What’s Working?

The “What’s working?” question is a corollary to the constructive venting I talked about in an earlier post.

The organizational development approach of Appreciative Inquiry posits that identifying and leveraging the good stuff is as or even more effective than finding and fixing the bad stuff.

I’m not quite as idealistic as the hard core AI’ers so I like to start with a spirited and invigorating bitch session (for lack of a more delightfully appropriate phrase) followed by the “baby out with bathwater” question.

Spent from the exertion of spewing venom about one’s circumstances (ie: management-doesn’t-support-the-goals-we-don’t-have-the-resources-to-do-our-job-leadership-is-inconsistent-I’m-not-paid-enough-for-this-s$#t-why-does-XYZ-department-get-flex-schedules-and-we-don’t?-…) folks are ready for it.

Wow.  There’s A Lot Wrong

A team in the throes of improvement needs to hear some acknowledgement: “Wow.  There’s a lot wrong.  Sounds like we’ve got our work cut out for us.”  The thing is, if your team thinks there’s a lot wrong, then there is.  Until your team feels like things are going reasonably swimmingly, you will continue to peer through from the sorry-end of the knothole.  So you might as well acknowledge it so that they can move to the next stage.

Baby Out with the Bathwater

Once we’ve vented and once we’ve acknowledged the monumental problems that need to be addressed, we wonder: “Is there anything working well that we should take care to preserve?”  Afterall, we wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater…

If you give the venting enough genuine space and time to breathe, then when you ask this next question, you are likely to hear about some pretty important (and leveragable) aspects of your organization that can help you get to goal.

Forget Positive Thinking

We’ve been beaten repeatedly about the head and shoulders in recent years to remember to “think positively”.  Woe to the team member who voices concern.  The trusty contrarian is now disdained and the nay sayers are summarily silenced.

Ironically, by squashing these Negative Nellies we are slowing down positive progress toward our most critical goals.

Research shows that our human brains are wired against change.  Introducing a new direction (information, competition, pace, etc.) causes a physiological stress reaction against the change.

The Value of Venting

Interestingly, one of the fastest ways to reduce the emergency brake effect of this stress reaction is to allow a bit of venting.  “What don’t we like about this news?” “What problems will it cause?”  “What can go wrong?” “Why is it stupid?” What may not have been taken into consideration?”

Our stress response is linked to survival.  Adrenaline is triggered which sets off flight/flight/freeze behavior.  At work this takes the form of the contrarian who fights back, the star team member who dusts off her resume to prepare for flight, the long timer who’ll bide his time, frozen in place.

Brain scan technology shows that just naming the threat – thinking it, saying it or, even more effective, writing it down – counteracts the threat response.  By giving credence to the stress factor and addressing it, we return out of threat mode and can enter a more rational state.

Once all the big bad stuff has been vented, we are in a physiologically more receptive place to ask: “How will we handle this?”

Dependency on External Motivation / Seth Godin

The following post is taken from Seth Godin’s fabulous blog.  See the original post here.  (And subscribe to his feed if you know what’s good for you)


“One of the characteristics of the industrial age was the reliance on external motivation.

Go to work on time or the boss will be angry.

Work extra hard and the boss will give you a promotion.

If you get paid to work piecework, then your paycheck goes up when you work harder.

This mindset is captured by the Vince Lombardi/pro sports/college sports model of the coach as king. Of course we’ll have our non-profit universitiess pay a football coach a million or more a year, of course we need these icons at the helm–how else will we get our players to perform at their best?

I was struck by a photo I saw of male fencers at Cornell who practice with the women’s fencing team. Clearly, they’re not allowed to compete in matches (though the university counts them for Title XIV). I got to thinking about what motivates these fencers. Are they doing it because they’re afraid of the coach or getting cut? Would they fence better if they were?

The nature of our new economic system, that one that doesn’t support predictable factory work, is that external motivation is far less useful. If you’re looking for a big payday, you won’t find it right away. If you’re depending on cheers and thank yous from your Twitter followers, you’re looking at a very bumpy ride.

In fact, the world is more and more aligned in favor of those who find motivation inside, who would do what they do even if it wasn’t their job. As jobs turn into projects, the leaders we need are those that relish the project, that jump at the chance to push themselves harder than any coach ever could.”


It is extraordinarily critical for those of us who are leaders, change agents and educators to understand the implications of this.  Where do we currently build skill in internal motivation?  We understand the why of it.  We need to develop the how.

Goo Morneen! Have the nice day!

**NOTE** Be sure to read through to the end and check out the comments! I’ve already had one reader call with chest pains before realizing I did not in fact become an intolerant bigot since she last saw me!

Don’t you hate it when service people don’t speak English? I mean, here they are, taking your orders for food or gas or hotel amenities and they don’t know the language! What are they thinking? Don’t they know that they’ll slow up the lines, create angry customers, maybe even get yelled at, ridiculed or – worse – fired?

Yet they do it anyway.
They show up for work knowing that not only do they have to do the technical parts of the job well but that they will also need to learn/practice/fail at/apologize for their new language. Often in the face of unforgiving patrons. Us native speakers don’t have that kind of pressure. Really. Think about it. If you had to do your job suddenly in France or Greece or China you’d have a tough row to hoe. Honestly, I get enough grief from other parts of the country when they hear my Worcester accent. What does it take for someone to have the need, the desire – the courage – to put themselves out there with that kind of – let’s face it – “disability”. Would you even consider it?

My Dunkin Donuts Lady
The woman who runs the drive thru at the local Dunkin Donuts where I get my coffee is one such brave soul. From Brazil, she started out at the drive thru with (I’ll admit it) maddeningly unintelligible English:

Her: “Egg Why? Beggy o dirk?”
Me: “I’m sorry?”
Her: “On your vlad. Beggy o dirk?”
Me: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying”
Her: “Beggy vlad o Dirk? ….Me o no me?”
Me: “OHHHHH! Egg white veggie flat bread please. No meat.” (Phew!)

And at the beginning, when I pulled up to the window she would only smile shyly as we made the transaction and I drove off congratulating myself on my interpretation skills.

Then there was a difference. She wasn’t struggling with “beggy vlad” anymore. And she was venturing out with a “Goo Morneen” instead of just the shy smile. I took a chance and let her know that her English was improving quickly. She smiled and this time it wasn’t a shy one – it was pride.

It’s been about a year or so now and she is fluent in the language of her job. Except for one small thing. The “the” in “have the nice day”. Now, I could take a moment over the eggwhite veggie flat and the $2.67 transaction to educate her about definite and indefinite articles but I actually prefer the “the”. It reminds me that we have a choice.

We can choose to have “the nice day” as opposed to something else. No matter what we’re facing, whether we’ve signed up for it or not, or whether other people think we should be doing it better or doing it at all. We can choose to work hard and be nice to people.