”), it is now possible to set up a process where emails with certain urgency levels or subject lines get forwarded to you during your personal time, while others auto-reply with a message that you are away.  Of course, this also requires discussing your boundaries with teammates and staff, so that they are aware of when you will respond and when it is up to them to take initiative.  Also, remember to call people or meet them directly when discussing complicated or personal matters.  Email is a great follow-up tool to confirm what was discussed verbally, but it lacks the tactfulness and quick richness of vocal dialogue.

To-Do Lists

Aside from personal boundary-setting, technology can help you to track your to-do lists, and even share them with others so that they know what is still in queue.  Lists can be therapeutic in a sense as well, because crossing off completed items allows you to see how much you have already finished.  This is especially rewarding when the number of action items seems unending: As you progress, you will see that you are making progress.  Need to generate a status report?  Refer back to your action item list to see what you have accomplished and what is yet to be done.  My personal preference is for Apple’s Reminders app, because it syncs with my phone, home computer, and the iCloud.  That way I receive reminders of all my action items’ due dates on my devices and can check them off wherever I am.

Document Sharing

While I prefer reading printed copies over on-screen documents, it is generally faster (and more environmentally friendly) to view docs on a computer or smart phone.  Sharing documents with teams can cause confusion when emailing different versions back and forth for editing: “Did I include Sally’s changes in that version?  Wait, she sent two.  Ok, now is this the final draft, or is that?  Oops – I forgot that Jack’s email was saved in another folder, and I had not yet incorporated his changes.”

Two of the available options solve this problem: Subversion and the Cloud.  Subversion allows users on the same network to share the same version of documents and includes version control (with locking and unlocking of files) to assist teams collaborating together.  Cloud services offer similar functionality, without requiring everyone to be on the same server.  I use Google Docs/Drive when collaborating with teams as well.  It allows anyone with a Google Account (which can be created from generally any email address) to share documents online.  It also lets you see who made which changes, and multiple users can edit the same document simultaneously.  Google Docs are also accessible via smart phones and tablets with Internet access.

Paper and Pencil

Sometimes good ol’ fashioned paper and pencil (or whiteboard and marker) make for the best technology.  This is especially the case when starting to draft an idea, diagram, or document from scratch.  Mind-mapping, brainstorming, and sketching symbols, words, or phrases help to pull innovative thoughts out of your mind and put them onto paper.  It is easy to edit using paper and pencil, shaping the idea until it looks just right.  Then it is possible to take a photo or recreate the draft electronically to share with others on the team.

When preparing to use technology to help you organize or connect with others, it is important to first understand why you need the tool: what issue or challenge is being addressed?  Then, analyze the different options available and select a medium that is optimal for the identified issue.  Also remember to set some boundaries regarding when, how, and why you will use that tool.  It is wise to use technology to your advantage so long as you remember to take breaks and recharge your own batteries.

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What Can Gardening Teach Us about Leadership?

If you have ever gardened, you might notice some ways that enhancing your green-thumb abilities are similar to working with teams, groups, or organizations.  Gardening requires nurturing, providing needed resources, attention to dangerous environmental phenomena, and timing.  Let us explore these facets of gardening–specifically food crops–as a metaphor for effective leadership.

Before ever planting a seed, a gardener knows that the soil needs tending.  If the soil has the wrong consistency or pH level, then nutrients or compost must be added.  If the soil is too compact, then aerating it will allow the plants to spread roots.  In leadership, this translates to setting up a team for success through proper planning about what followers need in order to grow.  Without setting the stage for a healthy workplace, it will be very difficult for staff to do their job.  But with the proper forethought and attention to what their teams need, leaders set up the organization for success.

Plants, like people, need resources in order to thrive and produce their crops.  Sunlight, water, fertilizer, soil, pollinators, and carbon dioxide are a few of the resources plants need.  Without the right combination of resources (and at the right time), the plants will either produce scrawny food products, or they can die.  Likewise, people and work groups need the right resources in order to be effective.  Think about what resources people in your organization require.  Are they adequate to do the job?  If not, consider what more your organization will be able to produce if it were to have the needed resources to meet organizational goals.  Does this benefit outweigh the current output without these resources?

Mother nature* can provide and cause destruction with seemingly little effort.  One year can be a banner year producing record crop yields, while the next can experience flooding or drought and destroy most plants.  Pests can destroy a field of crops in a short time, if not kept in check (hopefully through natural means!).  In organizations, shifting environmental demands (such as new government regulations) and unexpected phenomena (i.e.: market crashes) can place exorbitant pressure on businesses, forcing them to either adapt or dissolve.  Being resilient enough to shift with the changing environment enables organizations to weather poor markets, or other such storms of doing business.  Effective leaders know when to shift and by how much in order to meet new demands or pressures.

Last in the metaphor is timing.  As eluded to earlier, providing water to plants is necessary; however, too much or too little of this precious life source can bring an early end to the garden.  Organizations, too, can suffer when resources are too excessive or limiting.  Stocking too much product than the market demands can place financial strain on the organization, while not holding enough can anger customers to the point that they become loyal the competition.  Work groups can also suffer when they do not receive the technical, personnel, financial, or other resources that they need to do their job at the right time.  Conducting a resources analysis (what resources are needed, how much, and to whom) is a way for leaders to improve the probability that the organization has the proper resources at the appropriate time.

Learning to lead is a difficult and iterative task, just like gardening.  The first year’s crop might experience hard times as the gardener learns through experience, just as the novice leader might experience difficulty gaining trust and followership from their team.  When all of the facets of effective gardening align–and sometimes with a little luck–the gardener will be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.  The leader, too, must continue to develop knowledge, skills, and abilities in leadership through practice, feedback, and academic study/training/reading.

*The “forces of mother nature” in this analogy are akin to the forces of sociology.  Neither can be seen, but they have a strong influence on the outcome of a garden or an organization.

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Gaining Momentum: Amplifying Creativity for Innovative Business Solutions

Recently, I had an amazing opportunity to work with a non-government organization (NGO) abroad, whose board asked for help meeting their strategic goals in the next 18 months.  Their membership voted six months prior on a handful of milestones that needed to be accomplished, and the board members were nervous.  There was an air of uncertainty and doubt about how they would reach the fast-approaching deadlines.  I needed a way to help them move into a better state of mind so that they could get their work done.

During the discovery stage of the consulting project, I revisited academic research on Appreciative Inquiry (AI), which is founded in the fields of positive psychology and positivism.  To summarize the findings, researchers have determined that using positive thoughts and focusing on the upside of a challenge leads to greater chances of actually accomplishing the task at hand, compared to dwelling on negative aspects of the issue.  Appreciative Inquiry goes further in providing consultants, facilitators, and business leaders with a framework of using positivism to help clients drive through a challenge.

Focus is kept on what is possible (what could be), rather than on the negative (what is “wrong”).  Using AI, the facilitator amplifies for the team that no idea is too far-fetched, too expensive, or too laborious to be considered.  With this approach, the conversation shifts from dwelling on what is wrong, to discovering and innovating possible solutions.  This shift in conversation also changes the energy in the room for those involved.  Facilitating this dialogue requires attention to the messages, ensuring that the focus is on ideas, possibilities, and creativity.  When someone says, “we can’t do that; we just don’t have the time,” the facilitator can ask, “what is it that we can do?” or “if we had the time, what could we accomplish?”

What about the NGO mentioned earlier?  The energy at the start seemed to be negative: worry, anxiety, nervousness.  I needed a way to help them create solutions to their challenge.  Appreciative Inquiry provided a way to reframe the conversation from “how will we ever get this done?” to “here are some solutions…”  The first step was for the board to shift into a positive state of mind (they recalled their accomplishments so far), and then they moved into a state of innovation, creativity, and solution-mongering.  In the end, they had a robust action plan that solved each challenge and would complete the milestones on time.

Interested in more about AI?  Check out the book Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change, by David Cooperrider & Diana Whitney.